Over the years, I’ve tried to find the best explanation for this. There’re plenty of good ones, and they all seem to fit…
Have you ever wondered, “Hey, the phone is ringing. I wonder who’s going to get that”? All while watching everyone ignore it, and all while everyone’s probably thinking the same thing (Hmmm. Who’s gonna get that?)?
In one horrific expression of this same behavior, 37 people in 1964 witnessed but did nothing as 28-year old Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered.
Sometimes called the bystander effect, in which the presence of others discourages action.
I’ve heard social proof used here, in which the behavior of others (in this case, their inaction) prescribes the behavior for others (further inaction).
In economics, you’ll hear problem of the commons or externality, in which weak or unclear property rights allow some to pass the costs onto others (e.g., pollution, littering, physical abuses of one person by another). Or the benefits onto others, thereby preventing productivity (Why work or innovate when someone else will just steal the fruits of my labor?).
We all decide on some measure of cost-benefit, seeking to minimize our costs and maximize our benefit. What happens when the decision-maker doesn’t absorb the bentire cost and benefit of his decision? I think we can all imagine bad things that involve one person benefiting himself at the expense of someone else paying the cost.
On answering the mysteriously ringing phone at my job, the phone at the empty cubicle, we all accept that none of us are getting paid more for working harder. Answering the phone means more work (more cost) at no greater benefit.
Not answering then feels kind of rewarding. Negative happiness, as in the absence of pain.
And so, the phone goes unanswered. Worse, probably someone either disconnects it or turns off the ringer.
AT MY OFFICE
It’s not just the phone, but also so many other work functions.
Yesterday my section coworker Stefan was out, so he asked me to follow up on a purchase request he did last Friday.
Our office, the Support Operations office (SPO), isn’t responsible for processing purchase requests. We’re responsible for coordinating and providing supply and transportation for external units. (Admittedly, not actually our day-to-day, but that’s another story.)
We do external logistics. External to the unit.
BN S4 does internal logistics. Internal to the unit. The purchase request goes to BN S4, to one level up (sometimes called BDE S8 or G8), then one more level up to the contracting office (called the MICC). Depends on the request, but that’s the flow.
The process is confusing and complicated, and tends to require about a dozen documents for things as simple as renting a reefer truck, portable latrines or filling in a small space with gravel or sand so that the truck may drive through.
But after one iteration, I’ve got a template. With a little a bit of refinement… voila! A set of steps. No need to recreate this wheel.
Or is there?
Yesterday afternoon, I forwarded Stefan’s email to the two people in BN S4, waited about 30 min, then walked over to BN S4.
The first response from anyone at work about anything to do with work, is typically, No, we don’t do that. I anticipate this.
I say hey to the officer in charge (OIC). “J., did you get my email?”
He’s like, “Yeah, sorry man. I’m not tracking. Looks like Stefan already did the request.” He meant contract, not request. “But no, I don’t stick my hand in the cookie jar unless I have to.”
Last time I did this, I did his job plus the job of the level above him.
I go back to Stefan. He says to speak to the NCOIC, Mary. I speak to Mary. She acts as clueless as J.
She says, “Looks like Stefan already did it. I’d check with the MICC.”
I’m thinking, then why don’t you? Sounds like your job. But I can already see where this is going. Like a game of hot potato.
THIS AGGRAVATES ME, TO NO END… NO END
Well, maybe to some end. I make a game out of it.
I used to say that if it’s got to be, then it’s up to me.
Applied too far, I’m doing other people’s job, rewarding them for incompetence or just plain laziness.
To solve the economic externality, one must internalize the externality. Put in military speak, hold him accountable.
Doesn’t have to be harsh. Sometimes just pointing it out works.