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New research explores why people ‘pass the buck’

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Credit: Adam Glanzman / Northeastern University

People are more likely to delegate decisions–or "pass the buck"–when faced with choices that affect others than when those decisions affect only themselves, according to new research from Mary Steffel, assistant professor of marketing in the D'Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University.

From a series of experiments, Steffel and her collaborators found that these findings were particularly true when those choices had potentially negative consequences. In domains as diverse as making a business decision, choosing a hotel, ordering meals, and even participating in experiments, people were two or three times as likely to delegate an unappealing choice on behalf of someone else than one on their own behalf.

Steffel collaborated with Elanor Williams from Indiana University and Jaclyn Perrmann-Graham from the University of Cincinnati on the research, which was published this month in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Participants in one experiment imagined that they or their bosses needed a hotel reservation for an upcoming business trip. Participants were more likely to delegate the choice to an office manager when the reservation was for a boss than for themselves, especially when the options were unappealing two-star hotels rather than luxurious five-star hotels.

"People care more about avoiding blame for bad outcomes than getting credit for good outcomes," Steffel said.

However, avoiding blame was only part of the story.

In another experiment, participants were again faced with the challenge of choosing a hotel from a list of unappealing options. This time, they were told that they were booking a hotel for themselves, booking it for a boss who would know they were in charge of that decision, or booking it for a boss who would not know they were making the decision.

The researchers found that participants were more likely to delegate when the reservation was for their bosses and their bosses would know they made the reservation than when they would not know, again showing that people care about avoiding blame. But, people were more likely to delegate when the reservation was for their bosses than for themselves, regardless of whether their bosses would know they made the reservation, showing that avoiding blame is not the only reason people delegate choices for others.

"Delegation isn't just about avoiding blame," Steffel said. "The mere prospect of feeling responsible for others' poor outcomes is enough to increase delegation."

Consequently, people only delegate to others with the authority to shoulder the responsibility for the decision, the researchers said. Participants in this research avoided delegating if they themselves would still be held officially responsible for the choice outcomes. They also avoided delegating to co-workers below them, regardless of who would be officially held responsible, because, researchers said, they believed that they would still maintain responsibility and blame if the choice were to turn out poorly.

Steffel said the findings help shed greater light on understanding when and to whom people are likely to delegate decisions. Furthermore, she said, "it can also help us understand why managers sometimes fail to delegate decisions to their employees even when not doing so creates organizational inefficiencies–because they expect to assume blame for the choice regardless of whether they made it themselves."

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