Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death on March 13, 1964. Dozens in her neighborhood are reported to have heard her cries for help - while none responded. Reports of the atrocity prompted psychologists and sociologists to look in depth into what has been referred to as the "Bystander Effect," or more broadly, "Diffusion of Responsibility." Being aptly named, the definitions of these similar concepts are easy to imagine, but some real-life scenarios may define them better:
Just the other day I lingered at the edge of a playground with my infant son as my other children mixed with the mob. Several of us adults hesitated as a mother tried in vain to coax her daughter down a bright green ladder. Unwilling to set my son down into the salad bowl of playground mulch, I sent my teenage daughter to offer assistance. She was just barely preceded by a mother who finally broke from the perimeter and extended a helping hand. Why did at least 8 other adults stand suspended in indecision while a mother struggled?
Or, we've all breezed past a distraught person on the side of a busy road, and thought - why me?
Or, in a less-obvious scenario - We've all experienced that awkward split second on a crowded elevator when someone else should be pushing the button.
The HOA application may be obvious to you already, but first stick with me for the math. Imagine there are 2 of us and "Problem Dinosaur" is 100% important to us both. I will bear 50% of the responsibility to resolve Problem Dinosaur. Simple math, right? Under these conditions, I will probably decide to help resolve the Dino Dilemma.
Now, adjust the importance variable. Suppose Problem Dinosaur isn't 100% important to me, because my kid is going through a divorce and I'm 50% distracted. Now, I am still going to bear half of the Dino Problem, but I am only going to bear half of what I perceive the magnitude to be. I am now bearing only 25%. With all due respect - forget about you and your 50% - I'm only thinking about me.
Imagine now that we move the other variable and there are 100 of us facing Problem Dinosaur. Besides the organizational nightmare of coordinating a 100-warrior attack on a single Dinosaur, an inevitable problem will arise...No one will feel much responsibility for dealing with Dino. We all agree that Problem Dinosaur is a 100% problem, but I'm only 1 person out of 100 bearing 1% of the burden of responsibility. In this scenario, I will post vicious comments to Facebook because this is, like, a totally HUGE Dinosaur. But, I won't take meaningful action because "They" should be dealing with the problem.
So about those HOAs...
The most efficient and effective HOA boards I've worked for are the ones where at least one member has taken personal responsibility for their community. Sometimes this is an old guy was nothing better to do, sometimes it's a young woman who has purchased her first home and determined it's not going to lose value. Whatever the cause, when one person decides they will be responsible - the whole benefits.
Recent newsletters have spoken directly to the deferred maintenance dilemma. It seems clear to me that the current deferred maintenance dilemma facing so many HOAs has its roots, at least partially, in this concept of Diffusion of Responsibility.
Diffusion of Responsibility for the HOA Board of Directors
While a HOA board of directors is intended to work as a single body, there is no avoiding the fact that each in the group has his or her own personal agendas. Each director will assign a "responsibility value" (Remember Problem Dinosaur?) to themselves repeatedly for each issue and decision.
This is critical: The efficiency and effectiveness of that board depends solely on the relationship between each responsibility value and each individual director's personal agenda. There are always at least 2 variables:
- 1. How important is the problem,
- 2. How important is the problem to me!
How important the problem is to me will always, to a degree, depend on the diffusion of responsibility.
Diffusion of responsibility can be manifested in both action and inaction, though historically, the case with HOAs is that inaction is the evil subtly excused through diffusion of responsibility.
A new landscape maintenance contract is allowed to sit for another month; delinquencies are not sent to collections; special assessments never get off the ground; siding or deck repair contracts are not solicited, or when solicited lay unsigned.
Again, remember, each director arrives at the board meeting with his or her own personal agenda. Consider the dilemma of a special assessment to raise funds. Is it even imaginable that a board of directors populated with paycheck-to-paycheck owners will ever get a special assessment or dues increase off the ground? NO! - but WHY?
Why? ... in part, diffusion of responsibility. There are so many other people who can be imagined responsible (The other board members, previous boards, possibly even a list of community managers), that when it comes down to making that hard decision the path of least resistance (do nothing) seems best. And, because so many others share in the responsibility, little to no importance, thus minimal guilt is felt by the individual directors.
I won't be so bold as to say the cause is always abdication, selfishness or arrogance. Other reasons to not get serious include fatigue, busyness, health issues, family stress, insecurity, peer pressure - and the list goes on. But one variable continues to remain elusive...how to make HOA governance important to the individuals who are tasked with its execution. What will make the problem important to me?
I believe the more we plumb the depths of the relationship between individual and shared or diffused responsibility, the closer we will come to an answer to the deferred maintenance crisis troubling so many HOAs.