I started coaching figure skating when I was about 11. Since then I’ve picked up a number of coaching certifications and worked for several years leading outdoor sports. I always knew that in these roles I had responsibility for others. I had control over the environment that was created, opting for positive and supportive, but I was also responsible for the safety of my participants. So it was not surprising to me to read about a study by Edelson et al (2018) that looked at how an individual’s attitude about responsibility for others affects not just whether they are willing to be a leader but also what type of leader they are. Obviously, you have to be willing to be responsible if you’re going to be a leader, but this can be exercised in different ways. For example, if the decision affects the group do you make the decision yourself (authoritarian) or turn it over to the group (egalitarian)? There are places for both and sometimes a single leader must switch back and forth based on the group and the situation.
What surprised me, and seemed to surprise the authors, is that responsibility aversion (not wanting to be solely responsible) is strongly related to a need for certainty. In other words, an individual who doesn’t immediately make decisions that affect others is even less likely to make the decision if there is high uncertainty about the outcome. While this result was surprising, it also makes sense. A high probability of success or failure or at least a relatively guaranteed outcome makes a decision easy to make. But when uncertainty creeps in decision making becomes messy.
It’s interesting to think about the relationship between leadership and certainty in different settings. In the sports I coach I have made decisions about athletes that they weren’t thrilled about such as sitting someone from a dragon boat race because of injury or illness even when they indicated they were okay (but visible signs indicated otherwise). In these cases, I’m usually weighing longer term potential outcomes against the short term: if this individual paddles this race are they less likely to be able to race tomorrow, next week, next season, etc. I’ve even talked with people about how these decisions are affected by the level of competition. Sure, if we were competing in the Olympics the risk might be worth the potential gain, but is it really worth it in a community festival? All of this leads me to wonder if the issue of certainty and how it affects responsibility or responsibility aversion depends on what you are uncertain about (for example, safety versus where to order lunch from) and what the potential payoffs are of taking greater risks (Olympic medal versus festival participation).
This is a relatively new finding in leadership research and warrants future research. I think it would also be interesting to investigate whether you can train someone to tolerate more uncertainty.
Edelson, M., Polania, R., Ruff, C., Fehr, E., & Hare, T. (2018). Computational and neurobiological foundations of leadership decisions. Science, 361(6401). DOI: 10.1126/science.aat0036