Psychology explains why so many leaders pass the buck—and who is really to blame

Reaching out—but why?
Reaching out—but why?
Image: Reuters/Dylan Martinez
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Leaders know all too well that with great power comes great responsibility. This mantra has been echoed by luminaries including Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and even Spiderman.

It is the great charge of a leader to shoulder responsibility for making decisions that will have profound implications for many. But that doesn’t come naturally, at least not to most of us. Rather, our natural inclination is often to pass the buck to someone else.

While most people are comfortable making decisions when only their own outcomes are at stake, when faced with decisions that have the potential to affect others, psychology shows that people look for opportunities to delegate those decisions. This tendency is especially pronounced when those choices have potentially unappealing or unpopular consequences.

In a series of experiments, recently published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, we find that people are two or three times as likely to delegate an unappealing choice on behalf of other people than on their own behalf. Part of this may be strategic. Niccolo Machiavelli shrewdly advised, “Princes should delegate to others the enactment of unpopular measures and keep in their own hands the means of winning favors.” Delegating unappealing decisions can be an effective way of avoiding blame for negative outcomes.

But most people are not that Machiavellian, and avoiding blame is not the only reason why leaders pass the buck. When a decision has potentially negative consequences for other people, the psychological burden of responsibility for that decision is much greater than if it were only to affect oneself, and this can factor heavily into the calculus of whether and how a leader makes decisions.

We found evidence for this in one experiment in which we gave some people the ability to avoid blame by keeping their identities unknown to those for whom they were choosing. Participants were more likely to delegate a decision for someone else when their identity would be known than when it would not be, suggesting that blame plays a role in prompting delegation. But participants were also more likely to delegate when choosing for someone else than when choosing for themselves, regardless of anonymity. This suggests that the prospect of feeling personally responsible for someone else’s bad outcome is enough to drive many of us to delegate.

While passing the buck can be an effective means of self-protection, it can be bad news for the people who will be affected by the decision. Our findings suggest that there is no guarantee that these decisions will end up in the hands of a more capable decision maker. In one experiment, we presented participants with a choice that they could either make themselves or delegate to a coworker who did or did not have expertise into the decision. Although people were more likely to delegate to an expert than non-expert overall, when stuck with a choice between unappealing options, people delegated to anyone else who could assume responsibility and blame for the outcome—even if that person did not have any relevant expertise into the decision.

What people do seem to care about when considering potential surrogates is whether they have the authority to assume responsibility for the consequences of the decision. Participants in our experiments were less likely to delegate if they would still be held officially responsible for the outcomes of choices that others make. They also avoided delegating to lower-status people, regardless of who would be officially held responsible, because they believed they would still bear responsibility and blame if the choice turned out poorly.

Harry Truman alluded to this phenomenon when he famously said, “The buck stops here.” He understood that he was the person who would ultimately be responsible for any decision made by his staff or even the federal government at large. Other people could pass the buck to him, but there was no one to whom he could pass the buck. He even emblazoned these words on a plaque that he kept on his desk in the Oval Office as a daily reminder of this role and responsibility.

As Truman put it, “The president—whoever he is—has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.” Indeed, employees and citizens act as if this is the case. Presidential approval ratings tend to track Americans’ views of the economy, even though the president’s direct influence over the state of the economy is diffuse. The same principle applies to the heads of private companies: Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf resigned after widespread and bipartisan anger that he did not know about or do more to stop the company’s fraudulent sales practices. Even when choices are delegated, the buck stops at the top.

Perhaps, then, this is the key to encouraging leaders to take responsibility for tough decisions rather than pass the buck. Reminding those at the top that they will ultimately bear the responsibility and carry the blame for any choice made by people under them may encourage them to face challenging decisions head-on and exercise their best judgment when called upon to make choices that determine not just their own fate, but the fates of others.

The greatest leaders don’t need reminding of this in the first place—they recognize that bad decisions will fall on their shoulders, regardless of who makes them. Even greater are those who recognize this sacrifice and seek out that responsibility for the good of those who serve them, and of those they serve.