Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Apportioning Blame When a Group Failure Occurs

Source:  Wikimedia Commons
Do all team members receive an equal portion of blame when a group failure occurs? That is the question explored by researchers Ginger Zhe Jin, Benjamin F. Jones, Susan Feng Lu, and Brian Uzzi in a paper titled, "The Reverse Matthew Effect: Consequences of Retraction in Scientific Teams."  To study this question, the schlars gathered data on roughly 500 academic papers that had been retracted between 1993 and 2009.   These retractions occurred due to "ample evidence that a paper fabricated data, plagiarized the work of others, committed a major error, or had other serious problems."   The researchers found that the junior faculty members tended to incur more serious repurcussions than the senior faculty members who had co-authored with them.   The senior people did not experience a drop in their citation rate relative to the control group, while the junior faculty members did.  

What explains the unequal apportionment of blame.   The authors posit two explanations in an article on Kellogg Insights:

The first is that more eminent authors have typically published a larger body of work than their greener coauthors.  “When you’ve seen someone’s prior work,” he says, “you’re confident in that person. But the person without that reputation, you can’t judge. It’s realistic to assume that the person you haven’t seen before is likely to be the source of the problem.”  The other explanation is far less generous: Perhaps the better-known member of the team uses his or her social and institutional power to deflect the blame from him- or herself and to scapegoat less prominent collaborators.

The paper offers a warning to those who experience failure as part of a group project.  They need to be careful about how others judge them, as well as how their more senior teammates might deflect blame.   Of course, the broader implication is that we should evaluate how much finger pointing and scapegoating goes on after failures.  In general, organizations will thrive if they can focus on learning from failure rather than assigning blame.  In fact, finger pointing often crowds out learning and improvement efforts. 

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