Responsibility: something all students are scared of and yet want so much. Specifically, when applying for jobs, graduate schemes, internships and academic roles, one of the most demanded desires from people is to be in a position of responsibility, to be accountable for something. Of course, superiors seem to find it very difficult to permit this because their reputation is on the line if your subordinate screws up something that actually matters.
So they implement the ‘mentoring system’, whereby a new employee or student is given a personal teacher, someone to supervise them in all the work they are required to do and, to be frank, scrutinise it until they find flaws. The mentoring system can be quite effective with certain types of work – for example, if a helpline company like Samaritans employs someone new, they might provide them with a mentor to ease them into the role and give them emotional and professional support until they’re comfortable taking calls alone. However, with more corporate-type, black-and-white academic work and jobs, the mentoring system can be quite a nuisance, and prevent individuals from reaching their full potentials. This is because of the dependency-responsibility altercast (Pratkanis, 2007), which describes how exhibiting dependency on another person (thereby placing responsibility on him/her) is actually a much more effective method of obtaining compliance with a request/demand/task. We tend to work harder when we think are work is going towards something, and if someone else is depending on it.
Berkowitz and Daniels (1963) explored this concept having previously found that task motivation is strengthened when a person is told that their partners’ chances of attaining a valued goal was dependent upon their performance of the task. This seemed to hold true even when the person got nothing out of completing a task him/herself. In the 1963 study, Berkowitz and Daniels subjects were required to be ‘workers’, under the guidance of a ‘supervisor’ (confederate). The High-Dependency experimental group was told that the supervisor’s evaluation (i.e. the evaluation of the supervisor by their superior) was highly dependent on the subject’s performance. The Low-Dependency group was told that these evaluations would not be affected by their performance. Both groups were asked to construct a paper box (having been shown how to and given practice time), and were tested on the number and quality of boxes achieved. Supervisors in the High-Dependency group said, “Good luck, I’m counting on you” at the end of their instructions to the subject and stressed the importance of the quality of work, as a means of variable manipulation.
As you can see above, subjects in the High-Dependency condition had a significantly greater level of productivity than those in the Low-Dependency condition, during both halves of the work period. This illustrates that the supervisor’s expressed dependency on the subject persuaded them to comply with their demands of the task more efficiently and effectively. Berkowitz and Daniels (1963) carried out a second experiment and found that even when the supervisor’s evaluation was not administered until over a month later (when the subject would not be around and would probably never see the supervisor again), the dependency-responsibility altercast still stood strong.
This study clearly shows the link between placing dependency, responsibility and accountability on a worker (such as an intern or graduate employee) and the worker’s productivity levels. So employers and professors out there: think hard about the techniques you use on your students, interns and employees when trying to make them work hard. Yes, maybe the mentoring technique works for some, but giving us responsibility isn’t just for our benefit so that we can feel like we’re making a difference, it’s for yours too – because the more responsibility you give us, the better both your and our work will turn out!
Pratkanis, A.R. (2007). Social influence analysis: An index of tactics. In The science of social influence: Advances and future progress, 17-82.
Berkowitz, L., & Daniels, L.R. (1963). Responsibility and dependency. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66, 429-436.