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Tragedy of the Commons

My much younger self dreamt of a world in which all resources could be shared and cared for by large groups taking the responsibility off of any one person’s shoulders. Similarly to many of my youthful enthusiasms, this utopian dream was shattered; this one when I learned about the Tragedy of the Commons.

The Tragedy of the Commons posits that individual responsibility will more likely lead to the preservation of resources than group responsibility. Garrett Hardin, who developed the concept, asked us to picture a meadow in which cows can graze. An individual owner of the meadow will have a vested interest in not overgrazing it as he wants it to be fecund year after year. As a result, he will limit the number of cows in the meadow at any one time.

On the other hand, if all the ranchers in an area had access to the meadow, any one rancher could place enough cows in the field to overgraze it. The other ranchers would suspect, probably accurately, that at least one rancher would be greedy enough to do so. As the field will inevitably be overgrazed, it made sense for all the ranchers to get as many cows on the field as quickly as possible to take advantage of the limited time the grass would still be there. As a result, the shared field becomes barren quickly.

Understanding the Tragedy of the Commons is critical when a leader is organizing a group or team to address an issue or problem. Often the leader names a cadre of highly qualified and motivated people to tackle the issue and fails to name a leader of the group. She assumes that this highly qualified group will be able to organize and lead themselves. In those cases, more often than not, the group does not function well (if at all).

The lack of functioning should not be surprising. The folks named to the group are busy and quickly fall into the rhythm of their lives ignoring this new assignment. By giving authority to everyone in the group, the resource of the group is not well utilized. When everyone is in charge, often no-one is in charge.

On the other hand, if a leader of the group is appointed when the team is formed, that person takes personal responsibility, like the property owner rancher. As a result, she will take responsibility for organizing the group and its work.

Appointing a leader should not be confused with the team becoming autocratic or hierarchical. A good team leader will use the talents and skills of each team member and encourage meaningful conversation.

However, without an individual responsible for the team and its functioning, the job is less likely to get done.


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