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How to Survive the Human Problem

Updated: Apr 11, 2018

The following statement summarizes the “human problem” concisely:

“Not only are all jobs yours prior to your delegating to me, but accountability for them remains yours even after you’ve delegated to me. You cannot delegate an obligation you did not personally start off having”

(Carver, 2006, p. 240).

In other words, humans have great difficulty accepting responsibility. Carver argues for policy creation that addresses this "human problem"(243). He also provides a format for policy expansion that clarifies the distribution and limitations of power in five categories: Ends, Executive Limitations, Board-Management Delegation, and Governance Process

Carver’s (2006) “solutions” are effective but the brevity he uses to address the problem misses the mark when explaining “why” it is so hard to make it work with real human beings in real situations. For that, we turn to Zhao & Greer's research (2017). In their paper, they set out to discover the relationship between behavior and cognitive mechanisms as they relate to performance failures for high-power groups (p.1). They postulate four hypotheses:

  • Power struggles will mediate the relationship between group power and individual and group performance

  • High-power group members will experience more paranoia than low-power group members

  • Paranoia and power struggles mediate the relationship between group power and performance

  • Attentional focus will moderate the relationship between group power and paranoia, such that high-power group members are likely to experience less paranoia when they adopt an external focus than when the adopt an internal focus and perform better than high-power groups with an internal focus

(Zhao & Greer, 2017, pp. 2-3).

Their research supported their hypotheses. They state, “The results indicate that changes in individual psyche could be attributed to the collective power of the group (Zhao & Greer, 2017, p. 6).

As organizations grow there is a tendency for high-powered individuals to turn their attentions more inwardly as a mode of survival. Basic human instincts according to Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” (Pitchre & Cadiate, 2016, p. 8) indicate that physiology and safety are the most fundamental of all human needs. As one moves up the power ladder, he/she realizes the growing target on his/her back and self-preservation becomes more important than the corporate vision. The best solution to avoid this dysfunction is governance model that establishes policies that keep people externally focused so they can rest comfortably in their responsibilities.


Carver, J. (2006). Boards that make a difference: A new design for leadership in nonprofit and public organizations. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pitchre, P., & Cadiate, A.-C. (2016). Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.[G1] (C. Probert, Trans.) Namur: Lamaitre Publishing.[G2]

Zhao, E. Y., & Greer, L. L. (2017). Performance failures at the top: An examination of paranoia and power struggles in high-power groups. Acadamy of Management Annual Meeting Proceedings.

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