In smaller businesses or teams with low-rise hierarchies (a flat organisation), I have noticed that there is a higher risk for certain personalities to take on perceived responsibilities for beyond their official capacity.

Examples: A junior programmer feels responsible for the financial welfare of the company. A manager feels responsible for the quality of an employee’s personal life.

This can be especially true for those personalities with a tendency for delusions of grandeur, or those who need to be needed, or those who need to assume total control. (I am not placing specific judgements on any of these personality traits here – they just are what they are.)

As an individual’s perceived responsibility gamut increases, they will tend to act on it. The programmer will take on more and more work indiscriminately, or start to demand cost cutting measures. The manager will attempt to “improve” the personal life of the employee.

A person afflicted with responsibility creep will demand or act with inappropriate authority. They will change the way they speak and relate to others in the group. They will make decisions that are clearly not theirs to make, or demand access to inappropriate personal or management information.

The programmer concerned for the financial welfare of the company may start demanding to be included in executive meetings or see the books. The manager wanting to improve an employee’s personal life may show undue favours towards that employee or even act inappropriately towards that employee.

This is not only unhealthy for the individual (too much work, worry, and entanglements), it is also risky for the group as more and more critical paths cross that individual, or where critical information and relationships become vested in the one person.

A flat organisation can only tolerate a certain amount of stepping over the line as the lines are somewhat blurred to begin with. After a while though, this individual will experience more knockbacks or even reprimands. If they are not awaken to the fact that they have taken onboard more responsibilities than is the case, they can perceive these knockbacks as personal attacks, as the group acting to devalue their contribution. This then leads to feelings of disenfranchised and demoralised. In a small, closely knit group, this can cascade outwards to negatively affect the morale and performance of the group.

Some written clarity around each individual’s gamut of responsibility will help. Management needs to be vigilant of boundary-hopping between individuals. In a flat organisation, this is inevitable and very much a part of the structural advantage. But too much is not healthy. Boundary issues need to be address early on and not allowed to fester.