The Bystander Effect.
I hadn’t heard this term until I dug into a bit of research. Then I had my little light-bulb moment. Gosh, yes, this is absolutely everywhere.
We’ve all witnessed irksome situations at work. Processes that habitually don’t work. Equipment that habitually malfunctions. Colleagues who habitually cut corners. This is an “open secret” among you and your peers. Yet these dysfunctions remain dysfunctions. They do not get reported up the chain. They are never corrected. An open secret remains an open secret.
What’s up with that? Are you and your colleagues afraid of being branded a troublemaker? Are you victims of organizational politics? Why would anyone give up an opportunity to wield influence and affect outcomes?
Turns out, it’s a whole lot simpler. That is the compelling outcome of research conducted by Insiya Hussain and colleagues and presented in The Academy of Management Journal (“The Voice Bystander Effect: How Information Redundancy Inhibits Employee Voice,” 2018).
The Bystander Effect was first reported in the infamous 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese. Genovese was brutally stabbed outside of an apartment building in Kew Gardens/New York. According to a controversial New York Times report, 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack, and no one called the police.
Consider these two current and more benign studies: 132 employees of a Fortune 5oo electronics company were surveyed about how often they spoke up about work-related problems. The more that employees believed that problems were also known to teammates, the less willing they were to go to their managers.
In a follow-up experiment, university students who thought they were the only ones aware of an issue with campus transportation were 2.5 times as likely as others to say they would speak up to the administration.
It boils down to this: When multiple individuals know about a problem, research suggests, each experiences a diffusion of responsibility. That’s The Bystander Effect.
If others can speak up and handle a situation, why should I?
If you are an organizational leader, you likely find these findings as troubling as I do. You WANT your team members to be problem solvers. You WANT them to be influencers instead of silenced voices. You WANT a culture of integrity where problems are solved and not ignored.
How do we minimize The Bystander Effect? Begin by asking yourself these questions. When I sit in Executive Leadership meetings, do I bring up concerns or do I unwittingly act as a bystander myself? To what degree do I model being an influencer for others? Am I inadvertently discouraging team members from speaking up and voicing concerns?
Here are some specific ways of minimizing The Bystander Effect and creating an environment where “open secrets” actively get addressed:
1. Name it.
Change begins when we name the thing we wish to change. Go and start the process of making the unspoken conscious. Talk about the term “bystander” and the dynamics of The Bystander Effect. Ask questions to explore the dimensions of the bystander dynamic, beyond our understanding of the research. Why do we choose to remain a bystander? What’s the pay-off for remaining a bystander? What would it take for us to not be a bystander? And What would need to change in our work environment to empower us to be influencers and change agents?
2. Remove whistle-blowing stigmas.
The labels. Trouble-maker. Snitch. Know-it-all. Black sheep of the group. All of them have been applied to exceptional individuals I have coached. Invariably individuals who chose to NOT be bystanders. Do you sincerely want your folks to challenge the status quo? You can make a point of explicitly disavowing these labels. Better yet – why not train your team on effective influencing skills! Like how to shape conversations via strategic advocacy and inquiry. How to deliver difficult messages without making others defensive. Skilled influencers do this much better than less skilled ones. They are more likely to escape the wrath of peer group labels.
3. Reward active influencers.
LEAN work cultures institutionalize not being a bystander. You are expected to seek opportunities to improve work processes every day. Being a bystander is NOT cool in a LEAN workplace. If you don’t have a LEAN culture or mindset (and LEAN is certainly not the right operating culture for every workplace), contemplate the following questions: Is my workplace an environment where incompetence is protected? Are inadequately skilled people promoted? Do we too often resort to “well this is how we do things here” conversations? If your answer to any of these questions is YES, create better reward systems for bystanders who may wish to speak up. Offer bonuses, gift cards, extra days off or even the well-worn employee-of-the-month acknowledgment to your colleagues who have the courage to advance significant change.
4. Model it for others.
We have all worked for the leader whose entire demeanor says I toe the party-line. I will not rock the boat. My focus is on expediently being promoted into my next role. This leader is, in fact, a bystander masquerading as leader. Don’t be that leader. What does not-being-a-bystander look like for you? Whatever it is, model THAT behavior. Ask bold questions. Display curiosity. Play devil’s advocate to deepen conversations. Keep asking “what if?” And notice how suddenly more of your colleagues than you might have expected join you for the “what if” adventure. It’s how we start to dismantle The Bystander Effect.
Being a bystander is seductive. It feels safe. It lulls us into a sense of belonging. But please be very clear – it is a belonging with minimized impact. At its worst, a belonging to the tribe of mediocrity.
That’s not a cool tribe to belong to.
Belong to that tribe for too long, and you will have become a bystander for life.
That is not a very cool life.