Organizational development

Circumventing the bystander effect

By Sara van Leeuwen, Principal /

Have you ever been in a situation where something clearly needs to be done and there are many people who know about it and who could do it, but nobody does anything? Or worse, a situation where something terrible is happening and plenty of people are witnessing it, but no one intervenes? Psychologists have a name for this behavioral phenomenon. They call it the bystander effect. The term was first coined by Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley following the shocking murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City, 1964. As Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment, as many as 38 people listened and did nothing to help. Psychological experiments have later shown that the bystander effect is reliable, replicable and generalizable to many different contexts. It can be seen in life threatening emergency situations, such as the one described above, but also in non-emergency situations and work contexts when even though behavior is unacceptable, or projects and processes are going wrong, people fail to act.

For a business leader this behavioral phenomenon, also known as bystander apathy, can not only cost the business a lot of money but can also enable unacceptable behavior such as lack of accountability, lack of proactivity, cheating, bullying or discrimination to manifest in the culture. For this reason, it is important to understand why this lack of action or apathy develops in a group setting and what can be done to circumvent it. 

Research carried out in an organizational setting to understand such behavior has shown that the reasons behind it are indeed complex and still, three major contributors can be delineated. The first is diffusion of responsibility, meaning that nobody feels directly responsible. In fact, the more people involved, the less likely anyone is to take responsibility. Everyone assumes that someone else in the group will take care of it. The second contributor is that people want to behave in socially correct and culturally acceptable ways. They want to fit in and they want to conform. This means that if people see no one else acting they read it as a social cue that action is not appropriate. In a business, we also must consider the hierarchical structures that are often in place and how those impact people`s decision to act or not. For example, if a person`s boss is involved in the project but does not take a proactive interest in it, it will be read as an even stronger social cue that action is not desired. The third major contributor to a failure to act in the workplace is situational ambiguity. The more complex and ambiguous the situation is, the more insecurity around what to do about it. This can lead people into a “paralysis of analysis” where people get stuck trying to understand and never reach the point of action. 

So, what can we do to overcome the bystander effect? Thankfully, there is a lot we can do and here I will give you just a few simple pointers that can help you increase responsibility in your workplace. The first is to set the right example yourself, to role model proactive behavior, to actively tackle and approach issues you see developing and to seek communication directly with those involved when you witness unacceptable behavior. The second is to assign responsibility clearly. People want to do the right thing and as soon as they feel responsible, they are much more likely to act. In complex projects, reach out to people and ask them what they can do to put things back on track. Help them to realize that it is their concern and that they, personally, are being called on. The third is to help people realize that they create the work culture they are living in and that they can act and have an impact on the greater whole. Mahatma Gandhi once said: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” You can encourage your coworkers to do just this by talking to them about how change starts with each one of them and by actively praising those who role-model self-leadership, proactivity and responsibility. Finally, I recommend you coach your people to work through ambiguous situations efficiently and find out for themselves how they could help themselves and serve the greater good. 

We wish you a Happy New Year and a proactive start to 2019,
Your Manres team