The organizational bystander effect

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If you took any high school or college psychology classes, you may be familiar with these types of words/ideas:

  • Bystander effect
  • Diffusion of responsibility
  • Kitty Genovese

You can read about all this stuff here, but basically this is what happened: a woman was getting stabbed in NYC. Dozens of neighbors heard it and/or saw some commotion, and no one did anything. It’s a psychological principle, then, that basically says “I see this stuff happening, but I assume someone else is on it!” (It should be noted that some of the reporting on the Genovese case was flawed, but the psychological ideas behind it still have value.)

You see diffusion of responsibility play out in literally dozens upon dozens of contexts. Work is not an exception here.

Indeed, here’s an article called “Why Open Secrets Exist In Organizations.” If you’ve ever worked in an organization for even 11 seconds, you know that this headline is true. But why?

Well, the people that wrote it came to the central conclusion that “as issues become more common among front-line employees, the idea that anyone will present those issues to management decrease,” noting:

Indeed, our research shows that when multiple individuals know about an issue, each of them experiences a diffusion of responsibility or the sense that they need not personally take on any costs or burden associated with speaking up. They feel that others are equally knowledgeable and, hence, capable of raising the issue with top management. They find it convenient to psychologically pass on the accountability of speaking up to others, and this makes them less likely to speak up themselves.

Harvard Business Review article

Now, this pull quote is a good summary, but it misses one major thing: a lot of times, people don’t bring up issues to management because of one of two reasons:

  • They assume management won’t care
  • They don’t want to get popped or drawn into something and would rather just go about handling their day-to-day stuff

As a result…

You have a lot of open secrets or “Pssst, Jack’s wife is divorcing him!” or “We all know Brad doesn’t get shit done!” in organizations. That’s just the gossip level. You also have open secrets on product flaws, the true intentions of management (“they’re trying to sell off and get us canned!”), etc.

The other reason this happens

Frontline workers are where the stuff actually gets done, even though they often get paid like abject animals. Frontline workers have context for:

  • Customers
  • Other employees
  • What execs are saying
  • What execs are saying them to in private meetings

You know what execs have context for? Spending time with other execs.

If I had to define “employee disengagement” in a standard white-collar business, I’d probably define it this way:

When the front line workers suddenly go quiet or generally dump out.

If the frontline is disengaged, your culture is absolutely broken. There is almost no way around that discussion. However, many guys who run companies think to themselves, “Pfft, those are $60,000 a year drones. They are replaceable. I set the strategy and drive the ship!”

News flash: if you don’t talk to customers and employees, which many execs do not, then whatever you call “a strategy” was set in a vacuum. In the real world, it’s largely worthless.

Can we get better about this?

Yea, sure. We can create transparent cultures where people actually talk about issues.

Oh, wait, sorry.

That’s never going to happen. It violates human psychology at every turn. People don’t want “transparent” cultures because work is actually about control at most places, and having control of information is one of the most beautiful forms of control. “Transparency” violates that. Look at Google. For a while, their whole thing is “Information needs to be free!” and they seemed like a great, pure company. Now over time we realize they’re doing lots of shady shit here and there with their information (and ours!).

So yes, the answer is NOT “transparent culture.” That’s actually just a buzzword.

Could a “If you see something, say something” approach work in organizations? Sure, in some places. But in most cases, what would happen is:

Is there an answer, then?

Yes and no.

Yes → promote cool people into formal leadership roles. Promote people with soft skills who are approachable. Then more down the hierarchy will be interested in bringing “the known issues” to them.

No → everything else I’ve already said in this post.

But if you see an issue keep bubbling up where you work, go tell someone. Put it on a survey, if nothing else. Get after it. All these little issues that everyone knows but no one with authority seems to know can kill an org quickly.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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