I have often observed this perplexing behaviour first hand and been a victim of it myself as well at times but now I seem to have come across a psychological explanation of what’s dubbed as the ‘Bystander Problem’.
I have observed this at accident scenes on the road- a huge crowd gathered around the site and a lot of bystanders and curious onlookers, discussing the accident and expressing their grief BUT afraid to practically involve themselves in the situation. It takes a lot of time for someone to come forward and actually do something to help – like calling the police or an ambulance for example or taking the injured to the hospital etc.
I have observed this first hand in the corporate environment as well. An otherwise efficient team would be aware of a critical piece of information that they should share or act upon in the best interest of the organization BUT it is ignored or swept under the carpet.
It’s complained about, people moan and groan and exchange views on how bad it is and why it shouldn’t be happening BUT it takes a lot of time or a manager’s intervention before remedial action is taken.
I call it the ‘It’s not my problem’ syndrome and as a manager and a coach, I have observed that this is a core issue why many teams fail to reach their highest potential. The answer may in lie in what is called the bystander effect.
So, What is the bystander effect?
According to the Wikipedia, The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely proportional to the number of bystanders. In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. 1
1Aronson, E., Akert, R. D., and Wilson, T. D. (2006). Social psychology (6th Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
The Stabbing of Kitty Genovese
The case of Kitty Genoveseis the most famous example of the bystander effect. It is also the case that originally stimulated social psychological research in this area. Ms. Genovesewas stabbed to death in 1964 by a serial rapist and murderer in Queens, New York. According to newspaper accounts, the killing took place for at least a half an hour. The murderer attacked Ms. Genovese and stabbed her, but then fled the scene after attracting the attention of a neighbor. The killer then returned ten minutes later and finished the assault. Newspaper reports after Genovese’s death claimed that 38 witnesses watched the stabbings and failed to intervene or even contact the police. This led to widespread public attention and editorials that the United States had become a cold, uncaring society.
Video on the Kitty Genovese Case
Video Source – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0eq7atH1eIk (Socialpsychology by Mayers 2008)
The Bystander Effect in Organizations-
A recent study by organizational ombuds suggests that there are dozens of reasons why people do not act on the spot or come forward in the workplace when they see behavior they consider unacceptable.
(see http://www.ombudsassociation.org/publications/journal/Dealing with—or Reporting—“Unacceptable” Behavior – with additional thoughts about the “Bystander Effect” © 2009 Mary Rowe MIT, Linda Wilcox HMS, Howard Gadlin NIH).
The most important reasons cited were the fear of loss of important relationships in and out of the workplace, and a fear of “bad consequences.” There also were many reasons given by people who did act on the spot or come forward to authorities. This practitioners’ study suggests that the so-called bystander effect is actually very complex, reflecting views of the context (and organization) and many personal reasons.
Any gaps in pinpointing and allocating responsibility can lead to grey areas which will lead to situations where the bystander effect can cause its damage in organizations. I believe that an organizational culture based on the pillars of empowerment, free flowing communication, empathy and a culture where it’s OK to make mistakes will mobilize individuals to take charge of situations even when they do not fall under their black and white job descriptions.
Bibb Latane of Columbia University & John Darley of New York University conducted a series of studies of what they dubbed as the ‘bystander problem’. They staged emergencies to determine who would come forward to help. Their conclusion – one factor above all others determined helping behaviour and that was the number of witnesses or bystanders to the problem or event.
In one of their experiments a students stages an epileptic fit while alone in a room. When there was just one person next door listening to the sounds of the seizure, that person rushed to the rescue of the student 85% of the time.
But when the subjects thought that there were four others also overhearing the seizure, they came to his rescue only 31% of the time.
(John Darley and Bibb Latane, “Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of Responsibility,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1968), vol. 8, pp. 378-383. as cited by Gladwell, M in The Tipping Point)
Malcoml Gladwellwrites in his groundbreaking book, The Tipping Point – “When people are in a group, in other words, responsibility for acting is diffused. They assume that someone else will make the call, or they assume that because no one else is acting, the apparent problem- isn’t really a problem”.
Imagine the damage that assumption- ‘because no one else is reacting, why should I be the first one to blow the whistle?’- could do to organizations, teams and society.
I believe all we need in a situation like that is just one person to act as a catalyst and the opinion of the entire group can be mobilized and ‘tipped’ towards positive action. History is a witness to the moments when a few individuals mobilized millions.
In our own lives, maybe we could step forward and stand up for what’s right and take action, while everyone’s merely watching. Imagine the possiblities…
Recent Experiment on the Bystander Effect
Video Source – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIvGIwLcIuw&feature=related