The Bystander Effect At Work: How To Build A Culture That’s Safe & Open

In the early morning of March 13, 1964, 38 people saw a 28-year old woman, Kitty Genovese get murdered. Police say that nobody reported the crime until it was too late. This case is the classic example of The Bystander Effect. It’s a social phenomenon that prevents people from taking action. Specifically, we’ll look at the Bystander Effect at work.

The Bystander Effect is a social theory first explained by Darley and Latane in 1968. It says that bystanders are less likely to help someone during an emergency when they’re around others. The more people, the less chance an incident will get reported. 

This is intriguing since our intuition tells us that we’ll help people whether we’re alone or with others. In Kitty’s case, 38 people saw it happen (a recent news article found out there were only half a dozen). But reports say others brushed it off as some people having a lover’s quarrel so people didn’t report it right away.

This social effect is so powerful that people take things lighter than what they ought to be. And its power is amplified online that even when thousands of people see something serious, they won’t report it. Not until it’s too late.


The Curious Case Of Andrew Blaze: The YouTuber Turned Mass Murderer

June 28, 2017 was a day to remember for the 24-year-old Randy Stair or known as Andrew Blaze. This was the day everything he planned for will happen: a mass murder-suicide inside the supermarket he worked in. Between the hours of 12:57 am to 1:01 am (EDT), he shot 59 bullets from his shotgun, killed three people, and committed suicide. The weird thing is, everything he did was documented on his YouTube channel.

At the time of the shooting, Stair’s YouTube channel had 8,931 subscribers. Months before his crimes, he made videos sharing his personal tragedies, misfortune, and plan for suicide. He had videos of himself holding two shotguns and published writings of his crime – something he’s planned for 3-4 months.

Another obvious sign of the Weis Market shooting was his obsession on two things. First, the Columbine High School Massacre where he treated Eric Harris like a hero. Second was Ember Ghost Squad, a fictional character Stair created inspired by Nickolodeon’s Danny Phantom. He believed that the killings (and his death) will allow him to transition from this world to the EGS animated world. That he would become part of the “ghosts.”

Here’s the full story:

Thousands of people watched his videos leading to the massacre. But no one noticed what’s happening, nobody reported it, and as Stair commented, “people seemed to like it.” Whether 38 people or thousands witness something online, bystanders don’t do anything because of… 


The Diffusion of Responsibility

When more people are present, the responsibility for action or inaction is distributed. For example, if you saw an emergency, 100% of the responsibility for reporting it is on your shoulders. That burden is hard to bear in your conscience.

When you’re with someone, the responsibility splits among the two of you. Meaning, you and your friend are both 50% responsible for reporting (or not reporting) the incident. Still a heavy burden.

But imagine this: there are 20 people who witnessed the emergency. Each bystander is only 5% responsible for reporting it. It’s easy to brush off and say that “others will do it.” Here’s the twist: other people are thinking about that, too. They will either ignore the incident, feel like they don’t want to get involved, or pass on the responsibility to others.

This social phenomenon is so powerful that people can use it as a defense strategy. And that’s what some Nazis did to defend themselves from getting charged with war crimes in World War II![*]

Diffusing The Diffusion

The division of responsibility happens because we are social beings. In any given situation, we observe what other people are doing so we know the “appropriate behavior.” For example, when you go to someplace new and you don’t know anyone, what do you do? You look at what others are doing right? If you’re an extrovert, you’ll strike up a conversation with others. But not until you have a grasp of the “interaction walls” – what’s okay to talk about and what’s not.

When we’re witnessing an emergency with other people, we look at how they respond. If nobody is helping or reacting, we think it’s the appropriate (i.e. socially accepted) behavior.  We brush it off as non-emergency or non-threatening. Then we conform ourselves to what’s appropriate so we don’t feel alien.

Here’s what’s interesting: researches suggest that how we perceive a situation dictates what we’ll do. After all, we’re all good people and not everyone conforms to society norms.

During incidents that pose low potential danger, a lot more people offered help when they were alone. When they’re around others, not as much. But in situations that pose high potential danger, people tend to help more regardless of whether they’re alone or with someone.[*]

To stop the Bystander Effect and the Diffusion of Responsibility, you need to see situations as posing high potential danger. Of course, not to the extent where you’ll put yourself in danger. There’s always an indirect way to offer help (e.g. calling the authorities).

But what if the “danger” isn’t obvious and the intervention isn’t physical but is based on trust? Will you (or your coworkers) do something about it?


The Bystander Effect at Work

Bystander Apathy (more like coworker apathy) doesn’t only happen when we see strangers need help. It also happens at work, whether you’re in a multinational company or a small, family-run business. And it’s more frequent than you realize.

Case in point, office affairs. According to the 2019 survey by Vault.com, one in five people have had an office affair and 44% know of others who had one. If you think about it, almost half of your colleagues know if their coworker is cheating on their partner. The problem is, no one is brave enough to say something – especially if it involves their boss.

Here are other examples of work issues people don’t say anything about:

  • Office bullying
  • Sexual Assault
  • Immoral Activities
  • Knowledge of Pilferage or corrupt practices
  • Workplace Whispers (gossiping)
  • Misusing company time (e.g. doing their business on company-paid time in the expense of being productive)
  • Violence
  • Extended breaks
  • Nepotism
  • Unrealistic Expectations

If you’ve ever seen any of these things happen, but didn’t say anything, you’re experiencing the bystander effect at work. Breaking that pattern is never easy; it takes courage. You’re not just going against the flow – you’re challenging the status quo. But it’s easier to do when you know…

The Degree of Responsibility

Darley and Latané said that any bystander will feel more willing to help:

  1. When they feel like the other person deserves help. (i.e. Can they take care of it?) 
  2. Once they think they have the ability to assist. (i.e. Can I do it?) 
  3. If they know the other person. (i.e. Have we interacted before?)

Let’s say your friend is a subject of workplace whispers. Would you stand up for them and help them clear their name or not? How about if it’s the annoying coworker that makes work feel like drowning in a sea of misery?

Here’s another example: your friend wants to have a “playful banter” with another officemate. But the other party feels hurt by the things your friend says. Would you tell them to stop? Or would you ignore it since you know your friend is “only being playful”?


How To Overcome The Bystander Effect

There are simple and easy ways to nurture an environment where everyone helps everyone else. Although it all starts at the top (the leader, regardless of position), anyone can do these.

Make People Feel Safe

People open up when they feel safe – when they know you listen, understand, and suspend judgment. You would surprise yourself on how much people tell you when they know you lend an ear. That’s the key to beating the bystander effect at work.

If you lead people for a living (i.e. You’re a boss not just in title), making people feel safe is your priority. It will take you further and longer than any team building activity can offer. You must take extra effort to provide psychological safety to your employees. When people feel threatened, it’s because you’re falling short in providing a secure place for them. Ask yourself this:

  • Are your people sharing their work-related frustrations with you? 
  • Do you know their goals within your company? 
  • Do you know the things they’re working on right now?

If on the other hand, you’re an employee, you can still make your coworkers feel safe around you. Start by knowing who they are and listen, really listen, to what they’re telling you. Most of the time, people know what to do. They just want people who are there to listen.

Educate Them About The Bystander Effect

One of the most effective ways to stop the bystander apathy is by knowing it exists. You now know about it, so it’s your time to pay it forward. Let others know that people are not voicing their concerns, whistleblowing, or opening up because of this effect. If you learned something from this article, share this with them and let them read. It reduces your effort and puts people in your corner.

Take Action When People Raise Valid Concerns

Often, people don’t raise their concerns or the things they know because they feel unheard. Sure, the bosses and higher ups may be “hearing” what they say. But it goes in one ear and out the other. This is especially true when people involved in lewd or unethical behaviors hold positions of authority. Remember, leaders have to carry the burden of making people feel safe.

It just doesn’t scream “safe” when you choose comfort and relationship over doing what’s right.

Live an inspired life,

Jeric Timbang