What Do Bystanders Need Before They Speak?


I have been putting together a new workshop to encourage bystanders, who can do much to help others, themselves, and the organizations they inhabit. There has been much written on the role of bystanders, particularly about why they do and don’t act. Luckily for me, Mary Rowe has extensively considered how ombuds can impact bystanders, so (like many others) my task has gotten much easier thanks to the work that she has already done. While there are many factors that can prevent a bystander from speaking up, a strong, unflinchingly supportive organization can make it much more likely that they do so.

In “Fostering Constructive Action by Peers and Bystanders in Organizations and Communities,” Rowe explores the roles that peers and bystanders play in conflict management. She defines a bystander as one who learns about unacceptable behavior by others but is not a relevant supervisor or reporting authority. Since bystanders are often the first to be aware of problems, sometimes before they even manifest, Rowe argues, they are a critical element of any conflict management system.

Drawing on my own work history, I can offer one example that, I think, neatly demonstrates how correct Rowe is. As I may have mentioned to you before, I used to work in casino surveillance. If your primary exposure to that field comes from movies and television (and, unless you’ve been consigned to an airless monitor room, why wouldn’t it?), you might have an idea of what the job entails, though I am confident it is far more mundane you might imagine. Martin Scorcese offered a vivid picture of what most people think casino game protection is like in a hectic minute of his Vegas masterpiece Casino.

Robert DeNiro’s voiceover describes a hierarchy in which dealers watch players, boxmen watch dealers, floormen watching the boxmen, all the way up through pit bosses, shift bosses, casino manager, casino boss, surveillance, and “a dozen former cheats” in the catwalk, each zealously watching each other for any deviation from the norm.

(The dozen former cheats line got a chuckle out of me—just the thought of any casino paying twelve people per shift just to stand in catwalks and maybe, just maybe see something. In my experience, casinos do not invest quite that much in game protection, but it’s a movie.)

That whole scenario, however, is missing the first element of game protection—the players themselves. With their own (and not their employers’) money at stake, they are hypervigilant, to say the least, about anything that is simultaneously out of the ordinary and that can potentially cost them money. So often, players are aware, before the dealers and certainly before surveillance, that something is amiss.

Bystanders play a similar role in organizational and community conflict management. Rowe reports that, at least 50% to 80% of the time, bystanders “pick up on hint and portents of unacceptable behaviors” before they even happen.

Despite their knowledge of potential wrongdoings and potential to help, some bystanders do not take action. Rowe describes four sets of factors that generally work to inhibit bystanders from acting or speaking up. First, they may not be aware of the bad behavior. Second, they might not believe that the behavior is unacceptable. Third, they might not believe that anything needs to be done to stop the behavior. Finally, they may choose not to take personal action.

Hearing that, it seems that the odds are against bystanders effectively curtailing misbehavior. Indeed, you probably are personally familiar with one (or ten) times that no one spoke up against an injustice big or small. For something a bystander to intervene meaningfully, they would have to first be aware of wrongdoing, then realize that it is wrong and needs to be stopped. Finally, they would need to move intentionally to stop the misdeed.

Luckily, organizations can do things to support bystanders, making it more likely that they will act. First, to aid bystanders in seeing bad behavior, institutions can communicate clearly what specifically constitutes unacceptable behavior—with frequent reminders. And it goes without saying that, to ensure that the message is taken seriously, institutional leaders themselves should steer clear of doing things—in public or even private, because word does get around—the behaviors that they officially condemn. People, after all, are more likely to believe what they see than what they hear.

Second, to assist bystanders in recognizing that the witnessed behavior is unacceptable, it is important to stress that bad is bad, no matter who in the hierarchy is doing it. One might assume that if a leader is acting “wrongly,” they a) have organizational sanction or b) are more important than the rules. Failing to recognize bad behavior compounds as more people don’t act, which ultimately becomes a self-feeding loop. Every new person who witnesses the misbehavior is now wordlessly complicit and has a stake in maintaining that silence—including advising or even pressuring others not to speak up. For that reason, institutions must provide confidential, safe options for bystanders to assess their options.

Third, when bystanders feel that action isn’t necessary, it is important to realize that, while they may justify not speaking up as being “above my pay grade,” often hesitation in reporting wrongdoing is rooted in a lack of faith in the institution. Either they don’t think that anyone in power will want to do the right thing, or they don’t believe that they will be able to. Unwillingness to move forward even when one knows something is wrong isn’t necessarily rooted in cowardice or a moral failing; it may be the byproduct of first- and second-hand knowledge about prior reports. After all, few people find the prospect of participating in a formal investigation of anyone, especially those who may be above them in the organizational hierarchy, to be a career or personal popularity booster. Even when one is committed to “doing right,” the rigors of a potential investigation, combined with the potential for blowback from supervisors or peers, sparks second thoughts.

To reduce the possibility of bystanders not seeing action as necessary, organizations can make more explicit how their conflict management and compliance systems work. With better information about what actually happens, bystanders may feel more confident that airing their concerns will yield positive change.

The last stage at which bystanders back out—when they are convinced that they personally shouldn’t act—can be rooted in personal history or group dynamics. Often, doing the right thing, it can be argued, flies directly in the face of a person’s primary motivation for joining an organization, e.g., to earn a living or receive an education.

I am not going to lie to you. There are so, so many reasons not to speak up. No one likes hearing bad news, and some leaders have been known to blame the messenger. Retaliation, while illegal, may still occur. We might not be sure that we really saw what we think we saw. Bystanders might even resent the victim for not speaking up themselves and forcing a tough choice onto others. Taking the moral high ground, when it can open one up to personal, material, and emotional duress, seems almost foolhardy, which might be why they say that fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

Which is why institutions must do more to protect and even incentivize those who speak up to protect themselves, others, and the organization itself. That includes everything I have mentioned above, from leaders modeling good behavior to explaining conflict management and compliance processes to preventing retaliation by offering what Rowe calls “customized protection from bad consequences.”

Because when we think about it, we ask so much, maybe too much of bystanders: that they be an organization’s moral compass, social watchdog, and vocal instigator. If we request so much, the least that we owe them is an institution that is capable of hearing, protecting, and empowering them. Whether we are peers or leaders, building that institution is the challenge we carry every day.

So until next time, you stay informed and I’ll stay informal.


Informed Informality: People, Organizations, Conflict, and Culture

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