Saving Your Company from the Bystander Effect
Before joining NBT as General Counsel, I practiced as a civil trial attorney, which meant I was hired to represent entities after their problems escalated to a lawsuit. While working in that capacity, I had numerous experiences where I found myself thinking, “How did they let it come to this?” Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but there were many times when I was surprised that people did nothing when there were obvious signs that something needed to be done.
It led me to reflect upon a psychological phenomenon I learned about as an undergraduate: The Bystander Effect, which posits that when more people are present, people are less likely to respond to an emergency. In other words, as the number of bystanders increases, the likelihood that any one of them will act decreases. The principle is credited to Latane and Darley, who conducted a study that produced interesting results. Participants were left in a room either alone or in a group. The researchers then began pumping smoke under the door of the room. The participants who were in a group consistently waited much longer to respond than the participants who were left alone. The results of this study have been frequently replicated to show that when people are in a large group, they are less likely to respond to an emergency.
Latane and Darley theorized that overcoming the Bystander Effect requires five stages:
- Notice that something is going on
- Interpret the situation as a problem
- Degree of Responsibility felt
- Form of Assistance
- Implement the action choice
Consequently, a company should actively strive to combat the tendency toward bystanders. Encourage employees to openly identify and notice business problems or weaknesses. Management must be honest by interpreting situations as a problem, and should avoid the easier path of denial. Instill employees with a sense of individual responsibility, so that they feel compelled to act when the company is at risk. Promote a sense of synergy amongst all employees, so that they are able to agree on a single form of assistance. Last, provide sufficient resources so that members of the company can successfully implement the action.
Enable your employees to become heroes who step up in times of crisis, and your company will thrive.