Almost all of us have worked for a company at some point in our careers that just couldn’t seem to get out of its own way. The ideas were right, the talent was strong, but the execution just wasn’t there. From our positions somewhere in the engine room of the company, even we could see what was wrong and what needed doing. But for whatever reason, the changes never seemed to get made. Management was just too clueless or too focused on the wrong things, and what could have been difference-making efforts just didn’t get prioritized or funded.

Why is this so common?

The Bystander Effect

In psychology, there is a phenomenon called the Bystander Effect. Essentially, individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. In fact, the likelihood of someone taking action in a particular setting is inversely proportional to the number of people present.

There have been some fairly remarkable studies done to measure the effect. One particularly interesting one staged a waiting room. People were told to wait in the room for an interview. While in the room, researchers pumped smoke into the vents to simulate a fire.

When there was a single individual, nearly every person in the study investigated the smoke and then left the room to inform someone. When there were multiple people in the room, only one in ten actually reported the problem. In most cases, individuals stayed in the room, coughing and rubbing their eyes, before being called back for the interview—at which point they still did not report the smoke!

The reasons behind the Bystander Effect

Researchers have attributed several underlying causes for the Bystander Effect. They include:

  • Ambiguity and consequences – When it is uncertain that someone needs help, the response rates are much lower and the response times are much higher. When it is clear that someone needs help (they are shouting “Help!”, for instance), the response rates are higher. The more specific the request for help, the higher the response rate.
  • Understanding of environment – Bystanders who are not familiar with the environment (either the physical location or the circumstances) are less likely to offer assistance.
  • Diffusion of responsibility – When people believe that someone else is responsible for an outcome, they are far less likely to intervene. Essentially, when it is someone else’s responsibility, they are less likely to act.

The Bystander Effect and corporate life

While the studies around the Bystander Effect tend to be focused on people helping others in moments of crisis or emergency, the same social psychology holds true in most companies. Imagine a scenario where an entire organization has the roughly the same view on the set of things that ought to be done to improve performance. Why are these changes not immediately adopted?

In many of these settings, what you are seeing is the Bystander Effect. Individual workers all see the same signs. They likely all reach the same set of conclusions. And yet they do not offer up their ideas or take action. There is an underlying assumption that taking action or making decisions is someone else’s responsibility.

Surely management has seen the same things that I see!

The most basic faulty premise is that management sees the same issues. In fact, management doesn’t always see the same issues. Many of the dynamics of an organization are not immediately obvious to people merely observing the organization. Poor communication, for example, might be easy to spot in the middle of a particularly heated exchange in a meeting, but unless you are at that meeting, you won’t necessarily see it. Process or tooling problems that make workers inefficient might be painfully obvious to the person working through the bureaucracy, but to the people who are far from the day-to-day mechanics, the process makes perfect sense.

For individuals looking to make a difference, never assume that management inaction can be attributed to neglect or malice. It is more likely the case that management is unaware (no less important a transgression, mind you), or cannot act for other reasons.

That’s above my pay grade.

Among the most toxic attitudes to have, the “It’s beyond my pay grade.” psyche that creeps into organizations should be a big red flag to people trying to diagnose the Bystander Effect. Those words are spoken to mean “I know what to do, but it’s not in my power to do anything.” This is perhaps the most classical exhibition of the social psychology that you are ever going to see.

When you hear someone say this, challenge them. Why is it above their pay grade? In many cases, it’s actually not. Most organizations do not operate by command-and-control by choice. It’s a state that companies end up in when their employees stop taking initiative. When employees start making decisions about what ought to be done, the organization moves faster, partly because the bureaucracy is short-circuited and partly because people always execute against their own ideas with more fervor.

It is worth noting that there are issues that are indeed above peoples’ pay grades. Personnel calls, for instance, frequently fit into this category. But even then, you should not assume that everyone is aware of the effect of people on the rest of the organization. If you say nothing, the outcome is likely to be the same. Stand up and be heard.

That’s a different organization.

You don’t have to be an expert in a particular area to be observant. When there are gaps in a function that need to be closed, it is frequently those on the outside who are in the best position to both spot them and offer up help. When you hear someone claiming that it is someone else’s team, they are really absolving themselves of responsibility. But making a company great is everyone’s responsibility.

Of course there is a line. I am not suggesting that everyone start auditing every other team. Companies require trust to function well. But when areas for improvement are spotted, it’s a lazy answer to say that it’s someone else’s job. Minimally, go talk to that person and find out if they have the same understanding you do. It could be that either she doesn’t know, or maybe you have an incomplete view. Whatever the case, you are both better off if you reach some common understanding.

The bottom line

The psychology behind the Bystander Effect is very real, but even small amounts of training and a little situational awareness make it possible for heroes to emerge everyday. The same can be true in a corporate setting. Make sure you are aware of the psychology, and then listen for the signs. You are more than a bystander in your company – or at least you ought to be.

[Today’s fun fact: In South Korea, it is against the rules for a professional baseball player to wear cabbage leaves inside of his hat. There was a reason I never went pro in South Korea, and I think this might be it.]