By Anja van den Berg
Employees often remain silent rather than speak to managers about work-related concerns. As a result, leaders often remain in the dark about issues that are otherwise well known to frontline employees.
Why do issues remain open secrets in organisations where multiple employees know about a problem or a concern, but no one publicly brings it up?
Research by the University of Maryland recently set out to find the answer. Insiya Hussain, a behavioural scientist, and Dr Subra Tangirala, a professor of management and organisation, explored this phenomenon in a set of studies recently published in the Academy of Management Journal.
Their findings were startling: as issues become more common knowledge among frontline employees, the willingness of any individual employee to bring those issues to the attention of top management actually decreased.
What they observed among their participants was the so-called bystander effect, a psychological phenomenon describing how people stay on the sidelines as passive bystanders, waiting for others to act rather than to take action themselves.
In an article written for Harvard Business Review, the researchers explains the inner workings of the bystander effect: imagine Jane, a member of an engineering team at a company. The top management of the company is eager to release a product to the market before competitors mimic it.
However, a bug in the product has been uncovered and someone needs to bring up the issue. When Jane is the only member of the team who is aware of the issue, she would feel a personal responsibility to alert her managers of the problem.
But, when her team members – John, Jack, and Julia – also know about the bug, Jane may feel that approaching leadership isn’t solely her responsibility. She becomes less likely to speak up, and for the very same reason, John, Jack, and Julia are also less likely to do so.
Indeed, research shows that when multiple individuals know about an issue, each of them experiences a diffusion of responsibility or the sense that they need not personally take on any costs or burden associated with speaking up.
They feel that others are equally in the know and, hence, capable of raising the issue with top management. They find it psychologically convenient to pass on the accountability of speaking up to others, and this makes them less likely to speak up themselves.
Considered from this perspective, it starts to make more sense why problems – such as harassment and abusive supervision – can remain unaddressed for so long without anyone taking action. Voicing such issues is, after all, risky, as individuals can often be punished or put down for speaking up.
What can managers do to avoid the bystander effect so that problems don’t go unresolved? Hussain and Tangirala suggest that managers should tell employees that their voices are not redundant.
Leaders should explicitly say that employees should share their opinions even if others have the same information. Put simply, managers may adjust the now-familiar injunction as follows: “If you see something, say something – even if others see the same thing.”
Importantly, the bystander effect occurs because the work culture of many organisations encourages passing the buck and blending into the crowd rather than taking individual responsibility.
Employees are afraid to stand up and speaking truth to power. Managers who openly reward acts of individual courage can get their employees off the sidelines to act as engaged team members in the workplace.
Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2019/01/why-open-secrets-exist-in-organizations
Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/bystander-effect
Academy of Management Journal: https://journals.aom.org/doi/pdf/10.5465/amj.2017.0245