The bystander effect at work

Ted Bauer
4 min readMar 29, 2022

If you took any high school or college psychology classes, you may be familiar with these types of words/ideas:

  • Bystander effect
  • Diffusion of responsibility
  • Kitty Genovese

You can read about all this stuff here, but basically this is what happened: a woman was getting stabbed in NYC. Dozens of neighbors heard it and/or saw some commotion, and no one did anything. It’s a psychological principle, then, that basically says “I see this stuff happening, but I assume someone else is on it!” (It should be noted that some of the reporting on the Genovese case was flawed, but the psychological ideas behind it still have value.)

You see diffusion of responsibility play out in literally dozens upon dozens of contexts. Work is not an exception here.

Indeed, here’s an article called “Why Open Secrets Exist In Organizations.” If you’ve ever worked in an organization for even 11 seconds, you know that this headline is true. But why?

Well, the people that wrote it came to the central conclusion that “as issues become more common among front-line employees, the idea that anyone will present those issues to management decrease,” noting:

Indeed, our 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 knowledgeable and, hence, capable of raising the issue with top management. They find it convenient to psychologically pass on the accountability of speaking up to others, and this makes them less likely to speak up themselves.

Now, this pull quote is a good summary, but it misses one major thing: a lot of times, people don’t bring up issues to management because of one of two reasons:

  • They assume management won’t care
  • They don’t want to get popped or drawn into something and would rather just go about handling their day-to-day stuff

As a result…

You have a lot of open secrets or “Pssst, Jack’s wife is divorcing him!” or “We all know Brad doesn’t get shit done!” in organizations. That’s…

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Ted Bauer

Mostly write about work, leadership, friendship, masculinity, male infertility, and some other stuff along the way. It's a pleasure to be here.