Bystander Effect

In social psychology there is a concept known as the “bystander effect”. It was first studied by two psychologist — John Darley and Bibb Latané — following the murder of a New York City woman in 1964. Darley and Latané lay out the seed of their research in the open paragraph of their paper:

Several years ago, a young woman was stabbed to death in the middle of a street in a residential section of New York City. Although such murders are not entirely routine, the incident received little public attention until several weeks later when the New York Times disclosed another side to the case: at least 38 witnesses had observed the attack–and none had even attempted to intervene. Although the attacker took more than half an hour to kill Kitty Genovese, not one of the 38 people who watched from the safety of their own apartments came out to assist her. Not one even lifted the telephone to call the police Source

The pair conducted experiments to better understand this phenomenon. What they discovered is pretty interesting.

When people are the sole witness to an incident, they tend to respond quickly. When in a group, people respond much more slowly, if at all. The larger the group, the more profound the effect.

The “bystander effect” is probably a big reason why so many companies fail at scaling their culture as they grow.

When a company is small, each person has to pick up a lot of slack and go above and beyond for the business to succeed. Responsibility is diffused as more people are hired and the company grows. People become more specialized and more adept, but that usually means a stronger focus on the issues just facing them or their team. They start to believe they’re only responsible for their own little corner of the company.

The reality is that you’re prone to take less and less responsibility for each other (and for the success of the company) as the your company grows. That’s just human behavior. You’ve got to fight against this.

Degree of responsibility

There are three things that influence the degree of responsibility that we feel as bystanders:

  1. Whether or not we feel the person in deserving of help
  2. Our own competence
  3. Our relationship with the victim

We tell ourselves lies about these three points to justify inaction.

“He’s tough, he can handle it.”

“I don’t know enough about DevOps to start that conversation”

“She seems over her head. Hopefully her manager gives her some coaching in their next 1:1s”

Most of the reasoning we do in these situations inane and cripples a healthy culture. Most good cultures are rooted in community and empathy. That’s what’s lost as the bystander effect snakes it’s way in.

Do this not that

Some examples I’ve been a part of recently:

My job involves a lot of creative thinking and meetings where we do creative thinking as a group. It requires a lot of vulnerability to work through new ideas in a group setting. I’ve been witness plenty of times to people getting shut down in meetings — being told their idea was flawed or that it had was shortsighted. Usually, the person who was shut down withdraws and doesn’t engage for the rest of the meeting. It was only recently that I witnessed another team member pausing the meeting to address the person’s emotional state and welcome them back to engage in discussion. That simple act leveled the team out and helped us move forward as a group to some good ideas. You always want to be the person who invites others back.

A second example: One constant issue we faced was a lack of project documentation. This lead to lots of confusion and wasted time when we ramped-up new people on projects. I knew there had been talk of starting a wiki for this exact reason, but no one had done it. So one morning I spent 30 minutes researching and setting up a small wiki on Google Sites. I took the idea to one of our partners, and now it’s something we use for all of our projects across the entire company. No one asked me to do it. It wasn’t my job to do it. I didn’t have time allocated in my busy scheduled to do it. I just stopped being a bystander and helped all my project managers in need.

You’re not always going to be the person who can fix the issue, but you will always be the person responsible for starting the process. Don’t get caught in the bystander effect.