In an effort to deal with the bystander effect, many schools and universities, and other institutions, have been doing "active bystander” training. (For example, see a guide to bystander training by Maureen Scully, in Ancona et al, Managing for the Future, which is used in MBA programs, universities, public agencies, and corporations.)
Some major reasons that are cited for this training are:
• Encouraging the positive: to foster productive behavior from all managers and employees, to improve workplace morale and collegiality, to “build community” and foster “inclusion;”
• Discouraging the negative: to curtail discriminatory, destructive, and illegal behavior. At a time when employers around the world are concerned about racism, bullying, harassment, and unethical behavior, many employers are interested in expanding the base of employees who can react to and halt inappropriate behavior.
(For discussion of these ideas, see Bullying in different contexts: Commonalities, differences and the role of theory by Claire P. Monks, Peter K. Smith, Paul Naylor, Christine Barter, Jane L. Ireland and Iain Coyne, in Aggression and Violent Behavior, January, 2009; The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander, Barbara Coloroso, HarperResource, 2003; Empowering Bystanders in Bullying Prevention, Stan and Julia Davis, Research Press, 2007.
== Who is a "bystander"? ==
According to Scully and her colleagues, a bystander could be anyone who sees or hears of behavior that appears worthy of comment or action. In the past, much workplace training has focused mainly on three cohorts: 1) a person who does or says something (whether positive or negative) that might merit a response, or 2) a person who is impacted by what is said or done, or 3) supervisors. Those who do bystander training believe that a fourth cohort is also important. That is, there may also be one or more bystanders present, who can influence the workplace climate. Bystanders can highlight positive acts that might otherwise be invisible or overlooked. They can redirect or de-escalate negative acts that might be problematic. Bystanders might be peers or teammates. They might be subordinate or senior to the person whose comment or behavior warrants reaction. Training that encourages “active bystanders” takes into account the different power dynamics and contexts that may be involved.
Encouraging the positive
Bystander training is designed to help people in all cohorts to note—and to commend—the achievements of their fellow workers. Such commendations often matter a lot to the person concerned and are thought to be useful in encouraging future, socially desirable behavior. (See By Goldstein, Martin, and Cialdini, and Influencer: The Power to Change Anything by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler) The hope is that training may help workers in all job categories to be "good mentors" to colleagues who need a bit of information, or help — and those who will be delighted by a word of encouragement. The thought is that “on the spot” help and affirmation from bystanders may be especially effective because it is an immediate, positive reinforcement. (See for example the One Minute Manager by Blanchard for similar reasoning.)
Discouraging the negative
Bystander training is also thought to be useful in helping people in all job categories to react, and then act appropriately, when they see unsafe, unprofessional, offensive, discriminatory, or illegal behavior in the workplace.
Bystander actions can signal to a person who may feel offended or marginalized that they have allies. For example, a white person who reacts to a racist comment may affirm to employees of color that there are allies in the organization who share values of commitment to diversity and inclusion (See Blake-Beard, Scully et al. on the importance of cross-race allies at work). A norm or value at work is only as strong as what happens in the breach of that norm. The silence of bystanders in such a situation can leave minority employees wondering if they are being subtly judged, and may increase their intention to leave. Exit interviews with minority employees often reveal that it was not inappropriate remarks by individuals that stung, but the silence of the wide group of bystanders. (See the Corporate Leavers Survey for more about those who leave a job: http://staging.lpfi.org/workplace/corporateleavers.html)
High-ranking bystanders are believed to be especially important in constraining unacceptable behavior by other senior people, in circumstances when workers in lower ranks might find action more risky or difficult.(citations needed)
Why is it useful to think about bystanders?
There are many reasons to encourage bystanders in the workplace to be “active” when action is appropriate. These include:
• There are often more peers and bystanders who could affirm excellent performance than there are supervisors. This means that the people who go “above and beyond” are often invisible to their supervisors. Bystanders can affirm exemplary behavior much more often than bosses, if only with a quick smile and warm thanks.
• A responsible bystander may be able to react immediately and on the spot, at times when action is safe and appropriate. As noted in the One Minute Manager, this may be more effective in affirming good behavior or discouraging unacceptable behavior than are reactions that are delayed. In addition, affirming useful innovations and catching errors on the spot may be more cost-effective than are delayed responses.
• People who are planning an illegal or otherwise unacceptable action do not usually share their plans with supervisors, compliance officers, security, mental health or police. They may however boast or give clues to friends and co-workers. (For example, with respect to violence in organizations, see Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates, by Robert A. Fein Ph.D; Bryan Vosskuil; William S. Pollack Ph.D; Randy Borum Psy.D; William Modzeleski; Marisa Reddy Ph.D.).
• Third parties may be able actually to solve many problems amongst people in conflict. (See for example, William Ury, The Third Side, Penguin Books, NY, 2000.)
• Social psychologists and neuroscientists have repeatedly demonstrated how people are affected by the actions of those around them. (See for example Influence: Science and Practice, by Robert B. Cialdini Scott, Foresman and Company for a famous discussion of “social proof”.) Collegiality, and even happiness, may be as contagious as the negative emotions, may contribute to good performance, and are greatly valued by many employees and managers. (For example, hear the Scientific American podcast, reporting work on social networks and happiness, by Nicholas A. Christakis & James H. Fowler: http://www.sciam.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=happiness-is-contagious-08-12-05).
Senior managers who are committed to diversity and inclusion, instant recognition of exemplary performance, improvement of work-group relations, prevention of illegal activities, and cost control may have a special interest in these hypotheses about bystander training. This article reviews some hypotheses and current discussion about bystander training.
From passive to active bystanders
The word bystander often conjures the phrase, “passive bystander.” Much research on bystanders has examined why bystanders sometimes remain passive (see : bystander effect). There are many reasons, such as diffusion of responsibility (surely someone else will say something) or uncertainty (freezing in the moment because it is awkward or unclear what to do in a novel situation).
In addition to the well-studied idea of the bystander effect, many factors contribute to making bystanders passive in their workplaces: fear of losing friendships, fear of loss of privacy, of getting too involved. Bystanders may not know the right thing to say or do. They may fear retaliation or be concerned about embarrassing a superior. (Rowe, Wilcox & Gadlin, 2008).
Despite these numerous factors, bystander training suggests that:
• It may be better for a bystander to do something, even something small or after the fact, than to remain silent when actions warrant a response
• With training, bystanders can learn to be more comfortable and appropriate in their responses.
These two ideas also underlie contemporary research and diversity training about being an "ally." (citations needed) The first step from passive to active bystander is recognizing that something has happened that is worthy of a response.
Recognition of socially desirable behavior
In order to foster productive and inclusive behavior, it is important to train all workplace cohorts mentioned earlier — including bystanders. All workplace roles are important in thinking about encouraging and commending good teamwork, excellent performance and productive human interactions within the workplace. (More citations are needed on performance evaluation and on mentorship.) The idea of “distributed leadership” moves away from the idea of one leader at the top to the idea of “a leader in every seat.” (See http://mitleadership.mit.edu/r-dlm.php for more on how leaders may "create change".)
Bystanders may benefit from the practice of micro-affirmations, (see Mary Rowe, Micro-affirmations & Micro-inequities, published in the Journal of the International Ombudsman Association, Volume 1, Number 1, March 2008) which are defined as: “apparently small acts, which are often ephemeral and hard-to-see, events that are public and private, often unconscious but very effective, which occur wherever people wish to help others to succeed.”
Micro-affirmations may be unequally distributed in organizations; senior people may be affirmed more frequently. This is one of the reasons to be sure that training is offered to all cohorts, including bystanders, who will be employees at every level. For example, members of a predominant group at work, or of senior managers, may recognize and comment upon each other’s contributions, but miss the less understood and appreciated contributions of minority employees or employees of lower rank. Research on the “invisible work” of women, particularly actions that foster collegiality and trust in groups, shows that women’s opportunities at work may be limited when they do not receive appreciation for their different but important types of contributions. (See Joyce Fletcher, Disappearing Acts).
Recognition of unacceptable behavior
By the same token everyone in the workplace is important in discouraging and dealing with unacceptable behavior. (More discussion and citations are needed here with respect to safety, compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley etc.)
With respect to injustice and discrimination, there are at least four important roles: those of a perpetrator of injustice or other unacceptable behavior, the targets and others who may be affected by unacceptable behavior, the relevant supervisors — and the bystander.
Diversity research and diversity training have addressed the importance of all four of these cohorts. Research focuses on understanding why “perpetrators” of injustice do what they do (because of stereotypes, prejudice, threats to their status), what “victims” or “targets” of injustice might do (develop a personal armor, find allies for change, pick their battles), and what managers can do to create a climate that fosters effective collaboration across a diverse workforce.
Active bystanders are believed to be especially effective with respect to diversity questions. A bystander, for example, may be able to “pivot” a situation — from one where there is awkward silence, exclusion, or hurt — to one where there is support, both for individuals, and for an organization’s espoused values of inclusivity.
Toolkit for the active bystander
Bystander training involves observing and practicing a range of potential bystander options. Scenarios based on real world incidents illuminate bystander training. The scenarios often include micro-inequities (see Rowe, 1990) — the seemingly small slights whose impacts accumulate.
Here is a sample scenario from a participant in bystander training:
José recalled his mentor’s advice about networking, so when he was at the company’s holiday party and saw two colleagues talking to the regional Vice President, he walked right over to say hello. The VP responded, “Thanks, I’ll take another white wine please.” It took José a few stunned seconds to realize the VP had mistaken him for a waiter, and a few more stunned seconds to realize his two colleagues were not setting the record straight and introducing him.
The apparent micro-inequity in this example was exacerbated by the silence of the bystanders — the two colleagues who did not correct the Vice President’s biased perception. In the organizational context, where power differences are involved, bystanders are more likely to be silent — to help the powerful save face, to avoid provoking conflict, and to preserve their own status. Research by Patricia Faison Hewlin (Rosette, Hewlin, Carton, 2008) shows that bystanders with a high social dominance orientation (who respect and reinforce the idea of inequality) are less likely to get involved.
Bystander training that uses the above scenario would emphasize a range of responses that the two colleagues might use, in order to bring Jose into the conversation, save face for the Vice President, and/or show their own social adeptness at networking and connecting people.
One of Jose’s colleagues might say:
“I could use more white wine, too. Let’s find a waiter.” or
“You should talk to Jose about our Northeast accounts. I’ll try to find a waiter.” or
“Good idea. Jose, would you join us for a glass of wine, too? Let’s flag the waiter for four more glasses. So, have you met Jose? He’s a key player in Northeast accounts.”
Notice that these responses not only pivot the prejudiced assumption but bundle in a micro-affirmation. Practice makes it easier to respond, instead of freezing in stunned silence. The terms “civic courage” and “moral courage” are beginning to be applied to the actions of people on behalf of others in such situations.(citation needed)
Bystander training also ushers in discussions about the “presenting problem” in a scenario. It will not be evident to all training participants that “unconscious bias” may have made the Vice President in this scenario perceive that a Latino in a nice suit and tie is a waiter rather than a fellow business colleague. Tackling such discussions head-on in training sessions can create resistance. But such discussions often come up “sideways” as a scenario is unpacked, creating a spontaneous, focused, productive dialogue about workplace conditions and challenges for different groups (such as why Jose may be finding it difficult to get a promotion).
The impact of active bystanders on “inclusion”
Workplaces in which all people can fully contribute their energies and talents are increasingly valued, world wide. Fostering inclusivity is proving important to the bottom line (citations needed). Affirming a wide range of contributions and curtailing inappropriate comments and actions both support a workplace where all may flourish. Bystanders can signal that inclusivity is a real value by praising the contributions of a colleague who may normally be ignored by the majority, by interrupting inappropriate and escalating tension, by raising a question to clarify a situation or show concern, by shifting the discussion in another direction, or showing “targets” that they are not alone, which may perhaps prevent their withdrawal or exit.
Linking two types of bystander training
Encouraging the positive and discouraging the negative may operate as related processes. Recent work in neuroscience suggests that much of our decision-making is not available to conscious thought. Many of the manifestations of bias and of exclusivity are likely to be unconscious. (See the IAT at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/research/). One of the few ways of dealing effectively with unconscious discrimination is to encourage a universal mode of respectful and appropriately affirming behavior. This behavior may have two effects: to affirm good performance and socially desirable behavior, and to help block “unconscious” discrimination. (See Micro-affirmations & Micro-inequities, by Mary Rowe, published in Journal of the International Ombudsman Association, Volume 1, Number 1, March 2008.)
Some current debates and challenges
There are several interesting debates in the area of bystander training in organizations. For example, how does unconscious behavior operate? In a November 18 2008 review article in the New York Times, “Bias Test, Shades of Grey,” John Tierney discussed different points of view about unconscious bias. Many people agree that unconscious bias exists — and that this has been shown by substantial research — but there is controversy about the tools used to measure such bias, specifically the IAT mentioned above. Many people intuitively, and anecdotally, agree that micro-messages, (positive and negative) appear to have significant consequences. However much more research is needed to demonstrate whether and how micro-inequities and micro-affirmations may actually have consequence in the workplace. In particular more research is needed about the possible linkage(s) between unconscious judgments and workplace behavior.
Does training matter? There is a concern in this field, as in others, as to how, if at all, to demonstrate that training has an effect on beliefs and/or behavior, and, if so, how training may affect different populations. Research is also needed on the question of how training might best be presented in various different cultures and different kinds of workplace. Some employers are working to instill the concept of “personal accountability.” (citations needed) Research is needed to examine how this concept may translate across cultures and in various different languages.
Is there a tipping point at which active bystanders may have a measurable effect on a workplace climate? A premise of training is not just that individuals can learn to be active bystanders but that the accumulation of many active bystander interventions positively shapes a workplace climate. There is anecdotal evidence that, after bystander training, individuals feel more comfortable in making a bystander move, and may even self-consciously reference the training (in terms such as, “OK, I’m going to be an active bystander here.”) In a culture where many or all people have experienced bystander training, there may be more support for bystanders (other bystanders who are present jump in) and less anti-bystander backlash.
Can bystanders make things worse? Many people raise the question of whether and how a bystander might make matters worse? This is a very complex question that rests on the issue of “whose interests are at stake?” Training should include thorough discussions about when to act, when and whom to consult, and when formally to report the apparently unacceptable behavior of another person.
For example, a bystander might “make matters worse” for an injured person by damaging that person’s relationships or by causing acute embarrassment. A bystander may completely misjudge what has happened. An “active bystander” might make things better for himself or herself and be “feeling better” to have taken some apparently righteous action — but might at the same time infringe on the privacy of the person defended. A bystander might also make matters worse for the people at hand, while acting in the best interests of the organization. Even commendations may be problematic in an organization, if majority employees overlook minority groups.
Including bystander training as part of a set of organizational resources
Bystander training usually emphasizes that bystanders are only one mechanism for responding to difficult situations. Some employers who encourage active bystanders provide a comprehensive list of resources and compliance offices, and a detailed discussion of the organizational complaint system, for the use of bystanders who would prefer to discuss their observations, or report their concerns, rather than deal with problems at the time and on the spot. This is especially important with respect to the most serious issues, including safety violations, discrimination, criminal and other illegal behavior.
Because, as noted above, so many bystanders hesitate to act, it may be especially important to take a systems approach and to provide a zero barrier, confidential resource, as well as compliance offices. This may encourage bystanders to consider their options responsibly and safely, before taking action. (See : Complaint Systems, Organizational Ombudsman, and Designing Integrated Conflict Management Systems: Guidelines for Practitioners and Decision Makers in Organizations, Institute on Conflict Resolution, Cornell University and the Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution, 2001.)
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Conflict Management systems
Diffusion of responsibility
Implicit association test