The bystander effect refers to an element of social psychology where individuals are less likely to help those in distress or address an issue when other people are present or aware of the same situation. Studies have found that the greater the number of people or witnesses gather, the less likely bystanders will react.
According to John M.Darley and Bibb Latane who studied and popularised the term, the main reason for this phenomenon is due to the diffusion of responsibility. When more people are present and aware of an issue, the less likely they are to assist or resolve it. People generally tend to assume that other bystanders will respond to the situation, thus believing that their own assistance in unnecessary.
One might not realise this, but the bystander effect often occurs on a daily basis in the office space. Research published at Academy of Management reveals that employees often had redundant information about a workplace topic felt a diffusion of responsibility, thus, they are less likely to report to the upper management (HR management). Repeated tests confirmed that the bystander effect was caused due to a sense of mind where employees who know the incident do not report to a manager because they believed other employees would report to the manager.
The research also added that employee workplace relationships with management also affected whether or not employees were willing to report about a negative occurrence or issue.
As such, it goes without saying that the bystander effect can be a harmful factor that reduces the overall performance and productivity of a business. As such, there should be measures put in place to help employees speak up and be an assertive, non-bystander.
Stefanie Johnson, a professor at Leeds School of Business, advised that employees should be given training to teach them to take action in such cases where the bystander effect might take place. Bystander training emphasises that bystanders are but one mechanism for responding to difficult situations. Employers can help by providing a comprehensive list of resources and compliance officers, as well as a detailed discussion of the organisational complaint system.
This support is vital with respect to serious issues which include safety violations, discrimination, and illegal behaviour. Many bystanders hesitate to act, thus, this training will likely open their eyes to not being quiet about office problems, including minor one such as asking for upgrades for inadequate equipment.
Additionally, training managers to be aware of the potential issues brought about by the bystander effect can also help to reduce the problems among employees. Advising managers to be aware that employees are less likely to initiate communication with managers about issues that are well-known within the office circle can help them get to the root of the problem quicker.
Additionally, managers can help decrease diffusion of responsibility by giving praise and expressing gratitude to those who contribute to reporting about something inadequate or wrong, and welcoming every different perspective of those reports.