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Why bystanders create toxic cultures

The bystander effect is the enemy of a positive and thriving workplace culture. Bystanders allow toxic culture to be dismissed, worsening the problem within many organisations and industries. 

It is vital for you, as a leader, to understand the bystander effectas a disease. If left unchecked, toxic culture festers, spreads and leads to serious harm for employees, leaders and businesses. 

This article will give you the opportunity to conduct a self-inquiry about situations in which you’ve become a passive bystander in your workplace and reflect on your own workplace’s culture, including the behaviours that you have witnessed, tolerated and accepted as a leader. 

Understanding the bystander effect will aid you to become a more conscious leader. It will help you nip problems in the bud, and allow you to be proactive rather than reactive. A strong and proactive consciousness of your environment will help you recognise the extent and impact of toxic workplace cultures, and build an upstander culture. 

Unpacking the bystander effect

The bystander effect occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual (or several individuals) from intervening in an emergency situation, such as against a bully, or during an assault or other crime. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is for any one of them to help the person in distress.  

Let me give you an example. You’re driving down the highway and see a car on the side of the road that has had an accident. There seem to be witnesses attending to the car. You drive past, automatically thinking, ‘They’ll be all right’ (or the Aussie standard, ‘She’ll be right, mate’). 

Reflecting on this led me to think about my own workplace bullying experience. I reported the bullying 32 times, and the more successful I became in the workplace, the more my manager bullied and harassed me. The prolonged distress from three-and-a-half years of bullying and harassment ultimately caused me to collapse at work.  

How many people witnessed, walked by and tolerated the bullying I experienced – the verbal abuse, the folders being thrown across the room? I realised that, at times, there were 10 to 13 people that could have witnessed the bullying in that open-plan office. 

This also led me to think about deferred responsibility in managers’ meetings, when there would be seven or eight people around the table witnessing toxic comments being directed at me. My colleagues would roll their eyes or look away, or come and quietly chat to me afterwards to demonstrate that they were uncomfortable with the bully’s actions. However, on reflection, they always looked to the highest-paid person in the room – the project manager, the leader or the CEO – to deal with the behaviour. 

The term ‘bystander effect’ was coined by social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley following the 1964 murder of a 28-year-old woman called Kitty Genovese in New York City. Kitty was brutally stabbed to death outside her apartment as she arrived home from work. At the time, it was reported that there were dozens of neighbours who failed to step in and assist her or call the police. Some reports even mentioned up to 38 witnesses who had observed, heard or walked by the scene. 

Latané and Darley attributed the bystander effect, this deferring of responsibility or social influence, to two factors: 

  1. The more onlookers there are, the less personal responsibility an individual feels to take action. 
  1. Individuals monitor the behaviours of others around them to determine how to act. 

This is important for us to understand because it is present in our day-to-day behaviours and in workplaces across Australia.  

Your closest bystanders

As a leader, think about why bystanders don’t intervene in your workplace. Reflect on the times in your career when you have been a bystander and not spoken up, intervened in or challenged toxic behaviours. 

Here are some of the reasons I have heard from leaders at my workshops: 

  • ‘We did not know what to do or how to report it, because we had a lack of training.’ 
  • ‘We were unsure about what constitutes unacceptable behaviour, or whether it was bullying or harassment.’ 
  • ‘We feared speaking up may lead to the bully turning on us, or the bully’s cronies or upper management targeting us.’ 
  • ‘We didn’t feel that we had the numbers on our side.’ 
  • ‘We had inadequate peer support.’ 
  • ‘I thought it was none of my business because it wasn’t affecting me personally and my team.’ 
  • ‘I wasn’t confident that management would support me if I spoke up.’ 
  • ‘I thought that speaking up would make things worse.’ 
  • ‘I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.’ 
  • ‘I felt that the victim may deserve it, because they had a personal agenda against the bully.’ 
  • ‘I was worried that the workplace’s “my way or the highway” leadership style could effectively make me lose my job for speaking up.’ 

Whatever the reason for not speaking up, I have found in my work and research that the consequences of doing nothing are worse. A lack of intervention from peers can give the bullies the green light to continue the toxic behaviour, which may spiral out of control. The bystanders themselves may also feel increased anxiety about their failure to report or negligence in dealing with the incident, which ultimately causes more harm. 

Being a bystander can also lead you to become an actively harmful perpetrator: because you choose not to intervene, the perpetrator may pressure you into participating in the bullying, harassment or toxic behaviour. 

Avoiding the bystander trap

As leaders, we can often fall into the trap of the bystander effect unknowingly, simply because we are busy and fail to observe some of the dynamics happening around us. Alternatively, sometimes we just don’t have the skills, knowledge, tools or understanding to know how to be an upstander rather than a bystander (which is why proactive workplace training is critical for leadership success). 

The cold, hard truth is that one bad apple can spoil a whole bunch. Just take my workplace bullying experience, for example: the bully caused the other employees to operate in a state of fear, discomfort and unease, and drove many valuable employees to leave. 

It’s important as a leader to identify these situations, because being in tune with what’s happening in your environment can help make you a better leader and create a psychologically safe environment, and even potentially save lives. By questioning your blind spots and bystander behaviours, you can become an upstander leader. 

Ultimately, the standard you walk by is the standard you accept.  

As the founder and director of Bullyology and advocate of The Upstander Movement, Jessica Hickman provides individuals and companies with the tools and strategies that will enable them to create a thriving and respectful workplace. Jessica is the published author of Bullyologist: Breaking the Silence on Bullying and The Upstander Leader: How to develop a speak-up culture.  

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