In 1964 Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in New York City. Despite over two dozen witnesses who claimed to have seen or heard the attack, no one helped. Psychologists call this the bystander effect.
According to Psychology Today, the bystander effect "occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation…The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is for any one of them to provide help to a person in distress." This happens for two reasons:
- There is a diffusion of responsibility
- Social influence
The more witnesses present, the more each person’s portion of responsibility is diffused across all witnesses. This diffusion prevents people from taking action because it is perceived that someone else in the group will take action. Social influence comes into play because each person looks to another person on how to behave.
Business Bystander Effect
Although not as fatal or gruesome as the Genovese case, there is a bystander effect in a business. We’ve all been to meetings where the leader asks a question or asks for volunteers and no one answers. We’ve all been part of a project where there seems to be an inverse correlation between the number of project participants and the number of ideas generated.
I believe that leaders accidentally create an environment that allows for the diffusion of responsibility. They do this through how they talk and write. In an effort to create a team environment, leaders overuse "we" to create a feeling of inclusion.
"We’re in this together."
"It’s all about the team."
Those things are fine to say and it creates a certain amount of esprit de corp. Where "we" goes wrong is in the assignment of tasks and delegation of responsibility. Some examples:
"We should research the impact of X on Y."
Or, "We should make the client is aware."
Who is the "we" that should be doing the work here? When used between two be people who have a supervisor and subordinate relationship, this may be very confusing. Will the supervisor do the work or will the subordinate do the work? When used between a supervisor and a group of subordinate—like in a team meeting setting—it’s even worse (we’ve all walked out of meetings not knowing who’s to do what).
Overcoming the bystander effect
In the same Psychology Today article, it suggests the following to overcome the bystander effect:
> "If you are the victim, pick out one person in the crowd and make eye contact."
I’ve also read elsewhere that once eye contact is made, you, the victim, should direct your request for help to that one person. "You, call 911."
Often leaders shy away from saying, "You should research the impact of X on Y" because it is too direct. To get buy-in or collaboration, language is weakened so that it doesn’t come off as too demanding or assertive.
I’ve fallen into the "we" trap but I’ve been working to catch myself and correct it in my speech and writing. Now I write and talk more like this:
"You do that and I will do this."
It’s still teamwork because we’re working on it together but the division of responsibility is very direct and clear. You’re handling that while I handle this. There’s no confusion.
Being inclusive is good. Creating a team environment is good. Leaders should strive to do those things but leaders also need to be clear and direct.