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Behavioral Science

Is your firm supporting or standing in the way of bystanders?


You’re dashing through your office’s crowded lobby, late for a meeting, when you see a stranger eating lunch on the bench ahead of you, a well-stuffed backpack at their side. The unfamiliar face looks up, finishes their meal, and then stuffs the wrapper into the bag before tucking the pack beneath the bench. The person quickly gets up and hurries down a side hall.

What do you do? Do you stop and examine the bag, making yourself even later than you already were? Do you dial 911 and shout for someone to alert the authorities? Do you grab a colleague in the hall, or duck into a nearby office to explain your concern? Perhaps you continue to hurry to your meeting, not giving the bag or person another thought.

We each react differently to emergencies or other unexpected problems — and that’s OK — but that can make it hard for organizations to establish a general conflict management system that encompasses all unique bystander approaches. When we become bystanders at work — especially when noticing abusive or inappropriate behavior, safety issues, or criminal activity — we aren’t all comfortable or able to respond in the same way.

“Supporting bystanders to be helpful and constructive requires a systems approach with multiple and sometimes complex or customized options,” said Mary Rowe, an adjunct professor of negotiation and management at MIT Sloan.

Bystanders, according to Rowe, are people who see or learn about unacceptable behavior, but are not participating in that behavior. 

Rowe has spent decades teaching conflict management, and collecting hundreds of bystander stories as an organizational ombuds for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

In her recent paper “Fostering Constructive Action by Peers and Bystanders in Organizations and Communities,” she lays out two cultural characteristics any company or organization can foster to help bystanders identify, assess, and respond to conflicts.

Talk it over

A zero-tolerance policy might seem useful, but Rowe said that may be doing too much when it comes to promoting a safe office culture; employees could dislike or be uncomfortable with being required to turn in their colleagues.

“You want people to have options — perhaps to take action themselves, perhaps to report it immediately to authorities,” Rowe said. “You want them to have the option to be able to talk it over with somebody else.”

That’s often the most natural and sometimes the best way to handle a situation, she said. Consider two co-workers who both realize something wasn’t right about the flirtatious behavior of a visiting client. They need support and an opportunity to share what happened, without having to worry — as a first step — about introducing a compliance officer or a shoot-first-ask-questions-later manager into the situation.

“One failsafe is to have a culture where people do talk with each other, where responsible employees and managers do feel free to check in with each other,” Rowe said. “And a second one is to have a place where you lose nothing at all by going in to discuss the issue.”

Listen up

Being able to talk over an issue with someone is important to fostering positive bystander action, but another critical piece of that is for the responder to listen respectfully to what the bystander is sharing.

“One of the great failures so to speak, of all organizations, is that it’s very hard to know when an organization should take immediate action,” Rowe said. “In some happenstances where it’s very clear, it makes life easier for all of us, but then there are lots of other situations where basically you don’t have enough facts yet.”

A perfect response for a well-trained responder will communicate three things to the bystander: 

  • I will listen. 
  • When can I listen? 
  • How important is it that I listen right now?

If an employee comes to you as a manager and says they want to tell you about an unfamiliar person they saw lurking in the lobby, that’s an observation you’d want to listen to immediately. But maybe a team member overhears a coworker bragging about making fraudulent reports. While potential fraud is behavior that needs to be quickly addressed, there might be some flexibility in where and when you discuss that situation with that bystander, if they want to remain anonymous.

“Training managers how to listen to bystanders is as important as training peers and bystanders how to be helpful,” Rowe writes in her paper.

Bystanders need to learn to identify unacceptable behavior, as well as how to report it in a constructive way. Rowe writes that some bystanders might not see — or choose not to see — a problem, or if they do report something, they might inadvertently tip off the offender or someone planning a criminal act.

Bystanders are also more likely to act when they believe their actions will make a difference, and that the organization will respond quickly and appropriately, Rowe writes. That means leaders and managers are very influential when it comes to how confident and supported a bystander feels when they decide to report something.

“Top management and line and staff supervisors need to communicate regularly and in many different ways to be seen as receptive,” Rowe writes. “They need to review locally important issues where management interests may differ from some of the interests of bystanders and think about ways to manage these differences.”

For more info Meredith Somers News Writer (617) 715-4216