A few weeks ago a colleague at work, Tiffney, referred adeptly to a situation in our Company as a “Bystander Effect.” Since then I cannot get that term out of my mind.  Until that moment I had not applied the “Bystander Effect” to teams and workplaces, only to when people watch bad things happen out in the community and do nothing. For example, this week when Florida State University quarterback, De’Andre Johnson, punched a woman in a bar and no one stepped in to help out.bi

Behavioral economists, like Richard Thaler, believe the world is made-up of people who do good, people who do bad, and free-loaders. Free-loaders are people who will not contribute anything if they can get something for free.

And the word “people” in this case is really any one of us in a specific situation. I am sure each of us can remember a time when we were good and took on a leadership role to advance a cause or help someone; or remember a time when we were “bad” and hurt someone or a group of people; and remember a time when we stayed uninvolved and let others take actions that benefitted us.

Leaders Need to Understand the Costs of Participating. People are usually bystanders or free-loaders because in their minds the “cost” of participating is greater than the perceived benefit. The costs to bystanders may include: time availability, fear of physical or mental damage, impact on personal image or reputation, emotional capacity to deal with activity or issue, and personal financial resources.

Honolulu Street Mime

Honolulu Street Mime – May 2011 – Photo by Steve Wood

Researchers have discovered that most bystanders are what they call “conditional cooperators.” Since we humans are generally social creatures and need to be liked by other humans, deep inside we want to cooperate. Thus, most bystanders will participate as long as the conditions in their minds are satisfied.

Take street performers, for example. Any of us who watch them are bystanders. What does it take for you to “participate” and drop money into their guitar case or metal cup? Is it a function of how long you watched and enjoyed their performance? Is it because you felt guilty because you watched for a minute and saw other people contribute? Is it because you felt pity for them or had compassion for what you imagined was their life style? These are your “conditions” for cooperating.

Tips to Engage Organizational Bystanders. In all our organizations and on most of our teams we have bystanders. Effective leaders often wonder how to get the bystanders involved in particular activities or common goals. Here are five tips.

  1. Understand the bystander costs or conditions to participate. Each person on your team may have a different reason why s/he is not participating and you want to understand each. For example, perhaps one person is very conscientious and detail-oriented and often has a difficult time understanding how to carve-out more time for additional obligations.
  2. Understand what is in it for them to participate. While each person is motivated to participate in different ways, most want to be viewed as a “cooperative” team mate. Carve out a clear part each bystander can play. Think about how each person can get to “yes.” In my prior example of the time-challenged bystander, specifying in a team meeting what you need from him/her and the minutes/hours per week, will get them closer to “yes.” They will likely want their team mates to view them as cooperative and helpful.
  3. Engage the activists. Every activity or cause needs an activist. If one does not exist, find one. Look for the person who is driven because personal responsibility is a core value. They will make sure the project gets done successfully. If you have an energized activist already, have them recruit others with skills needed to complete the project successfully.
  4. Engage the usual naysayers in advance of any team meeting. Negative people often freeze bystanders from taking action. Yes, sometimes if they are really negative it can spur bystanders into action, but this is rare and not worth the chance. (If you have read my blog in the past, you know I believe you need to get poisonous people off the team early, not later. So, for this blog I assume they are not on the team.) So, before the meeting, I suggest you engage the naysayers and give them a part to play in the action. If they are part of the effort, they are less likely to complain and derail your effort.
  5. Improve your own likeability. One thing is for sure, bystanders are more likely to cooperate and participate when they like the leader and feel inspired. This past week I read a great article called 10 Habits of Ultra-Likeable Leaders by Dr. Travis Bradberry. Here are the 10 habits that might help you attract more cooperation:
  • They form personal connections
  • They’re approachable
  • They’re humble
  • They’re positive
  • They’re even-keeled
  • They’re generous
  • They demonstrate integrity
  • They read people like a book
  • They appreciate potential
  • They have substance

Perhaps, like me, you will now look at bystanders at work differently. So now I wonder how I change you from being a bystander of this Blog, to a participant. Please take a minute and post a blog response here that shares ways you have successfully engaged bystanders – I will be forever grateful and will know you are a cooperative team member!

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