Sunday 19 May 2013

Should I do anything to correct a wrong if others aren’t doing anything?

In most large corporations there exists a detailed code of conduct that controls aspects of how employees interact with each other and how ethical behaviour is maintained, governed and monitored. The bottom line is that companies expect a certain type of behaviour from their employees. The challenge that I see is making employees understand that the expectations of good behaviour and ethical behaviour is not limited to them as individuals. They also have a responsibility to encourage their colleagues to live up to those desired behaviours and protect other colleagues from being negatively impacted by such behaviours as well. Have you ever been witness to a situation at work where you see an undesirable behavour from a colleague and then wished that you had responded differently and done something to expose a wrong as that behaviour impacted another colleague negatively?

Normally compassionate people often fail to respond to a negative situation because of specific social phenomenon that arise. Many years ago I read an article based upon the case of Kitty Genovese a woman who was stabbed to death one night in 1964. It was reported that her neighbours did not react to the crime as they had acted irresponsibly by being non responsive to her cries for help. The case led to a significant amount of research on the non-responsive nature of the neighbours and the identification of a social psychology phenomenon called ‘bystander effect’ or in simple terms, the situation where the probability of individuals offering to help a victim falls the higher the number of bystanders or witnesses. There have been many variables offered to explain the 'bystander effect' such as ambiguity in understanding of the situation (everyone thinks that something else is going on) and that the bystander’s expected someone else to do something responsible. Here is a video for those who want to understand 'bystander effect' better.

Ultimately trying to figure out who should do something ends up diluting the responsibility to do something on the part of the collective. This is referred to as diffusion of responsibility, which is a “a psychological phenomenon in which people are less likely to take action or feel a sense of responsibility in the presence of a large group of people. Essentially, in a large group of people, people may feel that individual responsibility to intervene is lessened because it is shared by all of the onlookers.”

The ‘bystander effect’ leverages the fact that the victim is not known to the bystanders whereas, in the workplace we typically know our colleagues and hence there is an expectation that the ‘bystander effect’ would be eliminated. My own experience points to the contrary. I have seen instances and occasions where I saw an inappropriate action (not in line with the organisation’s code of conduct) being undertaken by an employee against other colleagues/employees, however, there seemed to be no one standing up to stop the activity or actively discourage it. This was compounded by the reality that on occasion a senior manager or executive was also present but did not take control of the situation or even attempt to do anything appropriate as a reaction to the matter at hand. Suddenly the bystander effect took on a different context arising from senior management silence as whether there was tacit acceptance of the activity by the senior manager.

Let me give you a simplistic scenario that is fairly common across the corporate world.

Suresh is an employee who is upset about an error made by another colleague Mary. Suresh sends out an email that is clearly a personal attack. The email uses language to imply that Mary is incompetent and mocks her credentials (to do the job) but very importantly has senior management on copy (both Suresh’s manager and Mary’s manager are on the email). Mary is anguished by this email and sends out an email explaining her position as well as outlining the circumstance in which the error occurred.

On seeing this email exchange I wanted to reply to Suresh and advise him that he was incorrect in his approach and that the email was wrong in both tone and style. However, I was reticent thinking that surely there are others on that email and surely, one of them would step forward to stop the personal email attack. I thought about this and then sent a one on one (1:1) email to Suresh advising him that I felt that the email style was incorrect and harmful to Mary. However, I still felt uncomfortable. Why did I not show sufficient courage to send an email marking all on copy? Particularly marking the senior managers who were in any case marked on the original email. Why did I send a 1:1 email to Suresh only? Perhaps I felt that I would embarrass Suresh or his manager Anil but what about Mary the recipient of the email and the person that I felt was the unfairly treated?

I then linked Mary’s situation back to the concept of ‘social undermining’, which is a theory that states that undermining a colleague in the work context will negatively impact their reputation and cohesiveness in the organisation. People will remember Mary as someone who made an error rather than Suresh’s approach that was incorrect. Suresh's style was intended to publicly expose Mary’s competence and reputation thereby undermining her ability to maintain positive relationships.

I use this simple example to show how the ‘bystander effect’ particularly with senior management/executives as passive/inactive bystanders can lead to more negative consequences in the work context. The situation with Suresh's email is also an example of ‘workplace aggression’ but that would be a digression for this blog but is nevertheless an undesirable attribute from a human resource management point of view.

The role of the senior manager/executive adds a dilemma for all bystanders. Surely if there was something wrong then the senior manager/executive would handle it? This complexity is something that I would want to understand better and hope to find some literature on the same.

I have some advice for those employees who are witnesses to situations where they feel that they need to do something or say something. For them I propose a series of questions to guide them:

  • If you were at the receiving end (or the victim) what would you have expected of people that work with you? What would you say to Mary in private when you did not react to the attack on her in public?
  • Are you worried about what other people will think of you if you spoke up? What does your moral compass say? What would your parents ask you to do or expect of you if you were to discuss the situation with them?
  • Are you making the incorrect assumption that since no one is helping or raising an eyebrow then why should you do the same? What if you were told that the others also feel the same but are waiting for someone else to react first?
My simple advice would be that when confronted with a situation requiring you to make the first move (in supporting the target/victim) do so with decisiveness and complete freedom (i.e. do not wait for someone to signal their acquiescence!). Your action will liberate others from their imaginary restraint(s) as well.

For manager I also have some guidance. I recommend that managers who are trying to instil a culture that does not propagate bystander effect or indifference should make a visible challenge to any individual showing traits that are contra to the code of conduct of the organisation. Managers should adopt explicit language (written and verbal) as well as use body language that conveys clear disapproval. Tackle the individual showing the wrong behaviour in a mature manner and perhaps in a private (1:1) setting. Can you the manager lead by example and look for every opportunity to encourage the right behaviour to minimise the bystander effect?

Most organisations have a detailed code of conduct laid out perhaps there is a need to undertake bystander training that breaks down the natural reasons for why people do not act like good Samaritans. In fact, some countries have gone to the extent of forcing people to be good Samaritans by passing ‘good Samaritan laws’ (which some may find preposterous!). An organisation’s code of conduct will also typically have some reference to the obligation on employees to report bad behaviour but there is a need for more training to ensure that employees understand that they have a unique responsibility in reporting and enforcing behavioural standards. Is the training deep enough or meaningful enough? Such training must be scenario driven and also geared to provide guidance on what constitutes severity of the misdemeanour.

My ultimate desire would be to ensure that this adage does not ring true "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men and women do nothing".

What do you think?


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