"Let’s get involved in the world; let’s make this a better place; let’s give a damn.” – John Quiñones, Host of What Would You Do?
the bystander effect
As any good story starts, I’m riding the L train into Manhattan. It’s not rush-hour packed but crowded enough that I don’t have a seat. Now, I have a bit of a staring problem, which is only exacerbated during my time on the L, making most of my commutes entertaining and this story all the more cringeworthy.
To my left, I spot a couple with baby in tow. The little one couldn’t have been more than 6 months old. The dad’s yelling at his kid to drink their milk, while the mom’s drinking something out of a brown paper bag. The two look worn out, pretty intoxicated, and extremely irritable. They’re yelling at each other. They’re yelling at the baby. And the people on the subway do what people on the subway do: exchange glances. All of us are visibly uncomfortable – no one says a thing.
I think about that day more often than I’d like to. Should I have said something?
John Mulaney, my favorite comedian of all time, does a great bit at Radio City about his father who used to pick him apart psychologically at the dinner table – as fathers do:
“My dad goes, ‘How was school today?’
I said, ‘It was good but someone pushed Tyler off the seesaw.’
‘And where were you?’
‘I was over on the bench.’
‘And what did you do?’
‘Nothing. I was over on the bench.’
‘But you saw what happened?’
‘Yeah, ’cause I was over on the bench.’
‘So you saw what happened and you did nothing?’
‘Yeah, ’cause I was sitting over on the bench.’
‘Let me ask you this. In Nazi Germany…’ [audience laughing] ‘…when people saw what the Nazis were doing and did nothing, were those good people?’
‘No, those are bad people. You gotta stop the Nazis.’
‘But you saw what they were doing to Tyler and you did nothing!’
‘Because I was over on the bench!’
And then my dad said, ‘Just explain to me this. How are you better than a Nazi?’
And then my mom said, ‘I made a salad with Craisins!’ And the conversation ended.”
That one always make me laugh, but we have to ask ourselves does Mulaney’s dad have a point? By not saying something, are we the problem? I’m reminded of the bystander effect – we’re sure you’ve heard of the Kitty Genovese murder at one point or another in a psychology class (the one where there are 38 bystanders watching her death and assuming someone else will do something). By the way, you might not have gotten the full story. At least two neighbors claimed to have phoned the cops. At any rate, 2 out of 38’s not great odds.
A classic study from Bibb Latane and John Darley mimics these results. Participants were told to fill out a questionnaire. The participants were divided into two groups. One half would take the questionnaire alone; the second half took it with others in the room who were part of the experiment. As they filled out their questionnaires, the experimenters filled the room with black smoke coming from the air conditioner. In the room where participants were mixed in with those in on the experiment, the confederates were instructed to ignore the smoke. Of the participants that were alone, 75% of them left the room and reported the smoke to the researchers. Of the participants with the confederates, only 10% left the room to report the smoke and it took twice the time to report. This is diffusion of responsibility at its finest.
So what happens when we experience this at the office? Is it our job to report what we see? Do we sit back and expect someone else to take care of it?
In order to take action we must go through a series of cognitive steps. The first involves us noticing. Remember the old adage “ignorance is bliss”? It’s a real thing. If you are not aware of something happening, you can’t take action against it – obviously. Being present helps with this. If you’re rushing from meeting to meeting or focused solely on yourself, you won’t notice the chances to take action.
The second step involves your interpretation of the situation. Is this situation harming someone physically, mentally, emotionally? Is it affecting the way you or others work?
The third step is the decision. This is, of course, where we barter with ourselves and either assume a degree of responsibility for the situation or choose to ignore it entirely – i.e. where most of us get stuck. So how do we decide?
Don’t assume. You know what happens when you assume? Of course you do. So it’s in your best interest not to assume someone else will take care of it. Odds are they’re thinking the same thing. And the worse thing that happens is that someone hears about it twice (or three or four times). This is all the more reason to stand up if the circumstances call for it.
Assess the frequency. Look at the frequency of the situation. How often is this happening? Is your boss always a jerk to her intern or is she having a bad day? Is your coworker always putting your cube mate down in meetings or are they just making a one-off snide comment? If it’s a one time thing and not that serious, you can probably let it slide. Choose your battles wisely. You don’t have to be on a crusade to save the day every day, though wouldn’t that be nice.
Align with your moral compass. Is this situation not sitting right with you because of specific values you have? Is this situation legal? Will not saying anything about it haunt you weeks later? If so, listen to that small Jiminy Cricket voice.
Reverse roles. If you were in the same situation, would you want someone to advocate for you? If the answer is yes, you have your answer – no questions asked.
Check the pros against the cons. The biggest issue I faced on the L train wasn’t whether or not someone would believe me nor was it if I was overreacting (although both crossed my mind), it was if the situation that the child could potentially be put in would bring more harm. Let’s say these parents have their baby taken from them, then what? The child gets thrown in the foster care system? In some cases, isn’t that worse? Evaluate all possible outcomes.
Find your people. If you feel uneasy about a situation – ask. It’s what your HR department is there for. If you don’t feel comfortable going straight to HR, reach out to a trusted confidant first. Ask them their opinion of the situation and what they would do. Perhaps they have an alternative solution you hadn’t yet considered.
When possible, and if necessary, find your brave. Take action. Stand up for someone who might not have a voice otherwise. One of my favorite quotes comes from a Shane Koyczan spoken word, “We will always have a choice. When you stand up to be counted, tell the world this is my voice. There are many like it but this one is mine.” Find your voice, however small, and use it.