We’ve all been there. It’s the end of an interesting conference, you have a lingering question or comment you really want to share. You’ve been waiting for most of the conference to say it. Now is the time. The speaker asks: ‘Any questions?’ You obviously don’t want to be the first one: what if everybody knows the answer already? You’ll look stupid in front of your colleagues and boss. So you wait. Nobody raises their hand. The speaker then starts packing away their things and leaves quickly, before you can even ask them in private. Opportunity lost.
What is the ‘bystander effect’?
This same psychological pressure – fitting in with the group – is what so often prevents victims and witnesses of any sort of wrongdoing from coming forward. Known in psychological terms as ‘evaluation apprehension’, it describes the fear that our behaviour will be judged by others: after all, people always behave according to others.
So, how does this link in to the workplace: fraud, loss prevention, harassment, etc? How can we help those who are thinking of coming forward to step up and do the right thing, instead of acting under another psychological term known as ‘pluralistic ignorance’: publicly accepting a behaviour that we privately reject?
Together, these two terms form key parts of the ‘bystander effect’: a type of vicious circle where if no-one acts, onlookers may believe that others believe that any action is incorrect, which in turn causes them to refrain from acting. Privately unacceptable behaviour therefore becomes publicly ‘validated’ by group inaction, for fear of standing out.
A psychologically-aware workforce
The answer is both simple and nuanced, but the aim is to start a conversation around the psychological reasons why we might misunderstand our group behaviour. The crucial first step is to simply acknowledge and air the issue, fostering ethical behaviour. By doing so, the private ethics and moral standards that each individual holds to and accepts are made public as a status quo, thereby both dissuading potential wrongdoers and emboldening witnesses’ willingness to speak out against any misbehaviour.
Accepting the possible presence of a problem is the fundamental ‘first step’ in a wide range of situations and methodologies, from addictions, various health and behavioural problems, to harassment and other criminal behaviours, to name just a few. Moreover, the added obstacle of rank in the workplace must not be overlooked, in many situations making matters even more complicated for employees to come forward.
This first step of acknowledging that the workplace provides various opportunities for different types of misconduct should be closely followed by easier ways for law-abiding staff to report any misdemeanours or concerns that they witness. Within the counter-fraud environment, specialists have been arguing to this effect for some time, urging that those who come forward should not be identified as ‘whistle-blowers’ (which is closely linked in our collective psyche to criminal ‘snitches’), but rather to change the rhetoric towards encouraging the act of ‘speaking up’.
Benefits across the board
It is worth noting that this procedure can be applied to a wide variety of incorrect or harmful practices; from fraud, theft and harassment to flouting basic safety guidelines. Because this simple step can be applied to so many aspects in the workplace, it is clear that implementing these simple psychological changes can result in huge benefits for any company, its workforce and its bottom line.
Once again, the solution is found in prevention, as well as focusing on any company’s most important asset: its staff. We must tackle the issue head-on, acknowledging that the problem – but, more importantly the solution – lies in its people.