Bystander Effect And Organization Health

In my experience, the true health of an organization can often be glimpsed not in its mission statements or glossy presentations, but in the seemingly mundane details of everyday operations. One of my personal "forensic tests" involves visiting the floor operation of a business and observing how employees handle exceptions – situations that deviate from standard procedures.

For instance, as founder of 72 Smalldive, I'd routinely visit retail spaces where we consigned our goods. Before starting a new partnership with one such store, I visited its newly opened retail space in a prime location on Orchard Road. During the period of my visits, a promotional signboard was displayed right by the entrance. On three separate visits across a single week, I witnessed the same scenario – a gust of wind would topple the sign, and a staff member would simply pick it back up and place it in its original position. No attempt was made to find a more wind-sheltered location, like behind the glass panel, or to devise a more secure way to display the sign. These seemingly inconsequential actions revealed a deeper issue – a classic case of the bystander effect. It became a tell-tale sign of the organizational malaise that I would later confirm through interactions with the staff. Throughout my experience managing concession stores within Singapore's major department stores, these subtle cues gave me a realistic understanding of the organization's culture and the potential effectiveness of our collaboration.

But why is the bystander effect so prevalent in organizations? Here are some plausible reasons:

Lack of Empowerment: When employees feel powerless to make changes or suggest improvements, they're less likely to take initiative, especially for minor issues.

Flawed Feedback Management: Without a robust system for providing and receiving feedback, concerns may go unheard, discouraging employee engagement.

Fear of Retribution: These first two factors often stem from a lack of psychological safety in the workplace. Employees may fear being punished for speaking up, even if their intentions are good.

Absence of Role Models: Organizations that don't encourage ownership and courage create a void where there should be inspiring examples of initiative and problem-solving.

Blind Hiring: If the hiring process doesn't prioritize nor encourage the abovementioned desired behaviors, it creates a situation of "leading the blind," where employees are unsure of what's expected.

This combination of factors can lead to a culture of silence, where problems fester and opportunities are missed.

Even well-defined standard operating procedures (SOPs) can inadvertently contribute to the bystander effect. As a strategy consultant and when liaising with marketplace platform partners of 72 Smalldive, I've observed how call centers or sales support centers, often focus on KPIs like rapid resolution within set timeframes, train staff to prioritize specific tasks, and strictly adhere to SOPs. Here, my "forensic test" goes beyond simply observing their standard procedure's efficacy. I focus on how staff handle exceptional situations – issues that fall outside the documented procedures. Telltale signs of a bystander mentality emerge when staff resorts to "the rules are the rules" boilerplate responses or transferring calls without a clear follow-up plan. These signal potential management blind spots or deeper cultural issues within the organization.

As a vendor selling through marketplaces and stores, I've learned to trust these "forensic tests" to gauge my business partners' organizational health as it allows me to grasp how ready my business partners are to tackle market challenges together. This brought to mind today's increasingly complex business landscape, especially concerning M&A; financial metrics alone may not guarantee a smooth merger or acquisition (M&A) process. The health of an organization's middle management culture, often revealed through these seemingly minor interactions, can significantly impact integration success. By incorporating these "forensic tests" into the M&A due diligence process, companies can gain valuable insights into potential roadblocks and opportunities for cultural alignment.

Back to blog

Thrive Amidst Uncertainty

Feeling stuck in life or work? Uncertain about starting fresh? We all encounter moments of stagnation and uncertainty. At Coaching At 72 Smalldive, our coaching classes help you cultivate transformative mindset changes and habits, to break free from this inertia. Explore our methodology, and subscribe to our newsletter for essential insights to kickstart your journey to growth and fulfillment.