Thursday, August 15, 2013

No Innocent Bystanders

The stake that sticks up gets hammered down.
We recently saw an article* about organizational bystander behavior.  Organizational bystanders are people who sense or believe that something is wrong—a risk is increasing or a hazard is becoming manifest—but they don't force their organization to confront the issue or they only halfheartedly pursue it.**  This is a significant problem in high-hazard activities; it seems that after a serious incident occurs, there is always someone, or even several someones, who knew the incident's causes existed but didn't say anything.  Why don't these people speak up?

The authors describe psychological and organizational factors that encourage bystander behavior.  Psychological factors are rooted in uncertainty, observing the failure of others to act and the expectation that expert or formal authorities will address the problem.  Fear is a big factor: fear of being wrong, fear of being chastised for thinking above one's position or outside one's field of authority, fear of being rejected by the work group even if one's concerns are ultimately shown to be correct or fear of being considered disloyal; in brief, fear of the dominant culture. 

Organizational factors include the processes and constraints the organization uses to filter information and make decisions.  Such factors include limiting acceptable information to that which comports with the organization's basic assumptions, and rigid hierarchical and role structures—all components of the organization's culture.  Other organizational factors, e.g., resource constraints and external forces, apply pressure on the culture.  In one type of worst case, “imposing nonnegotiable performance objectives combined with severe sanctions for failure encourages the violation of rules, reporting distortions, and dangerous, sometimes illegal short-cuts.” (p. 52)  Remember Massey Energy and the Upper Big Branch mine disaster?

The authors provide a list of possible actions to mitigate the likelihood of bystander behavior.  Below we recast some of these actions as desirable organizational (or cultural) attributes.

  • Mechanisms exist for encouraging and expressing dissenting points of view;
  • Management systems balance the need for short-term performance with the need for productive inquiry into potential threats;
  • Approaches exist to follow-up on near-misses and other “weak signals” [an important attribute of high reliability organizations]:
  • Disastrous but low probability events are identified and contingency plans prepared;
  • Performance reviews, self-criticism, and a focus on learning at all levels are required.
Even in such a better world, “bystander behavior is not something that can be 'fixed' once and for all, as it is a natural outgrowth of the interplay of human psychology and organizational forces. The best we can hope for is to manage it well, and, by so doing, help to prevent catastrophic outcomes.” (p.53) 

Our Perspective

This paper presents a useful discussion of the interface between the individual and the organization under problematic conditions, viz., when the individual sees something that may be at odds with the prevailing world view.  It's important to realize that even if the organizational factors are under control, many people will still be reluctant to rock the boat, lo the risk they see is to the boat itself.   

The authors correctly emphasize the important role of leadership in developing the desirable organizational attributes, however, as we have argued elsewhere, leadership can influence, but not unilaterally specify, organizational culture. 

We would like to see more discussion of systemic processes.  For example, the impact of possible negative feedback on the individual is described but positive feedback, such as through the compensation, recognition and reward systems, is not discussed.  Organizational learning (adaptation) is mentioned but not well developed.

The article mentions the importance of independent watchdogs.  We note that in the nuclear industry, the regulator plays an important role in encouraging bystanders to get involved and protecting them if they do.

The article concludes with a section on the desirable contributions of the human resources (HR) department.  It is, quite frankly, unrealistic (it overstates the role and authority of HR in nuclear organizations I have seen) but was probably necessary to get the article published in an HR journal. 


*  M.S. Gerstein and R.B. Shaw, “Organizational Bystanders,” People and Strategy 31, no. 1 (2008), pp. 47-54.  Thanks to Madalina Tronea for publicizing this article on the LinkedIn Nuclear Safety group.  Dr. Tronea is the group's founder/manager.

**  This is a bit different from the classic bystander effect which refers to a situation where the more people present when help is needed, the less likely any one of them is to provide the help, each one expecting others to provide assistance. 

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