The Power of the Bystander

Bullying, badmouthing, ostracism and other forms of negative behavior in the workplace can be surprisingly difficult to address.  The targets and other employees may be scared to report the problems for fear of retribution by the offender. If they do report problems, it can be time consuming and unpleasant for management to investigate, make findings, and discipline the offender because he or she often reacts with anger and denial to the accusations. If discipline is imposed, the offender may use every form of appeal possible, be it a union grievance or complaint to upper management.

Those who work on bullying (and harassment) issues, particularly in the K-12 school setting, have long discussed the role and importance of the bystander. As one website notes, some bystanders instigate, encourage or join the bullying, but most just “passively accept it by watching and doing nothing.” This occurs for a variety of reasons, e.g., the bystanders feel it’s none of their business, fear becoming targets themselves, or don’t know how to intervene.

The effect of this silence and inaction, of course, is that the offender is empowered and the target feels even more hopeless and isolated.

Management should educate employees about the power of the bystander and techniques to stop poor behaviors by their co-workers.

So what can bystanders do to change this dynamic? They can speak up and address the negative behaviors as they’re occurring (“I don’t think this conversation is appropriate. Let’s move on.”) They can change the subject (“Anyone want to xxx?”) They can simply go and stand by the target in order to break the negative energy and make a silent statement. Later, they can document what happened and report it to management, anonymously if necessary.

And what is management’s role? It can educate employees about the power of the bystander and techniques to isolate the offenders and show them that their behavior is noticed and unacceptable. The goal is to get everyone on board feeling empowered to help stop the toxic behaviors. Equally importantly, management should tell employees that it will protect those who come forward with complaints and ensure that there is no retaliation by the offender. Management must then follow through on this.

It takes a village – and a lot of work – to stop a bully or other toxic personality in a workgroup. But the problem won’t go away by itself and using discipline as the sole tool can be frustrating and ineffective.

Any other thoughts about the power of the bystander? ~Amy Stephson

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2 responses to “The Power of the Bystander

  1. This is the first step for understanding, correcting, preventing and breaking the cycle of abuse in the workplace. I will use it as the basis of some training in the future, after I recover from the traumatic experience of being a target myself.

  2. Sonia,
    I’m so sorry you’ve been a target of bullying, and glad to hear that Amy’s post in helpful. Sharing your own experience with trusted colleagues and trying out ideas for responses for future situations can also be very helpful. Being prepared with thought-out comments and responses will go far in making you feel empowered to deal with them. Please check out this week’s blog for other ideas.

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