The bystander effect is an interesting psychological phenomenon which focuses on the behaviour of people when they are on their own or in a group of people. In an emergency situation the more people who are present, the less likely it is that anyone will intervene and help. The reasoning behind this is that people believe that someone else will help and so it takes the responsibility away from themselves. If a person is on their own in a situation, then they know that unless they do something, nothing will happen, and if nothing happens, it is their fault. By being with a group of other people, each can think that someone else will be more experienced than themselves and so they should leave someone else to take charge and help. The responsibility is diffused because when each person believes someone else should act, they are relieving themselves of any fault or blame and placing onto every other person. Therefore if there are other people around, the individually no longer need to feel guilty for not acting. Apparently, if everyone feels and works in this way, no-one intervenes or helps and so the more people that are around, the less likely it is that someone will act.

How does this relate to organisations?

While psychological research has focused on emergency situations and people helping out other people, it is easy to see that the same phenomenon occurs within organisations when it comes to implementing change.

If a group of people within an organisation have the same opinions and agree on what needs to be done or changed, the likelihood that it is moving quickly forward is reduced. By having more people who know what needs to be done, the same situation arises as to when there are multiple bystanders in an emergency; no-one takes the lead. Each person is able to rationalise why they should not be the person to make the changes, and so it can take longer for the changes required to be implemented.

On the other hand, if a person within an organisation is determined that their ideas for change are beneficial and should be implemented, they are more likely to drive their plans forward because they know they do not have the back-up of a group of people who will also be pushing the change ahead. This is where change activists are needed.

The role of the change activist

In many organisations, it is common to find that people know change is needed. Many people even have ideas about how things can and should be changed but usually stop short of putting these ideas into practice or bringing them to the attention of other people. A combination of the bystander effect and demoralisation of workers means that regular employees are not coming forward with ideas for change.

Change activists are the people with the passion and drive to put the wheels of change in motion. They are the people who do not fall into the bystander effect trap because they want to do the work of making change happen and do not want to leave it up to other people. Whether a change activist is working alone or within a group is irrelevant as they will ensure that any useful ideas for change are taken forward and are not left to others to implement.

Overcoming the bystander effect

Having a change activist within a team can increase the bystander effect. The members of the group who are susceptible to becoming bystanders are likely to justify their lack of action easily by believing the change activist should be the one who is acting. It is therefore essential to understand how to reduce the bystander effect and increase the number of people who work together to implement change.

As a team, it is necessary to decide who will take on specific aspects of implementing change. Giving workers specific roles decreases the bystander effect because people become accountable for their own tasks and so it takes the group away and leaves each person exposed. Whether a change activist is present in a group or not, if genuine ideas for change are presented it is important to allocate tasks as soon as possible. This gives the best chance of change being implemented because there will be no-one to hide behind and so each person should work effectively to complete their aspect of the change.

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