Don’t just do something, stand there!

I borrowed the title of a book for this post. But it’s perfect for the situation I witnessed today.

An ~8 year old boy got his knee caught in this tunnel and couldn’t get it out.

Knee trap

It’s bound to happen. Well designed as it is, there’s a certain size of knee that’ll slip through this grate with a bit of force, and not come back out easily.

This kid had exactly that sized knee.

He was stuck and frightened.

The boy’s parents went to his aid, but were held up in tight tunnels packed with little adventurers heading on the same journey.

His distress built.

And all the while, people stood below watching. Maybe 6-8 adults, all waiting to see what happened.

The boy’s dad reached him, but naturally, he couldn’t bend metal bars.

The cries got louder.

Still no one did anything, and this was the bit that confused me. All options exhausted, now was the time for onlookers to help.

Why weren’t they?

A pause for some research

Look up ‘why don’t people take action in an emergency’ and you come across the Bystander Effect – more here.

The theory is that in an emergency situation, no one close by will do anything, because there’s a diffusion of responsibility and people assume someone else will take action.

I’ve read about this before, but never seen an example first hand. And I always assumed I’d be immune. ‘Not me – I couldn’t just stand there and watch’ I told myself, ‘That’s not in line with my values’.

Back at the play area

And then I realised…I wasn’t doing anything either.

I was mesmerised, like waiting for the gory part of a horror film.

I came to. ‘Shall I get someone’?! I called up to the dad.

‘Yes please’! was obviously the answer. Two or three of us looked for stewards and tried calling the site office.

Fortunately the boy’s distress was short lived and he soon freed himself.

Relief all round and back on with the day.

Haven’t I seen this before?

I consider myself fortunate. I haven’t experienced many emergency situations in my life.

But I thought about it this afternoon and realised I have come across the Bystander Effect before. Many times.

At work.

  • The shit hits the fan with a project and creative solutions are needed to rescue the work and get it back on track
  • A live service is failing customers and someone calls out the issues that need to be addressed
  • Someone is personally attacked in a group situation

In all these situations, and others like them, people often keep quiet.

In the past I thought people were being lazy, hoping someone else would pick it up, or afraid of taking something on they couldn’t handle.

But seeing my own reaction today, perhaps there’s a chance we’re all at risk of being paralysed in these situations. Tricked by our thinking, psychologically flawed.

And knowing that, maybe we can learn to get ahead of it

Overcoming the Bystander Effect

Psychology Today talks about how we can learn to be active bystanders.

But whilst shouting ‘help is on its way’! might stop a mugging, it’s unlikely to help you at work. You’ll just look like you went drinking at lunchtime.

So what can we do differently?

My own experience over the last 2 years is of building a work environment founded on psychological safety. Where people have an equal voice and there’s no reprisal for sharing honest opinions about what’s not going well.

In my opinion, this is the starting point for overcoming the bystander effect at work. Make it safe for people to speak up, encourage dialogue, make it part of the culture.

Then when difficulties arise, people are used to addressing them and used to dealing with each other in those situations.

They know who is better at which part of the debate (generating ideas, risk management, empathy for people impacted).

And if you take it far enough, they know which types of views aren’t represented and can account for it, as Jeff Bezos does with the ‘empty chair‘.

But I digress.

To bring us back to the main point, whether it’s a medical emergency, a physical hostility, or a crisis at work, perhaps the best thing we can do is to stay present, be aware of what’s going on around us and show some leadership next time we find ourselves as a bystander.

Don’t just stand there, do something!

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