Fostering responsible action by peers and bystanders [Rowe]

I was hoping to write the post about the feedback ↔ self-reflection polarity this week, but upon attempting to do so, realized that it needs a bit more percolation time. So instead, I’m picking something slightly less cognitively taxing (for me). 

Still connected to the meta-theme of the previous post around diffusing the monolithic single-hierarchy org structure, I strongly believe that key behaviors that are typically attributed to leaders (at the top-tiers of the monolithic hierarchy) are in fact, basic acts of “good corporate citizenship” and we’ll be better seeing these behaviors democratized/spread out throughout our professional working community. While specialization/division-of-labor is essential to any large-scale collaboration effort, the purist form in which it is typically practiced has some painful drawbacks (more on that here). 

This rather abstract preamble is just meant to set the context that existed in my head when I encountered Mary Rowe’s work, and specifically: 

Fostering Responsible Action with Respect to Unacceptable Behavior: Systemic Options to Assist Peers and Bystanders 

Because it’s a concrete example of the more abstract point I was making above. Conflict resolution and dealing with violation of the group’s laws, norms and code of conduct is often viewed as the job of HR and managers. And it is. BUT. That does not mean that anybody else in the org, namely, peers and bystanders, don’t have a role to play as well. But as we all know too well, whether peers and bystanders will act is in many ways a byproduct of the context or system in which they operate. Under one set of circumstances, they tend to act. Under a different set, they won’t. Rowe set out to identify the attributes of the system that will increase the likelihood of peers and bystanders taking responsible action. In her own words: 

Peers and bystanders are important in organizations and communities. Peers and bystanders can help to discourage and deal with unacceptable behavior. They often have information and opportunities that could help to identify, assess and even manage a range of serious concerns. Their actions (and inactions) can “swing” a situation for good (or for ill)… [bystanders] often have multiple, idiosyncratic, and conflicting interests — and many feel very vulnerable. As a result, many potentially responsible bystanders do not take effective action when they perceive unacceptable behavior. Bystanders are often equated with “do-nothings.” However, many bystanders report thinking about responsible action, and say they have actually tried various responsible interventions… Many peers and bystanders might do better if they had a conflict management system that takes their needs into account. A central issue is that peers and bystanders — and their contexts — often differ greatly from each other. As unique individuals, they often need safe, accessible and customized support to take responsible action, in part because of their own conflicting motivations. They often need a trusted, confidential resource. They frequently seek options for action beyond reporting to authorities.

She first defined or decomposed taking action as a 4-step process: 

  1. Perceiving behavior that may be unacceptable
  2. Assessing the behavior
  3. Judging whether action is required
  4. Deciding whether and how to make a particular personal response (or responses.)

Which in turn allowed her to distill the key reasons for why bystanders do not act or come forward: 

  • The bystander does not “see” the unacceptable behavior
  • The bystander cannot or does not judge the behavior
  • The bystander cannot or does not decide if action should be taken
  • The bystander cannot or does not take personal action

Conversely, bystanders do take responsible action if: 

  • They see or hear of behavior they believe to be dangerous, especially if it seems like an emergency, and especially if they think that they or significant others are in immediate danger
  • They perceive that an apparent perpetrator intends harm, especially if that person is seen to have hurt or humiliated family members or people like themselves
  • They wish to protect a potential perpetrator from serious harm or blame 
  • They are angry, vengeful or desperate enough to ignore the “barriers to action”
  • They are certain about what is happening, and they believe they have enough evidence to be believed by the authorities

With the spectrum of drivers that discourage and encourage actions more clearly mapped out, she was able to identify and prescribe 8 systemic leverage points that are likely to create the context that will encourage bystander action: 

  1. Provide training and discussions sponsored and exemplified by senior leaders
  2. Build on safety and harassment as issues of special importance
  3. Share frequent and varied success stories
  4. Appeal to a variety of socially positive motives
  5. Discuss the potential importance of imperfect “evidence”
  6. Provide accessible, trusted resources for confidential consultation
  7. Provide safe, accessible and credible options for action
  8. Improve the credibility of formal options

If this is a topic that’s particularly relevant in your own organization, the full paper is well worth the read. 

Fostering responsible action by peers and bystanders [Rowe]

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