Book Review: Brave New Work

Been a while since I’ve written one of these. Not because I haven’t read any books recently (that’s rather unlikely), but because not many of them were related to the topic of this publication in their entirety. 

Brave New Work by Aaron Dignan 

As we learned at the beginning, all models are wrong, but some are useful. So let me say this before we depart: this book is not perfect. Mistakes were made. Perhaps I portrayed an organization differently from how you (or the organization) would. Perhaps I failed to describe a concept or distinction as well as another expert might. It’s even possible that something big is missing — something that will reveal itself to us in years to come and irrevocably transform how we organize. I can live with that. Because what I’ve presented here is enough. It’s enough to stroke that disenchantment that you feel. That this can’t be our best. That we’re capable of more. It’s enough to get started. Enough to go on. And that’s all that matters. Progress over perfection. Courage over caution. This isn’t business as usual. This is brave new work. 

I chose to start with a quote from the last page in Aaron’s book because it beautifully frames the right mindset for reading the book, as well as my review below. 

In my mind, Aaron’s book is the evolution of a blog post he wrote almost three years ago, introducing the OS Canvas — a framework for describing how progressive organizations (referred to in the book as “evolutionary organizations”) operate differently than legacy/traditional organizations. 

The three main parts of the book cover the history of work (how we ended up working in the way we are working today), the Operating System itself, and how to go about changing the operating system in an existing org. 

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its accessibility  — for a general business reader, who’s curious to learn more about the “future of work” it’s a great primer and a jumping off point to more advanced, nuanced and dense content in this domain. For the sake of comparison, it is more easily read than “Reinventing Organizations”, for example. And I’ll go a little deeper on the comparison between the two later on. 

Part 1: The Future of Work

The first part paints a very clear narrative of how we got to where we are today, giving a bit of a history lesson on how the current paradigms of work developed through the 20th century, describing the existential business risk that they are leading to today, and outlining a path forward based on two high-level principles: “People Positive” and “Complexity Conscious” both resonate strongly with me. 

My only qualm with this section is that the abbreviated history of work paints a more linear arc than what I’ve personally found it to be. We always start with Taylor, and it’s great to see McGregor’s work mentioned. But by skipping Lewin, Trist, and Emery, the paradoxical nature of the current state of work is being missed out on. Some of the progressive practices of evolutionary organizations are based on insights discovered in the 50s and 60s. What happened over the last 60–70 years that these insights are still not common knowledge??? For a more comprehensive overview of the history of work, I highly recommend Marvin Weisbord’s “Productive Workplaces”. 

Part 2: The Operating System

The second part lays out the Operating System consisting of the following pieces: 

  • Purpose — How we orient and steer?
  • Authority — How we share power and make decisions?
  • Structure — How we organize and team?
  • Strategy — How we plan and prioritize?
  • Resources — How we invest our time and money?
  • Innovation — How we learn and evolve?
  • Workflow — How we divide and do the work?
  • Meetings — How we convene and coordinate?
  • Information — How we share and use data?
  • Membership — How we define and cultivate relationships?
  • Mastery — How we grow and mature?
  • Compensation — How we pay and provide?

It’s interesting to note the evolution from 3-ish years ago: from 9 elements to 12, by splitting “strategy & innovation”, splitting “people, development & motivation” into “membership” and “mastery”, and adding “compensation”. 

Each element is covered using: 

  • Short introduction
  • List of more abstract/conceptual “thought starters” 
  • A few concrete practices capturing the element “in action”
  • Discussing how change in that element looks like
  • Reflection questions
  • Descriptions of how the key principles of “people positive” and “complexity conscious” apply in that particular context. 

I particularly liked that last section. The practices are only valuable if you understand and buy into the underlying principles otherwise, you end up with the “theater phenomena” where teams are going through the motions of new practices, but capturing very little of the value that they’re supposed to unlock. 

Taking a step back for a bit, my perspective on the OS concept remains unchanged — Having a comparative taxonomy for the way organizations operate is invaluable in moving the conversation about the future of work forward. Organizations are complex systems and without the right language to describe them and their behavior it’ll be hard to make progress. At the same time, the current version of the OS still leaves much to be desired. Some of the elements still seem a bit odd to me (should compensation be its own element, or just a specific use-case of resource allocation?), and the different elements are treated in the book rather inconsistently. In some case, like “authority”, rather comprehensive practices are offered. In others, the practices are rather anecdotal or piecemeal. What the OS lacks the most is a way to capture the interactions between the elements, which are a complex system in and of themselves. A good example can be the relationship between decomposed dynamic roles, and compensation. 

Part 3: The Change

Lastly, the third part of the book covers the theory of change in a complex system. This is perhaps where Brave New Work innovates the most. Most books tend to focus on either the What? (future state) or the How? (how to get there) but hardly ever on both. And most “future of work” books that I’ve read tended to skew more towards the What?, leaving the How? completely unanswered. Here Aaron introduces the concept of Continuous Participatory Change and six patterns that support it and are worth reinforcing: 

  • Commitment: When those in power and influence commit to moving beyond bureaucracy.
  • Boundaries: When a liminal space is created and protected.
  • Priming: When the invitation to think and work differently is offered.
  • Looping: When change is decentralized and self-management begins.
  • Criticality: When the system has tipped and there’s no going back.
  • Continuity: When continuous participatory change is a way of life, and the organization is contributing to the broader community of practice. 

And finally, he discusses the importance of psychological safety, the role of the leader in creating and holding space, key principles of change, and how scaling change might look like. 

To wrap up Aaron’s closing words capture my overall take on Brave New Work quite well: 

this book is not perfect… [but it] is enough. …It’s enough to get started. Enough to go on. And that’s all that matters. Progress over perfection. Courage over caution.

Book Review: Brave New Work

Towards healthy power dynamics at work [Bartlett]

These are 2D representations of the same 3D shape. Left: “friendly circle” (top); Right: “evil triangle” (side).

“Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. (…)

“As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.

— Jo Freeman, The Tyranny of Structurelessness, 1970

A colleague recently reminded me of the “bounded specialization” piece I wrote about a year and a half ago. It was written during the short break that I’ve taken in between AltSchool and Grammarly in a cabin at the Gualala hills overlooking the Pacific ocean. It is one of my pieces of writing that I am still most proud of. Serendipitously, I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about hierarchies lately. From “The functions and dysfunctions of hierarchy”, through “Why hierarchies thrive”, to “In praise of hierarchy”. But none was as elegant and compelling as Richard D. Bartlett’s 2-part series on hierarchy and power dynamics: 

Hierarchy is not the problem (Part 1)

11 Practical steps towards healthy power dynamics at work (Part 2)

He starts by diffusing some of the loaded reactions that hierarchy tends to trigger, reminding us that that the term itself is just a useful metaphor to efficiently explain that this is contained by that:

If you tell me you hate fruit, I know not to offer you an apple. It would be impossible to make sense of the world without these hierarchical relationships.

Bartlett argues that the obsession with “hierarchy vs. flatness” is an unhelpful distraction from the issue that really matters, which is power dynamics. He builds on Mary Parker Follett’s distinctions to define 3 types of power dynamics: 

  • Power-from-within or empowerment — the creative force you feel when you’re making art, or speaking up for something you believe in
  • Power-with or social power — influence, status, rank, or reputation that determines how much you are listened to in a group
  • Power-over or coercion — power used by one person to control another

With those in mind, he defines the approach to power dynamics that we actually strive for and often hides behind the hierarchy-related language:

Maximize power-from-within, make power-with transparent, and minimize power-over

Note the directional and relative (as opposed to absolute) language that’s used to describe this aspiration. The more descriptive articulation of that aspiration is also worth including here: 

  • Maximize power-from-within: everyone feels empowered; they are confident to speak up, knowing their voice matters; good ideas can come from anywhere; people play to their strengths; creativity is celebrated; growth is encouraged; anyone can lead some of the time.
  • Make power-with transparent: we’re honest about who has influence; pathways to social power are clearly signposted; influential roles are distributed and rotated; the formal org chart maps closely to the informal influence network.
  • Minimize power-over: one person cannot force another to do something; we are sensitive to coercion; any restrictions on behavior are developed with a collective mandate.

In part 2, Barlett outlines specific behaviors and practices in support of this aspiration, which I’ll only include here in their headline form: 

Maximize power-from-within

  • Encourage your peers
  • Discourage “permission-seeking” 
  • Create practice spaces
  • Find your mentors
  • Rotate roles

Make power-with transparent

  • Break the power taboo
  • Name the level of engagements
  • Limited decision mandates

Minimize power-over

  • Consent-based decision-making
  • Celebrate dissent
  • Share the ownership

This framing strongly resonates with me and the mapping of specific practices and behaviors to the key pieces of healthy power dynamics is really powerful. The next here would be to explore some of the nuanced tensions between these practices and their implications. 

Towards healthy power dynamics at work [Bartlett]

The Flipped Workplace [Baum]

Well, not quite as literally as that but still…

One of the things I’m most grateful for in my AltSchool experience has been learning to look for solutions in the progressive education domain for problems in the organization design domain. 

Granted, there is still much to fix in our current education system. We talk such a big game about innovation, especially in Silicone Valley, but the “science of learning” has had much more breakthroughs and progress over the last two decades than the “science of working”. I’d also guess that at any given moment there are more experiments in learning differently than there are in working differently. 

Therefore my immediate reaction to Allison Baum’s 

Now is the time to implement the flipped workplace at scale

was “Duh. How come nobody else saw the parallels sooner?”. 

In the workplace, office space design and remote work continue to be hot button issues with plenty of media debate around them, and thankfully, a small trickle of credible academic research that’s starting to surface some interesting insights. While some companies opt for a more extreme perspective of either eliminating remote work altogether or being 100% distributed, most companies try to find a healthy medium between the two. At the core of the debate is the tension between individual work, which is location agnostic and benefits from an environment that is optimized differently by different individuals, and collaborative work, which benefits greatly from co-location and consistent environment design that fosters serendipitous interactions and collaboration. While both types of work are critical for business success, typical organization and space design force a trade-off between the two. 

Now comes Baum’s a-ha moment: Guess what? This challenge is not limited to the work environment, it’s also an issue in the classroom. Effective learning requires both individual work and collaborative work, so learning institutions have grappled with the same tension for decades now. One solution, implemented in multiple variations in some institutions in the “flipped classroom” model. Here it is in a nutshell: 

And in Baum’s own words: 

Instead of listening to lectures in class and doing homework at home, flipped learners watch lectures and read at home and then use class time to ask questions and practice applying their learning. Teachers are no longer instructors; they are coaches. Peers are no longer distractions, but collaborators.

You may already be connecting the dots and seeing the parallels but Baum paints an even clearer picture for us: 

Productive individual work is done outside of the office, on your own time, in your own place, at your own pace. Consequently, the office transforms into a space purely dedicated to meeting people, asking questions, brainstorming, and making unexpected connections. Liberated from enforcement of time-based productivity, managers don’t need to be babysitters. Instead they are coaches, enablers, and facilitators focused on unlocking each employee’s unique value to the entire organization.

The “flipped workplace” seems like a great way to thoughtfully navigate the tension between the poles, rather than collapse the solution towards one of them and lose all the benefits of the other. And Baum does a great job making the case for that:

A flipped workplace is better for both employers and employees because it optimizes for productivity, not presence. A universally accepted flexibility of structure makes true diversity possible by accommodating the varying styles, strengths, and constraints of employees. Balancing remote work with in-person collaboration ensures cultural cohesion, creating an environment of momentum and trust when in the office.

The Flipped Workplace [Baum]

Holistic Compensation [Barry]

Source: Nathan Barry

Stumbling upon Nathan Barry’s piece, which was referenced in one of the various newsletters that I’m subscribed to, was such a pleasant surprise!

Why I changed my mind on team stock options

 Note that I’ve picked a very different title to my own post, because I’m taking his content in a different direction. But first, a bit of context. 

Compensation matters

Compensation in my mind represents a core attribute of the professional collaboration effort that we call work. The fact that we’re not only trying to do something together, but we’re also trying to distribute the benefits of doing so in a fair way adds a massive amount of complexity to the effort. The thought exercise I always like to go through when thinking about large-scale collaboration efforts (aka work) is “would this still be a problem on an open-source project?”. Open-source projects are massive collaboration efforts in which the primary value that contributors expect out of the effort is the work product itself, which in economic speak is “non-rivalrous”: its use by one contributor does not prevent its simultaneous use by another contributor. Revenue, on the other hand, is a perfect example of a rivalrous good: if I take a dollar out of the pile, it’s one less dollar that can be distributed to anyone else. And that makes things, well… complex. 

Which is why I’ve spent several posts writing about it covering aspects such as the foundations of a good compensation philosophy, the implications of pay-for-performance, the tension between internal and external fairness, the varying levels of transparency around comp, the challenges with equity, and several others. The latter in particular is a good jumping off point to Nathan’s post. 

A holistic approach 

Recognizing similar challenges in the use of equity to the ones I (and Henry Ward of Carta) called out, Nathan initially decided to avoid using equity grants altogether in his startup, ConvertKit, and instead implemented a revenue/profit-sharing system, which we’ll dive deeper into in a moment. Nathan’s post, however, covers his decision to supplement the profit-sharing program with some old skool equity grants. His decision was primarily driven by fairness, recognizing that company value appreciates faster than profits and therefore withholding equity grants leaves his team significantly worse off in the long-term. Nathan’s new and holistic approach, beautifully captured in the 2×2 at the top of this post is in my mind the biggest generalizable lesson from his experience: recognizing the fair compensation needs to span to distinct dimensions, the long-term/short-term and the guaranteed/success-based leads to the conclusion that a different compensation instrument is needed in each quadrant. 

I believe this 2×2 is a great blueprint for other organizations as well, with a couple of tweaks, one mechanical and one philosophical. 

The mechanical tweak has to do with venture-backed companies, who tend to not turn a profit for quite some time. Without fully opening pandora’s box on that matter, profit in Nathan’s framework is simply a proxy for the company’s success. So in situations where it’s not a good proxy, a portion of revenues can be allocated proportionally to a more adequate success metric (revenue target, user growth, margin improvement, etc.). 

The more philosophical tweak has to do with “performance-based” which I’ve replaced with “success-based” since performance is also one of the key challenges in my mind, with ConvertKit’s specific profit-sharing implementation. 


In its latest iteration ConvertKit’s profit-sharing system works as follows: 

A fixed % of profits is distributed to the team every 6 months (the remainder goes to taxes and reinvested back in the business). 

That pool is distributed across 3 categories: 

  • 52% — Team profit sharing
  • 8% — Leadership bonuses
  • 40% —Ownership distributions

Team profit sharing is further allocated as follows: 

  • 25% (13% of total) is allocated based on tenure: your share = your tenure/sum of all tenures
  • 75% (39% of total) is allocated based on individual 0–4 performance rating: your share = your score/sum of all scores

The payout for new hires who started in the last 6 month is pro-rated to the portion of the period they’ve been with the company (3 months = 50% of your share). 

There are no details on the “ownership distributions” so I won’t engage on that. 

But both the “leadership bonuses” and the performance component of the team-profit sharing don’t sit well with me as I strongly believe that rewarding short-term performance does more harm than good (more on that here and here). Furthermore, I don’t think that “leadership”/execs are special snowflakes that require special treatment more than engineers are. They just have a proportionally higher impact on the success of the business, just like a tech lead will have proportionally more impact than an entry-level engineer, and that needs to be baked into the allocation. This is also where the logic behind the decision to ignore salaries, because “salary is a reflection of your market value and not exactly your value to the company”, breaks. While potentially correct looking cross-functionally, there is proportionality between salary and value to the company within a given function. 

Better aligning the allocation with my own compensation philosophy is pretty straight forward. First, eliminate “leadership bonuses”. Second, replace the performance component with a factor that’s proportional to salary. A more egalitarian alternative would be a factor proportional to level, and somewhere in between is applying role-specific factor (a-la Buffer) on top of the component proportional to salary. Further carve-outs to either company value or personal needs drivers can be done similar to the way tenure is handled. 

In Sum 

ConvertKit’s holistic compensation approach represents an important step-function improvement to the default compensation schemes that are out there, and with a few tweaks to the profit-sharing mechanics can be aligned with everything science tells us about the connections between compensation, fairness, and motivation. 

Holistic Compensation [Barry]

The Feedback ↔ Self-Reflection Polarity

Feedback has been a recurring theme in this publication (“Affirmative feedback” and “staying on your side of the net” are good examples) and following the debate I briefly mentioned in “Wise Interventions” I serendipitously came across and authored posts around self-reflection (“Care Pods” and “Cognitive Journaling”).

To catch everyone up to speed, I was having a conversation with a group of colleagues on “the limits of feedback” which really got me thinking. We spend a great deal of time building “cultures of feedback” in our organizations. But can these cultures have a downside?

The case for feedback

A quick glance at the Johari window makes the case for feedback quite clear: 

We all have blind-spots, insights about ourselves that are known to others but are not known to us. Feedback is the mechanism to disclosing those blind spots, which in turn allow us to build a more accurate picture of ourselves to drive our growth and development. 

Furthermore, as Adam Grant pointed out, our own capacity for self-reflection is bounded and imperfect:

Sixteen rigorous studies of thousands of people at work have shown that people’s coworkers are better than they are at recognizing how their personality will affect their job performance.

Lastly, since we’re talking about feedback in a professional context, with the intent of collaborating better together, how others perceive us and react to us matters just as much (if not more) as we perceive ourselves. This in and of itself is a good enough reason to pay attention to feedback and to take it into account. 

The case for self-reflection

Despite the compelling case for feedback, it’s not without its shortcomings. 

To reference the Johari window again, some of our knowledge of ourselves is only known to us (“hidden area”) so any feedback will be based on partial information and will, therefore, be incomplete and inaccurate.  

Furthermore, delivering good feedback requires a high level of mastery, from avoiding projecting our own values and beliefs on the person receiving the feedback to only addressing the things that we can credibly observe and know (staying on “our side of the net”). 

Lastly, while self-reflection and self-knowledge will never be perfect, our ability to more accurately know ourselves and how we impact others is a learnable skill, a muscle that we can build. An environment abundant with feedback or a culture focused only on feedback will crowd-out any motivation to strengthen that muscle and will leave it weakened and atrophied. 

So which one is it?

Astute observers will recognize the patterns of a polarity in the tension between self-reflection and feedback. Therefore, the answer is not an either/or one but a both/and one. We need to create cultures that help our teams build both their feedback muscles and their self-reflection muscles. Favoring one at the expense of the other will lead to a sub-optimal outcome. 

Side note: for those of you looking for a deeper scientific analysis of this tension, Timothy Wilson and Elizabeth Dunn’s Self-Knowledge: Its Limits, Value, and Potential for Improvement may be a good place to start. 

The Feedback ↔ Self-Reflection Polarity

Cognitive Journaling [Ragnarson]

Continuing our recent arc on feedback/self-reflection, this piece by Richard Ragnarson does a great job introducing in detail one highly-effective self-reflection practice: 

Cognitive Journaling  

Journaling is making a comeback these days alongside specific journaling techniques and (obviously) customized journaling products. While some journaling techniques aim to be more forward-looking (aka “planning”) others are more reflective. The good news is that the hype is leading to more innovation in the space and making effective techniques more accessible. While the obvious downside is the increased difficulties separating signal from noise: techniques that are truly effective from ones that are merely popular. 

Ragnarson’s technique sits on a very solid evidence-based basis in the form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (or CBT for short). His article is an extensive primer on the technique, walking the reader through the motivation behind the technique, the model of the mind on which it is based, key constructs, high-level principles, a step-by-step guide to the process, a practice program for developing habit and mastery, ways to measure progress and last but not least — an FAQ and troubleshooting guide. Incredible work just putting all of this together. 

In this post, I will only cover the high-level principles and the technique itself. If it resonates, reading the whole post by Ragnarson is highly encouraged. 


  • Falsifiability — describe internal and external facts. Facts can be falsifiable with a yes/no question on whether it happened or not. Falsifiable: “I only have two hours per day to work on my project”. Not-falsifiable: “I have no time to work on my project.”
  • Nonjudgment — describe events, thoughts and feelings, avoiding inferences/deductions regarding their possible causes. Nonjudgment: “I feel demotivated”. Judgment: “Feeling demotivated is bad.”
  • Detail — describe contexts, events, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors with as much detail as possible, while being mindful of not violating the first two principles. 

Putting it all together — journaling while following the principles: 

I went to the supermarket. I met my boss Chris by chance. We spoke and he brought up my work. I thought, “Why can’t he leave me alone even when I am not at work?” I felt annoyed. I thought, “I don’t like feeling like this.” I felt angry. I thought, “I can’t stand getting annoyed anymore,” and then I thought, “I need to change jobs.”

Journaling while not following the principles: 

I was out and met Chris; he’s such a jerk. I can’t stand dealing with him. I need to quit this job.”

The ABC Process

ABC refers to a model of cognition based on the view that any life experience is constituted of a series of activating events, beliefs, and consequences (ABCs): Activating event → Beliefs → Consequences (emotions + behaviors).

The journaling process, however, follows a different sequence: 

  1. Start with the C (consequences): emotions and behaviors: writing down the emotion or behavior that you want to reflect upon, in the form of “I felt [insert emotion]” or “I did/behaved [insert behavior], applying the three principles (falsifiability, nonjudgment, and detail).
  2. Describe the A (activating event): Describe the situation you were in when you experienced the consequence from before, in the form of “This [insert event] happened” or “The situation was [insert situation or place], applying the three principles.
  3. Find out the Bs (beliefs): With the consequence and activating event at hand, try to remember the thought that you entertained in your reaction. Express it in the form of “I thought that [insert belief]”, applying the three principles. 
  4. Challenge the Bs (beliefs): You challenge a belief by evaluating its validity, doubting it, and finding a better alternative. Consider its flexibility, logic, congruence, and usefulness. 
  5. Write down good alternative Bs (beliefs): Ask yourself: Which alternative thought can I think? Which alternative thought is logical, reality-based, flexible, and useful in pursuing my goals and feeling good? The following table, also created by Ragnarson, illustrates this distinction well: 
Source: Ragnarson

In sum

Ragnarson did an incredible job putting together a comprehensive and detailed guide for cognitive journaling, addressing many of the nuanced points needed to start building this powerful self-reflection having and strengthening our self-reflection muscle. 

Well worth a read!

Cognitive Journaling [Ragnarson]

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]