Research Findings

The “voice bystander effect”: Why employees often see something but say nothing

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August 21, 2019

When frontline employees speak up candidly, organizations become more effective. Because such employees are often in direct contact with customers and production processes, they tend to encounter important issues and develop valuable ideas and opinions that can help correct for problems on the horizon. Therefore, when employees freely express their thoughts, organizations benefit by being able to quickly spot errors or mistakes, as well as innovate products and systems.

The problem, however, is that employees frequently fail to speak up or voice their concerns in the workplace. Consequently, problems fail to be escalated in a timely manner to leaders in upper management who can act on them. Often, workplace issues linger for a frustratingly long time, even when everyone on the frontlines knows about them. This becomes evident across a range of domains—from safety concerns with products or equipment to cases of sexual harassment.

Why don’t people speak up about workplace issues that are obvious to everyone around?

Our recent research indicates that a phenomenon we call the “voice bystander effect” can lead to employee silence at work about potential organizational problems and solutions. The phenomenon describes employees’ psychological tendency to remain on the sidelines as passive bystanders in the face of opportunities to speak up. That is, employees pass on the responsibility for speaking up about commonly-known problems to coworkers rather than take initiative to intervene personally.

We demonstrate that when an employee believes that she and her coworkers have access to the same information about work-related issues, that employee experiences a diffusion of responsibility—a psychological tendency to believe that coworkers will take on the burden of speaking up to the manager.

Broaching issues with managers higher up in the organizational hierarchy is, after all, associated with costs such as time, energy, and interpersonal risk. For this reason, employees may think, “Why take a chance or expend effort to discuss a tricky topic when my peers could do the same?”

The voice bystander effect thus suggests a paradox: when a problem is known to many employees in a team, each employee within that team becomes less likely to speak up about it.

Our research

We found evidence for this phenomenon across three studies.

The first study was conducted with 132 workers within 25 teams at the India branch of a Fortune 500 technology company. We tracked the workflow of each team to assess how likely employees were to share common information on work issues with their coworkers. We also asked managers to report the extent to which each employee spoke up within the team. As predicted, the more employees shared overlapping information with their coworkers, the less likely they were to voice up to the manager.

The second study was a laboratory experiment conducted with 163 U.S. undergraduate students who were divided into two groups. All participants were told about the problem of insufficient shuttle buses at the university campus, which was resulting in transport difficulties and making students late to class. Students were given a chance to personally raise the issue with university leaders and potentially meet with those leaders to further discuss the problem.

Participants in the first group were told that fellow peers on a student committee were aware of the issue with the buses. Meanwhile, participants in the second group were told that they were the only ones who knew about the issue. Results of the study showed that when students thought they were uniquely aware of the issue with the shuttle buses, they were 2.5 times more likely to volunteer raising the issue with university leaders.

In our third study, 440 working professionals in the U.S. read a realistic workplace scenario about a software bug in a product they were working on as employees. Participants in one condition were told that they were solely aware of the bug whereas participants in the other condition were told that others in their team knew about it. Consistent with the other studies, we found that participants were less likely to report raising the issue with company management when their peers also knew about the problem.

How can managers prevent bystander behavior?

There are several steps managers can take to ensure employees speak up even when information and problems are commonly shared within workgroups.

First, managers should ensure employees that their concerns are not redundant and should be communicated even if others in the team hold and can raise those concerns. After all, if everyone thinks someone else will raise an issue, it may never come to the attention of those higher up with the ability to take action.

Relatedly, managers should seek to instill a sense of personal responsibility within employees for constructively speaking up at work. Managers should communicate to employees that issues and ideas are “owned” by everyone on the team. Thus, employees should not be quick to assume that shared problems will be solved by someone else.

Finally, speaking up is often an act of courage, and managers should reward it as such rather than punishing those who challenge the status quo. By being open to employees’ thoughts and ideas—however different from their own—managers can make workers feel more comfortable to be candid at work and less inclined pass on the responsibility for voice to others.

Read More

Insiya Hussain and Subra Tangirala. “The Voice Bystander Effect: How Information Redundancy Inhibits Employee Voice,” Academy of Management Journal 2019.

Image: City of Toronto Archives via Wikimedia Commons

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