“Does anyone care around here?” “Why didn’t anyone speak up?” “Why didn’t anyone do something?”
When organizational problems are discovered after they turn into disasters, and it is too late for intervention, it is not unusual to hear people bemoan employee apathy. “Why hasn’t someone intervened?” “Oh, the indifference!!”
Of course, things are never as simple as labeling people as apathetic – management styles or organizational cultures might have discouraged people from acting. And yet, in addition to differences in contexts, there are also individual differences in how likely we are to intervene, even under circumstances that do not encourage intervention.
A recent study demonstrates that autistic people are less susceptible to bystander apathy. In other words, when autistic people see a problem, they are more likely to say something and do something.
Bystander Apathy and Bystander Effect:
- The concept and the Origin: “Bystander effect,” also referred to as bystander apathy, became a focus of social psychological research following the infamous 1964 Kitty Genovese case, when dozens of bystanders watched a young woman being brutally attacked and failed to interfere or call the police. Psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané later conducted experiments that demonstrated bystander apathy: the more witnesses to a problematic situation, the less likely individuals are to take action.
- Key Mechanisms of Bystander Apathy include:
1. Diffusion of Responsibility: In groups, individuals often assume that someone else will take action, reducing their sense of personal responsibility.
2. Social Influence: People gauge the seriousness of a situation based on the reaction of others. If others seem unconcerned or do not act, individuals are less likely to act.
3. Fear of Judgment: Concern about being judged or making a mistake in front of others can deter people from acting.
Another factor in inaction can also be direct social pressure. For example, someone may tolerate inefficiencies because they do not want to “rock the boat,” upset coworkers who are satisfied with the status quo, or cross powerful and well-connected political players.
In the organizational context, overriding bystander apathy is crucial in fostering a proactive, ethical, and efficient workplace. The willingness of organizational members to help or intervene in a situation that calls for action can significantly impact an organization’s ability to address problems effectively.
Potential Impact of Bystander Apathy on Organizational Outcomes:
- Ethical Breaches and Compliance Issues: Bystander apathy can lead to ignoring non-compliance with regulations or ethical standards. When employees hesitate to report problems or unethical behavior, it can result in costly mistakes and damage to the organization’s reputation.
- Inefficiency: Bystander apathy can lead to overlooked wasteful processes and unaddressed inefficiencies – in short, waste.
- Stifled Innovation: When employees are reluctant to speak up, valuable ideas and feedback are lost. This reluctance can hinder innovation and continuous improvement.
Neuroinclusion as a Solution
Framing autistic differences in thinking and responding to social situations as a problem resulted in discrimination, exclusion of autistic people from the workplace, and extremely high unemployment rates. However, increasing the number of autistic people in organizations is one of the solutions to the disastrous effects of bystander apathy. This illustrates why neurodiversity is as important to human groups as biodiversity is to the balance of life. Excluding those who are less conforming – such as autistic people – from organizations and other groups likely results in creating groups in which conformity and social mimicry become excessive, and may even threaten the groups’ existence.
The 2023 study which explored whether autistic people are less prone to the bystander effect found that:
- autistic adults, compared to allistic controls, indicate that they would be more likely to report dysfunctional practices and
- autistic adults are less influenced by the presence of others when deciding to intervene.
Additionally, autistic people are less prone to rationalize their decisions with elaborate explanations, particularly when there are many bystanders. They are more likely to follow straightforward ethical rules, such as preventing harm to clients, rather than focus on additional social pressures and dynamics.
Autistic focus on inner guidelines and ethics rather than social approval and fitting in can be invaluable when “saying something” can prevent catastrophes and address problems before they fester. Because autistic people are less likely to be influenced by group dynamics and social pressure, they are more likely to report issues or inefficiencies others might overlook or “sweep under the rug.”
The new findings on autism and the lowered susceptibility to bystander apathy further support the idea that autistic people are indeed canaries in the coal mine, detecting toxic dangers in the environment and raising alarm before others or even despite others.
However, in cultures where “fitting in” is prized above all other characteristics, the autistic truth-speaking tendency is seen as annoying and, to some, even warranting exclusion. And yet, this tendency is a strength that can be lifesaving to other people and organizations. Including and supporting canaries is essential to creating healthy and vibrant workplaces, and my upcoming book, the Canary Code, provides much more advice for building such workplaces.
All social behavior is an interaction of individuals and situations. Hiring for neurodiversity without creating an environment for psychological safety and healthy discourse is unlikely to solve bystander apathy in organizations. It is also necessary to truly encourage employee engagement and foster the culture of speaking up. Here are some suggestions for mitigating bystander apathy at the organizational level:
- Encourage Individual Accountability: Foster a culture where each employee feels responsible for the well-being and success of the organization.
- Open Channels of Communication: Implement anonymous reporting systems, encourage open dialogue, and create systems for preventing retaliation for speaking up, making it easier for employees to voice concerns without fear of retribution.
- Train and Educate: Regular training sessions on ethical conduct and the importance of individual action can help reduce the bystander effect.
- Modeling by Leadership: Leaders should model the behavior they wish to see, such as speaking up about issues and acknowledging their own mistakes.
In sum: The bystander effect/bystander apathy can be a significant liability in organizational settings. Addressing it can lead to a more ethical, efficient, and engaged workplace. By including autistic employees, along with nurturing a culture of accountability and open communication, organizations can reduce bystander apathy and create more honest and resilient systems.