The other day I was walking in San Francisco and while crossing the street I tripped and fell on a muni-line track. I fell to the ground, bracing my fall with my hands, banging the side of my knee and propelling my purse in the air where it landed several feet away.  For what seemed like ages, I was sprawled in the middle of the road, hoping there was no oncoming traffic.  I gathered myself up, collected my purse, took notice that my hand was bleeding and, that I hurt enough to have to slow down and limp a little.

On the corner were three people on their phones, behind me was a person walking up to the corner.  Not one person asked if I was all right, or came to assist me.I limped away, nursing my hand, realizing I didn’t have anything to wipe the blood with, and resigned myself to just keep walking to BART.I was pissed.  Are we so transfixed by our phones that we don’t look up and help someone who needs help?  Or do we suffer from Bystander effect.


The bystander effect, or bystander apathy, is a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that one of them will help.  The bystander believes someone else will help.  They convince themselves that “it will be taken care of”.


I have to admit, after walking a few more blocks I began to think about my anger, and why I was so mad.   I was angry about how this is accepted behavior.  We don’t give up our seat on BART for the pregnant or elderly person.  We don’t open the door for the person carrying packages.  We don’t say anything to the person we witnessed littering.  We walk past the passed-out man on the street. What degree of responsibility are we willing to involve ourselves with?  What amount of inconvenience are we willing to put up with?  Are we willing to make ourselves vulnerable to an unknown situation?  Being a bystander is a choice to not participate, to possibly not put ourselves at risk.  To blend into the crowd quietly.


Being a bystander is not just about situations with strangers.  How many times have we seen bystanders in our organizations.  Today’s organizational cultures are filled with bystanders.  We know this because the 2018 Gallup poll states that only 15% of employees worldwide are engaged in their jobs. (Gallup 2018) I would say that is pretty apathetic.

Being a bystander in an organization is an indictment on the organizational culture.  When the behavior of people in the organization is to turn a blind eye, bury their head in the sand, or to not stray out of their lane even when there is a reason to cross the line, then not only are the people at risk, so is the organization. When these behaviors become the accepted way of working, it is not surprising that more than 80% of workers are either actively looking for a new job or are open to one (Ajilon).  Apathy is the choice to avoid taking a risk, or telling the truth because we want to believe someone else will “fix” it.


Josh Allan Dykstra, in his book “Igniting the Invisible Tribe”  writes, “For a tribe/organization/group/company to build a life-giving work environment (instead of a life-sucking one) in the new world, their actions must be at least one of three things:

  1. Continually Connected
  2. Distinctly Human
  3. Purposefully Meaningful

I would suggest that to create organizations that do not have bystander cultures, they need all three.

  1. Our connection is about human sustainability. The bystander effect is worse as the crowd size gets bigger, but not because the crowd is connected, but because a bunch of individuals are acting out of self-preservation. The act of connection inherently brings us together in the belief that I need you and you need me and together we are better.  Hence, get involved…don’t be a bystander, we need each other.
  2. Be human, recognize we are all uniquely designed and our stories are what make us so interesting. Be receptive to discovering what makes us common and unique.  Being at work throws us together in an opportunity to explore and appreciate each other.  The benefits of this diversity is both personal and organizational.
  3. Having purpose and doing meaningful work is what most of us want. We are not machines.  When the opportunity is there to be “purposely meaningful”, we make better choices.  We don’t look away from a situation, because looking away is a statement of I don’t need to care, and it doesn’t matter.


After taking that tumble in the middle of the street, I had a little wake – up.  Most of us don’t want to live in an uncaring world, and it’s pretty clear most of us don’t want to work in places that suck the life out of us, evidenced by so many people always looking for the next best company.  It seems to me, that migrating from one company to another will not solve the issue.  We all have the ability to overcome the bystander effect.

  • Listen to your inner voice as if you were not in a crowd.  Acknowledge that as humans we are connected.
  • Observe – be able to observe with both objectivity and humanity.  Assess how you can be helpful.
  • Act with positive intention and for the greater good (purposefully meaningful) – be genuinely helpful. You will get Karma credits, promise.
  • While you may be a non-conformist, create cohesion. You’re a rebel with a cause! It should be a win-win.  You are addressing issues that make a work environment soul sucking and helping it be a place you would want to stay.

Be Connected, Stay Human, and Act with Purpose!

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