Skip to main content

Bystanders and the Bystanders of Bystanders

This page includes articles from 1998-2021 in reverse chronological order. Some major points:

In these articles, the term “bystander” is used for people who observe or come to know about the behavior of others (whether unacceptable or exemplary behavior), but who are not knowingly engaged in planning or executing that behavior.

The public image of bystanders is that they are all “do-nothings” who watch something transpire without taking action. However, Rowe’s research shows that the reality is quite different. Bystanders in organizations and communities—people who either witness unacceptable behavior or see someone struggling to get traction for a good idea—often do intervene, in one or more of dozens of effective ways. Bystanders of bystanders also frequently act in helpful ways in organizations by supporting bystanders. Powerful bystanders are frequently the only effective constraint on the behavior of the most powerful offenders.

However, bystanders often have multiple, conflicting, idiosyncratic, and
changeable motivations and are very strongly influenced by context. Responsible bystanders need receptivity from their organizations and communities if they are to seek help. They may face serious barriers and dilemmas. They often hesitate before acting on their own or reporting unacceptable behavior—or even offering good ideas. They may need confidential and customized support to act or come forward about illegal behavior.

A conflict management system can enhance receptivity. At the front end, providing confidential informal resources helps make a complaint system appear more receptive. For example, an organizational ombuds can provide multiple options for getting information about conduct violations to managers and other authorities while protecting the confidentiality of bystanders and reducing the risks they face in coming forward.

When it comes to formal interventions, it is essential that bystanders can trust the people they turn to for help. This is especially true if there is a need for investigations; one cannot overestimate the importance to fearful bystanders of their being able to trust investigation processes. (Providing fair, prompt, independent, and competent formal investigations is a challenge which calls for significant resources.)

In diversity and safety programs, bystander training is becoming more common, to help prevent and respond to harassment and unsafe behavior. Bystander training can expand beyond introductory sessions that deal with an immediate, dangerous situation to include mundane, day-to-day bystander actions that can help to change a culture over time. Training managers to become receptive to concerns brought to them and to become active bystanders themselves may increase the effectiveness of bystander training programs.

The nation needs a bystander research agenda to address questions such as:

a) Are bystanders more effective in systems that focus resources on respectful, kind, and affirming behavior?
b) What do we need to know about bystanders causing harm, whether inadvertently or intentionally?
c) How do bystanders help when they perceive exemplary behavior that is overlooked, and does this help in changing a culture?
d) Are people more productive and less prone to burnout in organizations and communities where bystanders are encouraged to act effectively if they witness abuse?

Back to Top    |    Back to Main Research Page

  • Mary Rowe

    Adjunct Professor, Work and Organization Studies

    MIT Sloan School of Management

    100 Main St

    Cambridge, MA 02142

    Office Number E62-363
    Phone Number (617) 253-5902

    Support Staff

    Ryan Harrington

    (617) 715-5675
  • Connect with Mary