Getting people to be proactive isn’t easy. Social platforms such as LinkedIn and Quora are masters at it. What is the science behind their methods?

The Bystander Effect

Getting people to be proactive isn’t easy.  Social platforms such as LinkedIn and Quora are masters at it.  What is the science behind their methods?  Can bank leaders use them to supercharge employee driven change?

Tragedies of varying degrees are played out in customer service. For example:

  • A team member is rude to customers because he is having a bad day. No one says anything to him
  • Customer data in the Customer Relationship Management system is erroneous – no one bothers to fix it
  • A bug in the system means customers are receiving mailed statements, even though they prefer digital statements – frontline team members tell the customer “that’s the way it is” and don’t raise the issue
  • A customer on-boarding process is hideously difficult – everyone knows it, but no one is stepping up to do what it takes to simplify it

We could go on.

Problems that are overlooked only tell half the story. The other half: missed opportunities.

What do the following Google products have in common: Gmail, Adsense and Google Maps? They are all employee-generated ideas. Gmail has 1 billion users, and Adsense brings in 25% of Google’s revenue.

Small things matter too. One day, office workers turned up to work to find plastic disposable cups of their office kitchen have been replaced with ceramic mugs. They were more pleasant to use, better for the environment, reduced expenses and in a small way created employee good will. Everyone wondered: why hasn’t anyone done this sooner?1

When consultants are brought in to improve customer service, they often discover obvious opportunities. Savvy consultants go to great lengths to downplay its obviousness so as to avoid middle-management losing face.

Why does employee-driven change thrive within some teams and while missed opportunities persist in others? Lack of empowerment? Budget constraints? Poor leadership? Lack of continuous improvement processes? Behavioural science offers leaders a different way to attack an age-old problem of the Bystander Effect.

The Bystander Effect: Why It Undermines Teams

The Bystander Effect2 occurs when individuals assume someone else will fix a problem. It explains why people don’t stop to help a broken-down car, clean up spills in the office kitchen, or fix broken customer processes.

The sense of responsibility is diffused when there are other people who could help.

Kyle Thomas at Harvard University, and others, say that when deciding to help we tend to take into account whether or not there are people who are more qualified, less busy or who have a designated responsibility3.

Consider the following tragic case cited by writer Max Ogles:

“Firemen, police officers, and dozens of bystanders all looked on while [a man named Raymond] Zack stood in deep ocean water and eventually drowned because none of the authorities made efforts to save him. Firefighters expected the police officers to save him; police officers expected the firefighters to save him. When a pedestrian bystander prepared to save the man herself, she was told not to because “the authorities would take care of the situation.” Instead, these calculations failed disastrously when everybody stood by and nobody saved Raymond Zack.”

Overcoming the Bystander Effect

1. Increase public self-awareness

Without active engagement from users, social platforms like LinkedIn and Quora wouldn’t have a business at all. They’ve become masters at overcoming the Bystander Effect. Consider two examples:

  1. To entice you to engage, social media platforms like LinkedIn place your profile picture alongside the “Add a comment” field. This brings your attention to the field, and increases the likelihood that you will contribute.
  2. Quora publishes the number of times a user has contributed an answer on their platform, as well as the number of times their answer has been viewed. By making these actions public, users are incentivised to tackle as many questions as they can to earn a status amongst their community.These companies owe a debt to behavioural scientist Dr van Bommel, who said that people are more likely to act if they are aware that their behaviour is visible to others4.

    A cautionary note: too much public awareness can result in the wrong behaviour e.g. competitiveness, jealousy and fear of ridicule. Sometimes a small nudge to remind us of our social reputation is all that is needed.

    We’ll provide an example of how customer service leaders can increase public self-awareness later.

2. Assign accountability

When a user posts a question on TripAdvisor, other users are prompted to respond, for example:It’s hard to be a bystander because the prompt is personalised, and it isn’t obvious that others will step in to help.

3. Use Role Models & Scenarios

Seeing one person take initiative often inspires others to do the same. This is because most people see themselves as being useful and proactive people. We see this behaviour on social media: when one person posts a comment, a dialogue between many users quickly follows.

If there is an absence of role models, leaders can mimic this effect by talking about case studies or scenarios with their teams.

The trick is to do it regularly. According to the famous behavioural scientist Dan Ariely5, the challenge of getting people to do the right thing was solved millennia ago by the Catholic church: gathering people on Sundays to talk about right and wrong primes them to do the right thing for the week.

Quality matters: to overcome the Bystander Effect, scenarios that are specific and palpable are more effective than vague or distant scenarios.

Combining the three strategies above amplifies results

Consider the scenarios below:

  1. You receive a group email asking you to fill in a form to submit an improvement idea, anonymously. You are asked to place the form in a box, and the box is located in the photocopy room away from public eye;
  2. Your manager gives you an “Improvement Idea” form with your name on it. Each week a report tells everyone how many ideas have been received. At your weekly team meeting, your leader reads out a sample of ideas. He says, “One of these ideas has already been executed!” He goes on to explain how it happened and what the benefit is. Your team mates will be responsible for deciding which is the best idea. All good ideas are acknowledged at the next division meeting, not just the winning idea.

Which of the two do you find more motivating?

Don’t Continuous Improvement Programs Solve This?

We were asked this question by one of our reviewers.

For example, Commbank has institutionalised productivity habits to overcome the Bystander Effect:  Team Huddles help surface improvement opportunity, Visual Management Boards keep track of progress, and the Gemba Walk empowers leaders to observe and seek out improvement opportunity.

Continuous improvement programs such as these are great, but teams remain vulnerable to the Bystander Effect.  For example:  at team huddles, customer service team members may overlook problems because they see it as the responsibility of the strategy team. At the same time, the strategy team don’t do anything because it isn’t considered “strategic” enough. And even when both teams come together to talk about it, they feel the issue is outside their scope of influence, assuming that their leaders have surely considered it before. Their leaders don’t do anything because they’re not close enough to the details. And so on and so forth.

Bank leaders can amplify existing continuous improvement programs by leveraging behavioural science. 

Actionable Takeaways:

1. Do things to remind people that their actions are in the public eye.  For example, ask questions like:  “How will people perceive us?”

2. At your next team huddle, use role models to inspire others into action

We’d like to thank David Beavis of Commbank for reviewing the paper and providing practical insights and examples.
We’d like to credit Nir Eyal and Max Ogles, whose podcast and blog inspired this article.

1It turns out, the change was instigated by a temp worker (who pitched the idea to the CEO and made it happen) – she wasn’t even going to be around to enjoy the benefit.

2The bystander effect was developed by John M Darley and Bibb Latané. (Latané, B., & Darley, J. M. (1970). The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn’t he help? New York: Appleton-Century-Croft)

3Thomas KA, De Freitas J, DeScioli P, Pinker S. Recursive mentalizing and common knowledge in the bystander effect. Journal of Experimental Psychology General. 2016 May;145(5):621-629.

4Bommel, M.V.; et al. (2012). “Be aware to care: Public self-awareness leads to a reversal of the bystander effect”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 48 (4): 926–930.

5 Dan Ariely. The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves. 2012.

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