What would you do if you saw a speeding, lifted, diesel, bright orange eight-wheeler truck crash into a little electric car sitting motionless at a red light?
At first glance you’re probably thinking you’d call 911. Of course you would, you’re a decent human being and would want to ensure both drivers are safe. Unfortunately you’d be wrong in your answer.
The actual answer is that you’d call 911 if no one else was around. If other people are around, you likely would NOT call 911 because you’d assume someone else would. Psychologists call this the “bystander effect.” The greater number of people around, the greater the likelihood you will not call 911. So what happens if everyone is standing around assuming someone else is calling 911? I shudder to think.
Workplace bullying is a little like this scenario. At workplaces all over America, and the world, bright orange trucks are smashing into electric cars – that is, abusive people are running over good people. Furthermore, lots of people are standing around and no one is doing anything about it.
Most of my colleagues call those people standing around doing nothing bystanders, or witnesses. I prefer a different term: re-enforcers. To me, the words bystander and witness sound passive, as if there’s nothing one can do in a bullying situation. But doing nothing is a conscious choice, and doing nothing is reinforcing the behavior. Doing nothing tells the bully the bullying behavior is okay.
If you’re a re-enforcer, you might also be interested to know that there’s a ton of scientific research indicating that people who witness bullying suffer from many of the same health problems targets of bullying suffer from. Witnessing aggression at work every day will stress you out, and not saying anything will make you feel guilty. In turn you will experience sleepless nights, headaches, stomachaches, anxiety and maybe even depression.
Even better, get everyone in the room to ask John to stop. If everyone in the room stands up to the bully, the social pressure to conform becomes too great. He will stop if he understands that his behavior will not be allowed. Remember that witnesses – re-enforcers – are giving the bully permission to bully by not saying anything at all. Don’t give the bully permission.
Whether you stand up to the bully, or complain to HR, there is power in numbers. The more people who stand up to the bully either in the moment or by going to HR, the more likely the bullying will stop.
Catherine M. Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Chevron, the American Red Cross, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on national affiliates of FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and NPR. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released her second book, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.