In 2017, the New York Times broke the now widely-known scandal of media mogul Harvey Weinstein’s apparent decades-long pattern of sexual abuse and harassment. The story came as a shock to the public. However, as details emerged it became clear that Weinstein’s transgressions were not unknown to Hollywood insiders. They were, in fact, an “open secret.”
This raises the question: Why do issues remain open secrets in organizations where multiple employees know about a problem or a concern, but no one publicly brings it up? We explore this in a set of studies recently published in the Academy of Management Journal.
We found that as issues become more common knowledge among frontline employees, the willingness of any individual employee to bring those issues to the attention of the top-management decreased. Instead of speaking up, what we observed among our participants was something like the bystander effect, a psychological phenomena describing how people stay on the sidelines as passive bystanders, waiting for others to act rather than do something themselves.
The bystander effect can be understood with an example: Imagine Jane, a member of an engineering team at a company. The top management of the company is eager to release a product to the market before competitors mimic it. However, a bug in the product has been uncovered, and someone needs to bring up the issue. When Jane is the only member of the team who is aware of the issue, she would feel a personal responsibility to alert her managers of the problem. But, when her team members—John, Jack, and Julia—also know about the bug, Jane might feel that approaching leadership isn’t solely her responsibility. She becomes less likely to speak up, and for the very same reason, John, Jack, and Julia are also less likely to do so.
Indeed, our research shows that when multiple individuals know about an issue, each of them experiences a diffusion of responsibility or the sense that they need not personally take on any costs or burden associated with speaking up. They feel that others are equally knowledgeable and, hence, capable of raising the issue with top management. They find it convenient to psychologically pass on the accountability of speaking up to others, and this makes them less likely to speak up themselves.
Considered from this perspective, it starts to make more sense why problems—such as harassment and abusive supervision—can remain unaddressed for so long without anyone taking action. Voicing such issues is, after all, risky, as individuals can often be punished or put down for speaking up. Thus, when Jane, John, Jack and Julia all know about the same concern, each tends to wait for one of the others to take on the risks of speaking up and feels less personally guilt or duty-bound to bring up the issue him or herself. The bystander effect kicks in, and diffusion of responsibility prevents issues from percolating up to managers. MORE