The Science of Open Secrets at Work

How the Bystander Effect Keeps You Silent While Problems Fester

Apr 10, 2019
As Featured In 
Academy of Management Journal

Every workplace has its open secrets. Multiple people may witness incompetence, laziness, fraud, sexual harassment, alcoholism or any manner of bad behavior from the same colleague — week after week — but nobody speaks up. Research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business explains why.

“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,” Maryland Smith PhD student Insiya Hussain and professor Subra Tangirala write in Harvard Business Review.

They trace the workplace silence to a psychological phenomenon called the “bystander effect.”

An example occurs when a car breaks down on the side of the road. If the incident happens in a high-traffic area, then nobody may stop to help because everyone assumes somebody else will do it. If the same car breaks down in a low-traffic area, the odds of rescue increase despite fewer motorists because each passerby feels a greater sense of responsibility.

“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,” the authors write. “They feel that others are equally knowledgeable and, hence, capable of raising the issue with top management.”

Hussain and Tangirala, working with co-authors from the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore and Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, explore the phenomenon in a series of three studies summarized in Academy of Management Journal.

In the first study they surveyed 132 employees and their managers at a Fortune 500 electronics company. The research team observed that employees were less willing to speak up about problems they perceived as open secrets. “In other words, when multiple employees knew about an issue, each one became less willing to speak up about it,” they write.

The second study involved a behavioral experiment with 163 undergraduate students, and the third study involved a behavioral experiment with 440 working adults.

“In all three studies, our results held even when we statistically controlled for several other factors, such as whether participants felt it was safe to speak and whether they thought speaking up would make a difference,” the authors write.

Read more: The Voice Bystander Effect: How Information Redundancy Inhibits Employee Voice by Insiya Hussain, Rui Shu, Subrahmaniam Tangirala and Srinivas Ekkirala is featured in Academy of Management Journal and summarized in Harvard Business Review.

About the Author(s)

Subra Tangirala

Subra Tangirala is an Associate Professor of Management & Organization. He teaches leadership in the MBA program. His research focuses on interpersonal communication in organizations. Specifically, he explores reasons why employees often remain silent despite having information, concerns, or suggestions to share, and what organizations can do to facilitate candid exchange of ideas at the workplace.

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