The bystander effect

Sometimes people can be less likely to be involved as a group than as individuals.

Have you ever been facilitating a meeting or workshop and getting people involved has felt like pulling teeth?

back to back meetings

back to back meetings

I have come to realise that in certain situations the bystander effect can be responsible for people not engaging as quickly as you might expect.

But don’t worry, once you understand the collective psychology you can take steps to counter this:

  • This effect only occurs in groups of people
  • You notice it as an apparent reluctance to get involved in an activity
    • For example – you may ask a question of the group and get silence.
    • Or ask for volunteers and no-one comes forward
  • What is actually going on is not true reluctance or anything to do with you as a facilitator
    • There is a diffusion of responsibility in the room
    • no one person is assigned or expected to do anything specific
    • people may be waiting for others to have their say
    • may not want to lose face in the group
  • By recognising this effect you can deal with it more effectively
    • make someone responsible by asking a group to select someone in advance
    • you could pick someone to say something
    • or you can fill the space by partially answering your own question
    • reduce the size of the group by asking for a contribution from a particular table in the room

You as a facilitator may be in a position of some stress by being on your own in front of a group, however try to remember that asking someone to contribute in front of a group puts them in a similar position to you – with the exception that they havent prepared for this.

So prepare your audience in advance, tell them what they might expect, help them overcome their nerves and reduce their individual fear of contributing and you’ll be amazed at the response.


2 thoughts on “The bystander effect

  1. Hi Adrian, really enjoyed reading this post, this aparent reluctance happens often in the Middle East and inexperienced facilitators can get spooked by it. Its because there is usually a hierarchy in the room and people wait for the most senior peopleto speak first, often the most senior people just wish others would take the initiative! Tthe image in the blog is awesome too :-)!

    • Hello Joy,
      Glad you liked the article. I hadn’t appreciated the apparent reluctance in the middle east, but like lots of these things it seems obvious now you have mentioned it. I wonder if the same is true in India as well, that is quite a hierarchical managerial culture too.

      I’ve had the text for the article for ages just waiting for the right photograph, as you’ve guessed I’m the model. I had fun taking this one. I have another pic in the works that will illustrate another article I’m working on, Imagine lots of Adrians all around a large boardroom table (scary thought!)


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