Bystander Effect at Work?

The other day, I was reading something that referenced a study that I was passingly familiar with, both from the actual paper and its application to real life.

The paper studied the bystander effect. Essentially, the bystander effect says that any potential responsibility for something that happens in the presence of a crowd is diffused over the entire crowd.

Below is a short video that talks about its application to “real life”.

It’s pretty horrifying, honestly.

But it did get me thinking about how the bystander effect might be an issue at work. Is there anything in our workspaces that routinely requires intervention from a single person out of a crowd?

Well, probably not in a normal environment…but we’re sysadmins, so normal doesn’t really apply.

I asked this question on twitter the other day, and although you can only see the direct replies to my tweet there, the discussion got pretty heated.

So of course, I’m sowing discord and asking it here, because I think it’s an important question, and I want to hear what you think.

Think of your experiences at work, specifically when an issue or ticket is assigned to a group. Do you see the bystander effect happening? Is an issue assigned to a group less likely to be resolved than one assigned to a particular person? Why do you think that is?

Please comment below. I’m interested in what you have to say!

  • Bart Silverstrim

    Usually I see situations where people won’t report anything wrong with their systems, the network, etc. because they assume someone else will report it, especially if reporting it is deemed too much of a pain to take the time to do. Only if it passes their irritation threshold will they take a moment to tell us about it.

    This is inevitably followed by the incredulous, “Why didn’t you tell us this didn’t work for three months?!” followed by a shrug from them.

  • Scott Pack

    I definitely see Bart’s situation quite often, and hear endless amounts of complaining from staff about outages that for one reason or another don’t show up on the monitoring systems.

    Within IT I see this quite often in ticketing systems. Take the example of adding a user to a Linux system. This is a pretty no big deal kind of change that anyone on the team can make, and will often result in the entire team getting assigned. Some ticketing systems are smart enough to check the on-call roster, vacation schedules, or other sources and determine *which* employee to hand it off to. Otherwise, these requests sit in the queue for all Linux admins just waiting…waiting for a bystander to jump in.

  • This is why it’s so important to always have tickets assigned to someONE, not a group. It’s the job of the team lead or manager to go through the incoming queue and make sure everything is assigned, and to follow up on stuff that is outstanding.

  • Yes, I’ve definitely seen this in my previous job. In our group of 12, there were some tasks that nearly anyone could do, but few people ever logged in to the ticket system, since much of our work was project driven. As a result, I ended up doing more than my share of the trivial tasks. Fortunately, our users and management noticed this, too.

  • I hate to sound like a douchebag, but the guy in that video really does come off like he is acting, and I think he’s tripping a lot of bullshit detectors among the people passing by. That he’s covering his hands with his body is especially suspicious, to me. He really looks like he’s up to no good, rather than in any genuine pain or trouble. The fact that everyone else seems to be detecting his bullshitting discourages others in the crowd from making an advance.

    Anyway, to your point: yes, diffusion of responsibility happens all over the place and it is good to assign tickets or the task of ticket triage to someone. I once pissed off a coworker who had been charged with triage when I ran an audit that identified a few dozen festering issues that needed fixing, and thus filed a few dozen tickets. My thought was some of these will be easy, some will be tricky, best to make each its own task, but the fact that dozens of tickets came flooding in pissed off my coworker . . . I found this really frustrating because here I was pointing out flaws we had been conveniently ignoring, so they had built up, and in identifying these ignored flaws for fixing I came off as the bad guy. Yet another incentive to keep quiet, hey?

    Anyhow, if you’ve got a few dozen tickets coming, figure out who is charged with triage and give them some fair warning or whatever. ;)


  • Probably this is the reason, why new ticketing systems generally prefer to have one owner or assignee to a ticket. When thrown at a department they just lie there without being entertained for long … unless some Manager comes in and yells or something critical has resulted due to the ignorance. Reporting is generally not a problem with me though, people often come up with small things they have noticed that isn’t working, but the problem is no one willingly takes the initiative and waits for someone else to take the job :)

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