The key to addressing toxic behavior might be the third person in the room.
A new study of more than 6,000 college students suggests a major way to reduce toxic behavior is through bystander training — that is, equipping people who witness instances of assault, or possible warning signs, to quickly intervene. People who underwent training intended to act and actually did more much often than those who weren’t trained.
The finding bolsters what the NeuroLeadership Institute has found with respect to “employee voice,” or the extent to which employees feel empowered to make constructive, challenging upward communication like calling out harassment or other toxic behaviors.
Multiplied across an entire organization, cultures of speaking up may hold the power stamp out toxic behavior, creating a cultural impact that goes beyond compliance training.
Bystanders play a crucial role
Good-faith arguments that recipients of toxic behavior should speak up themselves make sense in theory, but for many who experience assault, bullying, or harassment firsthand, the pain and confusion is much too paralyzing. In turn, negative feelings get internalized, and toxic behaviors may go unchecked.
The new study, led by Clemson University sociologist Heather Hensman Kettrey and published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, suggests an alternate path toward safer and healthier work environments.
Kettrey found that training programs designed to encourage witnesses of sexual assault or predatory behavior to intervene had a meaningful effect on bystander behavior. Program participants both intended to take more action and did take more action in the months following the training — two times more often, on average — than students who hadn’t gotten trained.
“These findings are especially important considering that research indicates that traditional sexual assault programs, which target the behavior of potential victims or of potential perpetrators, are not particularly effective at preventing assault,” Kettrey writes in The Conversation. “Thus, the power to prevent sexual assault may lie in the hands of bystanders.”
The importance of focusing on culture
When lower-status people feel targeted by higher-status people, fears of retribution or other social threats prevent them from speaking up. Bystanders don’t necessarily fit into the same power dynamic, enabling them to act as neutral advocates on behalf of the lower-status employee. It’s in leaders’ interest, in other words, to create better bystanders and cultivate a culture of speaking up.
To do this, leaders need to instill the right day-to-day habits across their organizations. For instance, they can create clear if-then plans to give employees a sense of certainty if an ambiguous situation may arise. Rather than sit idly by, worrying if they’ll get punished for speaking out, a bystander can turn to the if-then plan everyone agreed upon.
This kind of intervention is different from the norm because it goes beyond compliance. It gives leaders behavioral tools to enable all employees to speak up early and often. In cultures of speaking up, employees value consequences. Bad actors can’t get away with misdeeds because warning signs get reported long before they reach a boiling point.
“We, as a society, should strive to become better bystanders by noticing the warning signs of a potential assault, knowing strategies to intervene, and remembering that we have a collective responsibility to prevent sexual assault,” Kettrey writes.
The same is true in the workplace. Teams composed of better bystanders create a common good in the larger culture, which enables everyone to feel free and safe to get their best work done.