Have you ever seen a messed up, mixed up organisational culture? I’m fairly sure you have. If it’s not your own, there have been a fair few in the news lately. Organisations, or parts thereof, that are unhealthy, unpleasant, ailing, even toxic. Where bad practice or bad behaviour lives and breathes.
When culture is broken, minimisation, metaphors and excuses abound.
It’s always been like this.
It is what it is.
It isn’t that bad.
It’s just how it is here.
It’s their (someone, anyone’s) fault.
When there is something broken within an organisation, it is usually in plain sight. Whether it is leadership, culture, behaviour or just one single individual, it’s rarely hidden. You may not always understand the cause, but you know when something stinks. It is easy to tell ourselves that if we witnessed something wrong we would take action, but research consistently shows that we are actually much more likely to ignore it, look away, minimise it, do absolutely nothing.
Most people, when faced with a challenging situation, become passive observers. Sitting on the side-lines, watching the drama. And then when the shit hits the fan, people queue up to say that they saw it coming, that everyone knew all about it, that it was the way things have always been around here.
So what stops people making changes, speaking out, challenging, changing? What holds people back, what makes them wait for permission, for someone else to take charge?
Some of the answers to these questions lie in social psychology.
You may have heard of the bystander effect. This suggests that the greater the number of people who are present to witness a problem, the less likely it is that any one individual will actually do anything about it. They will simply stand and watch. The effect has been researched many times, particularly in relation to people’s unwillingness to get involved in an emergency situation. There are multiple examples from both research and real life, where bystanders just do nothing, even when others are in severe physical danger. Applying this to an organisational context, employees are more likely to stand at the water cooler and bemoan the problem than help make an improvement, engage in solving a problem.
There are reasons why people don’t act, or don’t feel that they can. One of the key influencing factors is the extent to which people feel that they have a degree of responsibility; is it really up to them? Do they feel sufficiently engaged with an organisation, individual or situation to do so? And won’t someone else just come along and do it anyway? Someone more qualified, suitable, whose job it really is?
They think the issue is Somebody Else’s Problem. This is a psychological effect whereby individuals dissociate themselves from a problem or issue, even when it is in critical need of attention, because they make assumptions that it will be done. But not by them. By the often fabled but rarely seen Somebody Else. The notion that whatever it is, it is Somebody Else’s Problem releases the individual from the need to act. Responsibility is diffused. Somebody Else will do it.
This all sounds a little negative so far. But there is one big positive. What the research also shows is that if just one person acts, it can have a big impact. Once someone acts, engages in the solution, others will follow. The paralysis is broken. So if you want to see change in your organisation, stop waiting for Someone Else. As the saying goes, be the change you want to see. If you see something broken, wrong, in need of attention, then speak up, speak out, be brave enough.
Take the responsibility. Let HR lead the way.