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The secure bystander: How psychological safety can impact bystander interventions

While you’re here, you may wish to attend one of our upcoming workshops:

Investigating Complex Cases
11 Jul at
in Online
What do you do when your investigation takes an unexpected turn? Have you struggled with how to proceed when the normal steps don’t seem to apply? In this advanced course, we tackle the complexities that can complicate an otherwise traditional investigation. This course includes in-depth discussion of handling anonymous complaints, counter-complaints, complaints of reprisal, and more!
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Special note to BC readers:

If this subject is of interest to you, you may wish to attend our related workshop. Some spots are still open for the following sessions – we recommend registering soon. We hope to see you there.
Conducting Sexual Harassment and Violence InvestigationsNovember 27-28, 2018 in Vancouver, BC
This advanced-level training is a must for any staff who may respond to and/or investigate sexual harassment or sexual assault complaints.
Workplace Investigations in the University and College Context

November 29, 2018 in Vancouver, BC
This training examines the demands and challenges that investigations present in the university and college context, and allows for a deep dive into possible solutions.

Do you remember that story about the emperor who ordered some new clothes from a pair of weavers? The new suit will be really special, said the weavers, invisible, in fact, to fools and the incompetent. When the emperor and his noblemen saw the weavers working on their empty looms, they had their doubts. Am I a fool? Are these guys for real? But, they did not dare to say anything.

Hans Christian Andersen’s story probably would be less striking if one of the noblemen had pointed out the naked truth and prevented the charade of the emperor parading before his subjects with nothing on. That they didn’t, and the fear that caused them to stay silent, ties in with some interesting recent research on psychological safety and bystander intervention.

First off, what is psychological safety in the workplace context? It’s a concept developed by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson in the late 1990s, and refers to a workplace climate in which people are comfortable being and expressing themselves. They feel safe to do so because there is a shared belief among the team that people will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. Notably, psychological safety is about group norms. It is a group-level phenomenon that describes how people engage with other team members and the wider organization, and how secure they feel as they do so.

Subsequent research has shown that psychological safety predicts high performance, learning behavior, and staff engagement in the workplace. A subset of the research has looked at the relationship between psychological safety and speaking up. Where psychological safety is present in the workplace, team members think less about the potential negative consequences of expressing a new or risky idea than they would otherwise. As a result, they speak up more, are more willing to share knowledge, and are motivated to improve their team or company.

What does this have to do with bystander intervention? Well, employees who feel psychologically safe about their organization and their supervisors are more likely to intervene when they observe or know about an incident of workplace harassment. That was the finding in a recent large-scale study about workplace bullying in the nursing profession. As was detailed by my colleagues Janice Rubin and Megan Forward in their previous blog posts, most bystanders do not intervene. Where there is intervention, it is more likely to be a low-involvement approach such as sympathising afterwards with the person who was harassed, or informally discussing the incident with colleagues. In contrast, research on bystander intervention strongly suggests that the more effective approaches entail higher involvement, such as directly confronting the harasser, or reporting the incident.

Training may help to encourage higher-involvement interventions. So too, can perceptions of psychological safety. The nursing study found that people were more likely to directly confront a harasser when they had high levels of psychological safety about their organization, and more likely to report an incident when they had high levels of psychological safety about their supervisors. The interveners had less fear about the possible consequences of speaking up. To perhaps put it in another way, they felt more secure about how their organization and their supervisors would react to their intervention. These findings highlight the importance of organizational context and power dynamics in understanding how and why bystanders respond to workplace harassment.