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What Leaders Can Do To Stave Off The Bystander Effect

How can the CEO or any CXO ensure this does not happen. Here are some ideas

Photo Credit : Shutterstock


First, the context

An iconic murder took place in Kew Gardens, NY in the year 1964. A young woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered by a Man named Winston Mosely. Mosely followed Kitty from the Bar where she worked and attacked her 100 metres away from her house. He stabbed her twice and ran away, only to return 10 minutes later to kill her by stabbing her repeatedly.

What made this murder remarkable was a NY times article that claimed “close to 38 people” watched this and did nothing. While this “fact” has been revisited and the number has been questioned, it sparked a debate about “Big city Apathy”. From a psychology point of view - it lead to the coining of this effect - “Bystander effect” or Pluralistic Ignorance.

While there is another story about how this Murder helped in setting up the 911 system which exists today, this column isn’t about that.

This is about how the same effect plays out in organisations and what leaders can do to stave off this effect and how they can help their stakeholders at various rungs of the ladder from falling prey to it.


The CEO calls his lieutenants into the war room to discuss crucial movements in the market - A looming economic crisis, changes in Govt Policy, Moves made by a competitor etc. A flurry of suggestions and ideas ensue and everyone leaves the room. Mentally, Each leader, in most cases is ticking a box in his head “ Am I doing ok, Is my division doing ok? I am sure some one else, most likely an eager beaver will take this up and figure it out”.

The tragic thing is, each leader might think the same way. That, my friends is how pluralistic ignorance works in corporate decision making.

So How can the CEO or any CXO ensure this does not happen. Here are some ideas:

1) Call out - Articulate with great specificity on who will do what and when. This will ensure that things don’t fall in between the cracks. When this call out happens - The Lietuenants know exactly which part of the challenge, they need to step up and handle.

2) WIFFY - What’s in it for each stakeholder? Why is a collective issue important and relevant at the divisional level and individual leader level? How does the challenge and solution impact them in the immediate or long term future?The leader has to connect the dots to weave a narrative that holds special significance directly.

3) Clarity in role - Specify as clearly as possible who is responsible and carve out independent pieces of the pie and iron out interdependencies as soon as possible. So, communication and flow of progress is vitally important with feedback loops set in place.

4) Setting SOP’s - As Marshall Goldsmith, Worlds number 1 Executive Coach says “There is a high probability of low probability events happening” - Plan for various aspects, envision and scenario play different possibilities, so that you are prepared when there is a hint of a storm and you can hunker down instead of being caught unawares. Security, Contingency and Business Continuity planning are extremely important for Haigh value set ups.

5) Check Assumptions - While groupthink wins in most cases, there is a definitive danger in “Shooting the messenger” and not engaging with Voices of Dissent. Have one team member play the Devils advocate and this role can keep changing among different leaders. But, to stave off pluralistic ignorance - encourage the ideas and voice that seeks to think or say things differently.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Jay Kumar Hariharan

The author is an Executive Coach, Speaker and Deep Sea Diver. He is a graduate from International Coach Academy, Sydney. He provides coaching interventions to create transformational Leadership practices. For more read about the author visit

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