How a Bystander’s Actions Can Be the Catalyst for Change

4 Min Read
By Anne Jacoby
May 3, 2021

Welcome to AllVoices Experts, a series discussing emerging trends and technologies shaping the Future of Work. We’re on a mission to create safe, happy, and healthy workplaces for all, and we’re excited to learn from experts who share our mission. In today's piece, Anne Jacoby, Founder and CEO of Spring Street, shares her thoughts on the importance of the bystander and 5 workplace techniques for a bystander to consider.

How a Bystander’s Actions Can Be the Catalyst for Change

Bystanders can play heroic roles in today’s world. A recent powerful example is Darnella Frazier, the high school student whose brave presence of mind in capturing the murder of George Floyd influenced the recent verdict of the Chauvin trial. It’s widely believed that things might have transpired quite differently had it not been for Darnella’s actions. 

While being a bystander at work presents us with markedly different situations, we are still called to act with courage.  In our workplaces, many of us receive bystander training to identify  the egregious behavior of an uncommon bad apple. The challenge with these trainings is that it can lead many to believe that harassment situations will unveil themselves with an obvious red flag. The example scenarios are often presented as crossing a bright line, causing an alarm to sound, and leading the bystander to dutifully report. In reality, however, it’s rarely that clear.

We work at a time when one person’s microaggression is another’s cultural norm. Over Zoom, exchanges can be murky. Communications can be subtle and informal, often reduced to a simple slack message or texted emoji. With now five generations in the workplace, our standards and expectations of these interactions vary widely. One person’s standard greeting can be perceived as offensive or inappropriate at best – we’re left to interpret social norms on a case-by-case basis, wobbling through what classifies as line-crossing versus an innocent lapse in judgment or stressful COVID moment.

In the work I do with clients, we aim to bring those implicit cultural norms into the explicit. By equipping leaders with the tools to model the right behavior and build psychological safety across teams, core values are codified and culture in action gets specific. Platforms like AllVoices can reveal the canary in the coalmine, an early warning of offtrack behavior that previously would have gone unnoticed.

Leaders can’t be at all places at all times – especially in a remote or hybrid work environment. The role of the bystander may never have been so important. This workplace observer, often a bit removed from the intense adrenaline rush of the situation at hand, may offer clarity, bear witness, and speak up – when a more vulnerable person’s voice may strain to be heard. Much like the role of an advocating ally, the bystander can raise awareness. It may not always mean ringing the big bell, but a bystander’s action can be a catalyst for further inquiry, if not a rallying cry for significant change.

In terms of practical workplace techniques, bystanders may consider the 5 D’s of Bystander Intervention:

1. Direct – call out the person exhibiting bad behavior. For example, “I don’t think that’s very funny.”

2. Distract – find a way to change the subject: “Okay, everyone, let’s get back to our agenda” or give the person of concern a way out: “Hey, can you join me last minute for another meeting right now?”

3. Document – this might mean capturing video in the moment or, more likely at work, writing down the sequence of events and what exactly was said while it’s still fresh.

4. Delegate – tell a trusted resource at work, like an HR partner or manager. Ask for help.

5. Delay – check in with the person of concern after the fact or, if you feel safe doing so, privately share feedback with the person exhibiting bad behavior in the spirit of helping them improve. Have the courage to reveal a blind spot.

Finally, the risk of bystanders not taking action is painfully high. Doing the right thing isn’t always easy and, in fact, can feel downright uncomfortable and personally risky. But imagine a world where witnesses simply keep walking. Let this be our collective nudge to cultivate compassion and practice bystander intervention when those around us need us. Only then we can actively be a part of the change we wish to see.

About Anne Jacoby

Anne Jacoby is the Founder and CEO of Spring Street Solutions Co. She has spent over 15 years cultivating creativity in business. As employee #7, she helped create a new category of disruptive professional services firm where she hired, developed and led teams to establish a best-in-class engagement management program, scaling the firm to hundreds of new clients and thousands of employees in 3 countries.  With an MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business, Anne has delivered innovative solutions to the world’s most dynamic companies.  Her leadership roles have spanned from General Manager and VP of Sales Effectiveness in a high-growth private company to the head of Learning, Development + Culture at a multinational public company of 4000+ employees.

Before her transition to the corporate world, Anne spent 15 years as a professional singer, actor, dancer and voice-over artist in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City.  She has performed from coast to coast, appearing on stages from Radio City Music Hall to the Paramount Pictures studio lot.  Her healthy obsession with storytelling began in her youth, and she attributes her creativity, curiosity and grit to her climb from waitress to business leader and entrepreneur.  Anne is an advocate for arts education for young people and proudly serves on the board of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts.

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