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The Bystander Effect, Information Overload and Change Management

Posted Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

In 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City. Her sustained cries of help were heard by at least 70 neighbours and bystanders, but no one came to her rescue as she slowly, tragically, succumbed to repeated attacks.   When these neighbours were questioned by police concerning why they did not intervene, they all said “We thought someone else was helping her.”

The Kitty Genovese case spawned a number of social psychology experiments investigating this “bystander effect”.   Essentially, the greater the number of people witnessing an event, the less likelihood an individual feels responsibility to become involved.   Somehow when others are present, we feel our social responsibility is diminished and we become apathetic and non-participative.

The same phenomenon appears in almost every workplace. We hear about an upcoming project or initiative that will change technologies, processes or roles, but few people feel personally responsible to learn and prepare for the upcoming changes.   “Someone else can show me the changes…” or “I’ll learn about this when I have to.”  This is related to another observed behaviour called “social loafing”, where an individual relies on team mates to bear a disproportionate share of his or her responsibilities and tasks.

If our social responsibilities are diminished due to the presence of others, imagine our limitations when we take into account our ability to process information. Working North Americans are bombarded with about 200 letter-sized pages of text daily and we remember only about 10% of this content. We receive over 100 emails daily and we check our inbox 30 to 40 times an hour. For those of you who believe our brains are well-equipped to multi-task, 97.5% of us are unable to perform two functions simultaneously and equally well.

What are the implications for change management? First, you may counteract the “bystander effect” by having employees feel the social pressure to accept a new change. People follow a “herd mentality” as it relates to conforming to a group’s behaviour, so use statistics and good news stories of change adoption to influence behaviours. Secondly, communicate change initiatives by having as many one-on-one conversations as possible. If you have to broadcast information, truly focus on the “what’s in it for me?” messaging. And since people only retain about 10% of written information, make your messages short, concise, memorable.

And remember poor Kitty Genovese and the devastating implications of the “bystander effect”.

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