The Corporate Bystander

With growing self-organization, be wary of the corporate bystanders.

Patrick Heller
3 min readDec 5, 2022


In modern organizations, there is a growing tendency to strive for more autonomy and self-organization, for both teams and for individuals inside teams. This comes at a price. If you’re not careful, corporate bystanding lurks around the corner.

Teams should be able to determine what work they can handle and how they accomplish that. The ideas behind the growing autonomy are both the advantages of the motivation for employees as well as the high level of expertise that lives inside the teams — much of today’s work has become so technically complicated that managers no longer have the knowledge nor the skills to determine what other people can or cannot do, how they do it, and how much effort that will take.

Also, in modern organizations, there is no longer a strict hierarchy present inside teams. Take, for instance, a modern Agile framework like Scrum, in which there are only three roles in a team — Product Owner, Scrum Master, and Development Team Member. There is no “Project Manager”, “Team Lead”, “Senior Developer”, “Team Architect”, “Test Lead”, et cetera. All team members are considered to be equal and are equally held responsible for the end result which is achieved by the team.

In both life outside work and at work, we seldom find ourselves in situations where no one is in charge, but it does happen. Textbook examples are situations where someone on the street is in distress and there is no police or other authority around (yet). A classic example, which you will find in any psychology textbook, is the New Yorker murder case of Kitty Genovese. The 28-year-old was stabbed to death in the early morning of March 13, 1964, a few feet from her apartment building. She came home late from her work at a bar and parked near the entrance of her apartment building in an alley. She was followed home and on the doorsteps of her apartment building, she was stabbed in the back twice by 29-year-old Winston Moseley, who later said his only motive was “to kill a woman”.

The fact is that at least some people witnessed the attack visually and shouted at the attacker, but did not intervene and did not even call the police. Genovese screamed several times and was heard by people in the neighborhood, but none responded. The response to this case was huge and resulted in the theory of the bystander effect, which has since been proven to be real by many experiments. The theory says that the more people are around when something tragic happens, the less likely someone is to intervene. This feels rather counterintuitive since you would probably think that you’d be safer in an environment where lots of people are around.

In traditional organizations, managers appoint people to do certain work, which makes it hard for someone to not take responsibility, since it is forced upon you. In modern organizations with more focus on self-organization, there is a severe risk of falling victim to the bystander effect.

If “the team” is responsible for a certain piece of work and “someone” from the team needs to pick up certain tasks, who is going to do that? Especially in beginning teams and in organizations in which a culture of hierarchy still prevails, it is common that people stay quietly on the sidelines, not picking up the work — avoiding “getting involved”, avoiding personal responsibility, or simply forgetting to pick up work, because they are so much used to being told what to do.

All the more reason to be very aware of the bystander effect in modern organizations.

If you are interested in stories like these and more, you can buy Essential Psychology for Modern Organizations from Amazon and other bookstores:

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