Improving organisational culture – an approach

In my previous blog I talked about the Bystander Effect – the name for a psychological phenomenon in which bystanders see or experience something shocking, are close enough to act or react, yet do nothing or walk on by.

The context for writing about the Bystander Effect was the Francis Report into events at a hospital in Stafford in the UK where hundreds of patients died prematurely because of the atrocious care they received. One of the findings of the Francis Report was that many professional staff knew what was going on, knew that care was being compromised and was often of poor quality, yet did nothing about it.

At the time of writing my blog I was simply attempting to explain some of the behaviours from a psychological standpoint.

Little did I think that a week later, more by chance than by design, I have stumbled upon something which I believe could help to change negative workplace cultures.

I was reading an email from a regular correspondent which suggested I click on a link to a TED talk by American academic Jackson Katz (it’s on YouTube). Now Katz has done a lot of work about addressing domestic and gender violence. His point is: the most effective solution is not in working with victim or perpetrator but in working with those who witness the violence – the bystander. The method is called The Bystander Approach.

Well, you can imaging how my eyes lit up! A few days earlier I had been writing about the Bystander Effect in bad cultures and here was an approach using the same science to alleviate domestic and sexual violence. Could, I wondered, the Bystander Approach be applied to organisational culture?

First, I had to check out whether anyone has connected the Bystander Approach with organisational culture. It seems not. It appears (from my quick Google Search) that the Bystander Approach is still rooted in the field of domestic and sexual violence. I was both surprised and relieved. Surprised because it struck me that the Bystander Approach has a cultural as well as a psychological context; relieved because I think I now have a ‘blue-water’ business idea (until someone posts otherwise!) which will add value to potentially thousands of organisations.

For me, the Bystander Approach is as relevant in a hospital where staff are bullied and patients receive poor care as it is in places where violence is latent or actual. There is a cultural context. There are interventions which can successfully diffuse difficult situations with minimal risk to the bystander, the victim or the perpetrator.

The NHS has made a lot about the importance of whistle-blowing. I don’t want to knock it. it has its place. But whistle-blowing has certain drawbacks. Firstly, the whistle-blower is anonymous to those being accused. This can lead to false accusations arising because the whistle-blower does not have to face the people s/he has accused. Secondly, knowing the potential impact on those being accused, a potential whistle-blower may rationalise away bad practice or behaviour even while experiencing discomfort about what they are witnessing. Thirdly, whistle-blowers often emerge from a painful process worse off than when they went in. Many get fired for their trouble.

The Bystander Intervention Approach would be a way of dealing with situations that will change ‘the way we do things around here’ to ‘the way we want to do things around here.’ It’s about Leadership. It’s about everyone having an equal voice and to use it to speak up for the patient, or the customer or whoever is at the receiving end of bad practice or behaviour unwittingly sustained by poor cultures.

In his TED talk Katz used a quote from Martin Luther King which I think it appropriate to end on: “In the end, what hurts us most is not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” For friends read nurses, doctors, healthcare assistants, call centre operatives…all of us.

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