From specialized manufacturing techniques to Grandma’s marinara recipe, some secrets remain under wraps and heavily guarded for years—even decades.
Other times, a “secret” is as obvious as a seal who thinks he’s infiltrated a fish market.
Unfortunately, in business, such “open secrets” are almost never cute or amusing. Consider investors such as Justin Caldbeck, whose alleged sexual misconduct remained an open secret in Silicon Valley before several women came forward with their stories. Or think about Harvey Weinstein, who many Hollywood insiders knew as a serial abuser long before the #MeToo movement went viral in 2017.
What gives? Is there some complex psychological reason people pretend to ignore the obvious? Or are we really incapable of telling a dog from a sheep?
New research by a team at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland suggests the Weinsteins and Caldbecks of the world do not benefit from ignorance (willful or otherwise), but from a phenomenon known as the bystander effect. The researchers found that “as issues become more common knowledge among frontline employees, the willingness of any individual employee to bring those issues to the attention of the top-management decreased.”
In other words, it’s not that people can’t or refuse to recognize an open secret—it’s that we tend to believe there’s a good reason for it. If a purported harasser continues showing up at the office, it must be because the allegations were false, or the people in charge know about the misconduct and don’t care enough to do anything.
“The bystander effect can be understood with an example: Imagine Jane, a member of an engineering team at a company. The top management of the company is eager to release a product to the market before competitors mimic it. However, a bug in the product has been uncovered, and someone needs to bring up the issue. When Jane is the only member of the team who is aware of the issue, she would feel a personal responsibility to alert her managers of the problem. But, when her team members—John, Jack, and Julia—also know about the bug, Jane might feel that approaching leadership isn’t solely her responsibility. She becomes less likely to speak up, and for the very same reason, John, Jack, and Julia are also less likely to do so.
Indeed, our research shows that when multiple individuals know about an issue, each of them experiences a diffusion of responsibility or the sense that they need not personally take on any costs or burden associated with speaking up. They feel that others are equally knowledgeable and, hence, capable of raising the issue with top management. They find it convenient to psychologically pass on the accountability of speaking up to others, and this makes them less likely to speak up themselves.”
The good news is that organizations can train their managers to address the bystander effect among teams. To start, Hussain and Tangirala recommend two simple protocols:
- Create a culture of open communication. Managers should encourage employees to speak up about any and all workplace issues, including those that might seem obvious. Tell employees: “If you see something, say something (even if others see the same thing).”
- Emphasize individual responsibility. According to the researchers, “[e]mployees are afraid of standing up and speaking truth to power. Managers can help teams overcome this fear and turn employees into “engaged citizens at the workplace” by focusing on practices that “explicitly reward rather than punish acts of individual courage.”