Fourth Letter from Ombudsland – bystander action matters

I’m just back from the annual conference of the International Ombudsman Association, and this time the keynote presentation was focused on the role of the ‘bystander’ or the person who witnesses an unacceptable or potentially harmful situation and does nothing. Yet they have an influence simply by being there.

Why does bystander presence matter?

  • It matters because we are there, and by being there we have an opportunity to act;
  • It matters because we are social beings and as such we have a responsibility to protect the values of our community;
  • It matters because, whether through action or non-action, we influence each other, and the simple presence of a third party affects the dynamics of interaction between the people in disagreement or dispute;
  • Finally, it matters because we are co-creators of the culture in which we evolve, and by our behaviour we affirm or refute the development of the norms and climate around us. 

What it boils down to ultimately is that we need to embrace the fact that we are all bystanders at times and when faced with inappropriate behaviour, we need to leverage that relationship with positive intentionality. In other words, we need to care about making a difference and overcome our reluctance to act, while carefully considering what might be the best intervention possible in any given instance.

So what causes this ‘bystander apathy' and stops us from taking action? It may be because we don’t want to get involved, that we tell ourselves it is not our business or that we feel inadequate or ill-equipped to intervene. Perhaps the situation appears to be ambiguous or there are other people around who we believe are better placed to act? Perhaps we are concerned about possible consequences or that our action might backfire against us?

All these are legitimate concerns in themselves but they can limit us in situations where it may be important for us to react, in particular when others need us. It is therefore important to understand and acknowledge our inner reasons if we are to overcome our reluctance and choose instead to affirm our ‘response-ability’ in order to take considered and appropriate action in situations where our colleagues find themselves in difficulties. Once we do that, we will find ourselves more apt to notice such situations, interpret whether or not they warrant our intervention and decide on the action needed, either directly from us or via the appropriate channels or services available.

Indeed, in Ombuds’ offices around the world, people are heard saying: “It was very hard for me to react directly to that inappropriate – joke, comment, behaviour – but what really hurt me was that nobody else said anything…” This speaks for the fact that bystander action really does matter as, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “in the end, we remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”.

Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill

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