Challenge can be challenging: being an active bystander

It can be daunting to stand up to unacceptable behaviour, to discrimination, exclusion or bias. However, when we feel empowered by our leaders and our colleagues to do so, it has a positive impact on inclusive culture.
Two people wearing face masks having a socially distanced meeting

In this resource from Scott Solder and Su Nandy of the Active Bystander Training Company, we explore what it means to be an active bystander, how to be active in situations which perpetuate inequality and exclusion, and why it’s important.

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What is an active bystander?

If you feel that someone is behaving inappropriately, being an active bystander simply means doing something rather than nothing.

The important words here are ‘if you feel’, which are key to finding your voice.

People’s behaviours, and the intentions behind those behaviours, can be complex and nuanced.

It's the easiest thing in the world to allow self doubt to take over.

You convince yourself that you are the one in the wrong, that the person didn’t mean it, that you’re being oversensitive. Worse still, you believe that there’s no point in speaking up because ‘that’s just the way things are here'.

It can be tempting to accept a regular meeting as being aggressive by nature.

It’s easy to excuse certain individuals for regularly talking over others, not letting them finish their sentence, or for creating an intimidating atmosphere that makes you reluctant to contribute.

But it doesn’t mean it’s okay.

When to be an active bystander

Once again, the simple test to apply is whether you feel uneasy.

If you do, you have every right to say so even if the poor behaviour was accidental, just insensitive or a joke.

The goal of being an active bystander each time is to bring about a change in behaviour.

This is regardless of whether that takes the form of challenging serious and deliberate wrongdoing, or simply pointing out an accidental slip or poorly judged comment.

It doesn’t have to be a confrontation or an argument, in fact, it’s often better if it’s not.

Being assertive, rather than aggressive, is an important distinction.

How to be an active bystander

To do this, we often need to spot, and overcome, any normalisation that may have occurred over time.

It’s quite astonishing how easy it is to convince ourselves that our workplace, our job, our industry, or our sector is special. That the usual rules of engagement don’t apply in our case as we may believe that the perpetrator is ‘old school’, ‘an excellent lawyer’ or that in some other way we are lucky to have them around.

Normalisation can be blinding. It can lead us to go into an individual, or collective state of denial. It’s easier to pretend that something isn’t happening, or to find ways to excuse the perpetrator than to face up to the problem.

It’s why so many people don’t speak up.

The good news is that you can use normalisation against itself.

If you and your colleagues can start to normalise the idea of friendly challenge or of calling out jokes and discriminatory comments – maybe even accompanied by a smile of your own – then a sense of permission can be allowed to develop which says it’s okay to say ‘ouch’.

Leaders can start this process by telling people that they are welcome to challenge them if they feel they need to, followed by ‘walking the walk’ by responding positively to any challenges which may follow.

We’re all human and we can accidentally say the wrong thing, and that’s fine. If people feel able to point it out in a constructive way when we do, that’s even better.

A by-product of this can be a more relaxed attitude to feedback in general and more positive conversations all round.

We humans are herd animals. If it’s the norm to stay silent, then we feel pressure to stay silent. If it becomes the norm to speak up, we follow.

It takes a few courageous souls at first of course, but we all know one or two of those.

Tips and techniques for active bystanders 

In our training, we tell our delegates that being an active bystander comes in three stages:

  1. You need to feel you have permission – and this needs to come from the top.

  2. Keep a cool head. Take a step back. Don’t panic. You usually have the following options – so pick the best one for you at the time:

    • challenge the behaviour there and then
    • cause a distraction to buy yourself some time and get past the awkward moment
    • tell someone else, or ask for their support
    • step away for a while so you can take your time and have a think

  3. Arm yourself with some assertiveness techniques so that you know how to maximise your impact when you speak. For example: 

    • one of the most assertive things you can do to challenge anyone’s behaviour is to ask questions, rather than make statements: “Frank, did you mean to speak to her like that?’ is more effective than “Frank, how dare you speak to her like that”.
    • giving people the benefit of the doubt can also be an elegant way of giving feedback, because it sounds less like an accusation: ‘Sarah – I just thought I’d let you know, because I wasn’t sure if you noticed – that a few people looked a bit uncomfortable when you told that joke earlier. I hope you don’t mind, but I thought you’d rather know than not’