What This Lost Dog Can Teach You About Work

Have you ever gotten that call on your cell phone where you don’t recognize the number?  I usually think it is either a wrong number or someone trying to sell me something, but as a parent there is always a worry that maybe it is someone I don’t know calling me about an emergency involving one of my kids.  These thoughts were going through my mind as my wife and I were driving home from a basketball tournament and she listened to the message from the unknown caller.  As it turned out, the message was from my youngest son Nathan who was using a friend’s cell phone to inform us that they had found a lost dog wandering around the neighborhood.

We were only about a mile from home so it was only a few minutes later that we walked in the house and I saw a beautiful black dog, a little afraid, cowering in our front room as my son tried to comfort him.  “Jack” was etched on his tag and according to his address he was good ways away from his home.  I left phone and text message for the dog’s owner who was likely out trying to find his lost dog.

About an hour later, my phone range – success!

Jack’s owner, a very nice gentleman, found his way to our house and immediately Jack sprung to life, his tail wagging excitedly followed by a hearty “woof” as his owner came through the door.  The reunion was so sweet as dog an owner embraced.  Jack’s owner was so appreciative and the relief on his face was evident having worried for his lost dog imagining the worst of what could have happened to a black dog wandering the streets in the middle of the night.  They both left with quite the happy pep in their step!

The next day, his owner sent me this note:

  • “So many people would have seen Jack and thought, “Lost dog. Not my problem.” If it was your son who brought Jack in, nice parenting job, Dad! Jack has always had separation anxiety, and it seems that I’ve caught it from him. We are both grateful for last night’s reunion.”

His statement was ironic because my son had told me that others who had seen the dog that night had either said to ‘leave the dog alone’ assuming he would be fine.  This got me thinking about The Bystander Effect.

The Bystander Effect


This phenomenon has been extensively researched over decades starting back in the 1960s after the murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens New York where purportedly numerous witnesses to the event did nothing to help the young woman.

The typical bystander effect study involves participants “…either alone or in the presence of one or more other participants…suddenly witness[ing] a staged emergency (e.g., the experimenter becomes injured, a perpetrator offends someone, a thief steals something).  Their responses to these emergencies are recorded, typically in terms of their probability of intervening and the time it takes them to do so.  Results in the multiple-bystander condition are compared with results in the single-bystander condition.”  The typical result is that an individual’s likelihood for helping another person decreases when they are in the company of other bystanders.  With no other bystanders, people almost always help.  One theory is that there is a diffusion of responsibility which essentially postulates that there is a tendency to divide one’s responsibility by the number of bystanders present.

The more bystanders there are, the less personal responsibility an individual bystander will feel. Click To Tweet

A meta-analysis of the research conducted from 1960 to 2010 by Fischer et. al. indicates that there are moderators to this effect and it is not as simple as the statement above would indicate.  In fact, the more serious the emergency the more likely people will intervene and in some cases having other bystanders increases the likelihood of action especially in those cases where bystanders would likely work together supporting one another.

[reference: http://www.uni-muenster.de/imperia/md/content/psyifp/aeechterhoff/sommersemester2012/schluesselstudiendersozialpsychologiea/fischerkruegergreitem_bystandermetaana_psybull2011.pdf]

How this Applies at Work

As I thought more about this, I realized that the The Bystander Effect take place repeatedly each day at work.  It happens when people are signing off documents – if there are a number of people signing there is an assumption that one can rely on all of the other experts on the list and their careful review to ensure the accuracy of the document’s contents.  But if everyone operates under this assumption, no one is making a critical review of the document.  This is not the case if there is only one person signing.  The same can be true of emails.  Notice how many people are copied on emails, is everyone really taking a careful look at the contents?  Before computers, there were cc’s (carbon copies) to others but this list was usually less than five people.  Copying numerous people may be a way to cover yourself, but it doesn’t improve the actual review and agreement of a message or document’s contents.

The bystander effect also happens in large group meetings where a lot of ideas may be generated, but at the end of the meeting it isn’t clear what actions are moving forward, and who owns them.  This usually creates the feel of déjà vu where participants feel like the same issues and conversations have taken place before, but no real differences are happening.

So how do you combat The Bystander Effect at work?

Get Specific

Research shows that if people are singled out and asked for help with a specific task, they are more likely to do it versus asking a group for generic help with a problem.  Therefore, if multiple signatures are required for a document, make it clear exactly what unique aspect each individual is expected to be reviewing and signing off on during the review.  One way I have seen this done effectively is to have a review matrix the lists the critical elements to be reviewed (data accuracy, reference checks, use conditions, grammar, message consistency, etc.) and which person or functional representative is responsible for each item.

Be Selective

Only send emails and documents to the those who have responsibility for carrying out the tasks or reviews requested and make those requests clear and specific by person as noted above.

Make One on One Requests

When asking for volunteers to come forward to drive an action or run a program, this is best done by having one on one conversations with individuals versus asking a group.  In a group, each person will already consider themselves doing their part and defer to someone else in the room believing that in such a large team, a number of people will surely raise their hand.  My experience has been the opposite.  I learned this lesson the hard way when leading our cub scout pack and would ask for parent volunteers.  Just asking got me nowhere, but having a list of responsibilities and projects and a requirement for each parent to sign up for one or more of the items was extremely successful.  For those more difficult projects, one on one conversations with specific parents worked every time.

Lastly, whenever you find yourself copied on an email, signing a document, or being asked to volunteer, remember Jack the dog and take the responsibility to get clarity and ensure that the work gets done.


Opt In Image
Get the FREE Foundation-3 Course
The Step-by-Step Action Plan for Becoming a Transformational Leader!