There has been surprisingly little research that looks at how witnesses react to workplace aggression.
Do they stand by and watch? Do they join in? Do they report it?
Social psychological research on the “bystander effect” suggests that witnesses might not do very much. The bystander effect (Darley & Latané, 1968) refers to a large body of research that has shown that when people witness someone in distress, they typically fail to help. Failure to act arises because bystanders diffuse responsibility when others are present, fear judgment from others, and look to others to decide what to do (Latané & Darley, 1970). Because everyone is looking to others for cues on what to do, often nobody does anything.
However, there is reason to believe that the bystander effect will not occur in the organizational environment. Bystanders in prior research are typically strangers who do not know the person in distress or each other. Within the context of an organization, witnesses are likely to know the perpetrator and target of workplace aggression, which places greater pressure on them to act.
Preliminary research conducted by Reich et al. (2012) suggests that witnesses of workplace aggression are more likely to take the target’s perspective than they are to take the perpetrator’s perspective. Further, when they take the target’s perspective, they are more likely to view the perpetrator more negatively, and the target more positively. In addition, Reich and Hershcovis (2012) found that witnesses of incivility react with anger, and in turn develop negative attitudes towards the perpetrator, see the perpetrator as less competent, and are less likely to want to work with the perpetrator.
Unfortunately, there is a dark side. It seems when perpetrators undermine target ideas, witnesses also see the target as less competent and devalue their ideas. This finding is consistent with Duffy et al.’s (2002) concept of social undermining, which argues that undermining colleagues at work negatively influences their reputation and relationships at work.
Overall however, there is reason to be optimistic. If witnesses are predisposed to see aggression through the target’s eyes, and react negatively towards the perpetrator, it may be possible to train these witnesses to intervene.