Employees May Not Speak Up Because of the Bystander Effect

Topic(s): culture, feedback, leadership
Publication: Academy of Management Journal (2019)
Article: The Voice Bystander Effect: How Information Redundancy Inhibits Employee Voice
Authors: I. Hussain, R. Shu, S. Tangirala, S. Ekkirala
Reviewed by: Jacqueline Marhefka

Employee voice is a term used to describe a method of communicating information across hierarchies in the workplace, oftentimes from frontline workers to management. Research has demonstrated that voice has a variety of benefits to organizations, including increasing creativity, making processes more efficient, detecting new opportunities, and identifying errors. Frontline employees are often more aware of these elements than managers, as leaders may be disconnected from some day-to-day processes. However, these thoughts and concerns are sometimes not shared with management. Researchers (Hussain, Shu, Tangirala & Ekkirala, 2019) examined one potential explanation as to why employees may not express voice.


The bystander effect is a common psychological phenomenon. It describes how people may not take initiative to respond to an emergency when other people are present and witnessing the same thing. The researchers anticipated that a similar bystander effect might explain why knowledge that is commonly shared among frontline employees is not voiced to management. It is the information redundancy, or the collective knowledge among peer employees, that gives workers the impression that others are similarly aware of a given situation. The bystander effect suggests that because other employees have the same knowledge, an individual employee is less likely to take initiative to voice the shared thoughts of the group.

Additionally, there may also be a certain level of personal risk and effort in voicing thoughts to a manager. Researchers refer to manager-employee relationships as leader-member exchange, and explain that these dyadic relationships can be good or bad. Employees may be even less likely to express voice when other peer employees have good relationships with the manager. In this case, individuals feel even less inclined to be the sole employee expressing voice because they feel others may have better opportunities due to their strong relationships with the manager.


The researchers also considered a reason why information redundancy and having peer employees with high leader-member exchange would lead to the bystander effect in the workplace: diffusion of responsibility. Employees perceive that because there are so many others who have the knowledge and ability to intervene, the responsibility to do so is distributed among many people. This means that an individual’s drive to speak up would be lowered, particularly when others may have stronger relationships with the manager.


The researchers tested these ideas in three different studies with a variety of methods. The results across the studies demonstrated that employees who had redundant information about a workplace topic felt a diffusion of responsibility, and were then less likely to communicate that information to management. This effect was particularly likely when peers had strong relationships with the manager.


Although there are many organizational benefits of employee voice, this research suggests that employees may be disinclined to use it because of the bystander effect. This can lead to significant gaps in knowledge within the organization. Though organizations may encourage employees to communicate frequently with each other or seek employees who are more likely to speak up, information redundancy may still lead to the bystander effect and prevent information from travelling up the hierarchy.

How can organizations reduce these negative effects? The researchers suggest that managers must be aware that employees are less likely to initiate communication with managers about issues that are well-known among other employees. Additionally, managers can help decrease diffusion of responsibility by emphasizing the unique perspective and contribution of each employee.   


Hussain, I., Shu, R., Tangirala, S., & Ekkirala, S. (2019). The voice bystander effect: How information redundancy inhibits employee voice. Academy of Management Journal, 62(3), 828-849.