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Reasons for silence

Misconduct detection would be a completely different concept if it were to exclude human involvement. It is when people feel comfortable and safe enough to just raise any concerns they have that misconduct can be best fought. However, despite all the positive impact that speaking up can have, there seem to be some common discouraging factors.

In this blog we discuss some of the psychologically driven difficulties, as well as a few potential weaknesses of an organisation’s speak up policy.

Bystander Paralysis
The bystander effect is what occurs when, for example, someone gets harassed on the subway and none of the people around dare to help. This stems from the fact that in a group setting, people are more likely to diffuse responsibility, thinking someone else will intervene. And by seeing no one else intervene, they are also less likely to interpret the situation as an emergency. While the bystander effect could occur in all sorts of environments, different dynamics apply to different settings. Within an organisational setting, the bystander paralysis is often amplified since the wrongdoing can be less visible creating uncertainty around the appropriate corrective actions. In addition, the desire to rely on someone else to intervene is further enhanced due to the ties that already exist between those involved.

Being labelled as a ‘snitch’ is unpleasant to say the least. Speaking up implies deviating from a group to spark change. Certainly a difficult thing to do, it could even feel like committing betrayal. The level of complexity is further increased by the bonds established between the concerned individual and the other members of the group. A person’s intention when speaking up is anything but to negatively impact others, especially those they feel closer to.

Fear of consequences
Evidently, fear of the potential consequences is enough motivation to remain silent. When considering  to speak up, people will most likely be confronted with doubts such as: ‘How will this affect my work?’, ‘What will my colleagues think? How will they treat me?’, ‘Will the perpetrator lose his/her job? And what about their family?’. So they do not only have to deal with fear for their own integrity and safety, but also for all those affected by their decision.

Fear of uncertainty
Building on our previous point, people also have to confront their fear of uncertainty. Not knowing what the process looks like and wondering what will happen next, while also being unaware of their rights and the protection offered, can collectively enhance people’s fear of uncertainty and altogether kill any intention to speak up.

‘No one will listen’. ‘No one will believe me anyway’. ‘This will not result in anything good for anyone.’ Complete hopelessness in a positive outcome is a capital hindrance to speaking up. A transparent communication about the beneficial outcomes of raising concerns, as well as solid feedback can help mitigate this issue.

Talking back to or even simply talking to a superior can be complicated. This is a crucial element of company culture and should be treated accordingly when assessing the organisation’s speak up appetite. See Erin Meyer or Malcom Caldwell for more.

Muted Conscience
Concerned individuals can also remain observers simply because they don’t know how to share their concern. It is possible for people to be morally inarticulate – lacking the ability to express moral concerns. This topic is wonderfully discussed in Frederick Bird’s The Muted Conscience (The Muted Conscience: Moral Silence and the Practice of Ethics in Business, 1996).

The concepts of rationalisation and neutralisation are widely recognised as essential elements of crime construction. Rationalisations ( e.g., ‘Everyone is doing it.’, ‘They mean no harm.’, ‘She is a good person.’) also affect witnesses and the tendency to not step up. Stanley Cohen has done an outstanding job on the concept of denial. In his book States of Denial, he describes all psychological processes for turning a blind eye (States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, 2001).

The appeal to speak up should come in a simple, friendly and sincere tone. Legal terminology and overly formal statements tend to be less efficient in motivating silent witnesses to step forward. They instead might create doubt and scare people off.

Too Difficult
Sometimes raising a concern is simply too hard. Very often the channels to speak up are hard to find or to access, making people struggle to even initiate the process. The process itself can also be intricate. Small details, such as the language of communication, can easily obstruct people from speaking up. Details are especially important for witnesses that have less to gain from speaking up.

‘Not my call’
In addition to all aforementioned points, there is also the assumption that everyone else is in a better position to speak up. People will always assume that a superior, a more knowledgeable colleague or someone closer to the scandal should be making the report instead of them.

Speaking, but no listening
Speaking up can only be effective if it is met with appropriate listening. This requires someone with the time, skills and accountability to listen. A well-designed SpeakUp policy and system can help establish such a safety net within the organisation.


Many are the factors that can threaten your speak up culture. This is why a well-designed communication tool that acknowledges such difficulties and prioritises the reporter can bear substantial advantages to your processes. Make your efforts meaningful and invest where it counts most.

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