The Bystander Executive in the Workplace: The Buck Stops Elsewhere

If you hear a woman screaming for help in the middle of the night, more than likely you are going to help. Or so you believe. However, Kitty Genovese screamed and screamed decades ago, many in the neighborhood looked out their windows, and no one helped out.  She ended up brutally murdered out on the street and everyone’s excuse was that they believed that someone else was going to help out.  This belief is the embodiment of the diffusion of responsibility and is the classic bystander effect.  We have since learned how to somewhat circumvent the bystander effect by asking for specific help from specific people.  Basically, the antidote to the bystander effect is specified accountability.  In layman’s terms: You can’t pass the buck if you are being called out on it.

President Truman in the 1950s used to make a big deal about how at the end of the day the buck stopped with him and that he was not about passing the buck onto others.  Former President George Bush did his own paraphrasing of this when he stated back in 2006 “I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best.”    Although being a decider in chief may not necessarily equate with taking full responsibility and accountability for actions resulting from said decisions.  How many bosses have you known that make it clear they are the decider but then readily throw others under the bus or claim to have not known what was going on? There are many that are “The Decider” for the good stuff that happens on their watch but the bad stuff, well, that’s another story. I can assure you that for millions of people this is an everyday occurrence.

In the past year, there have been numerous instances where we have seen bosses not only pass the buck on but they have also acted as if they were just a bystander.  Such an attempt to be on the sidelines should be held as responsible as the individuals carrying out the actual bad acts.    In both the liberal and conservative media, as of late, President Obama has been referred to as the “Bystander President”.  Let us for a few minutes extend this concept to the everyday workplace. Unfortunately there are many bystander executives impacting office morale, productivity and the bottom line. There are about three types of these disengaged executives that mirror the caricature  of three key political figures:  The Bystander Executive -US President Obama;  The Bully-Culture Executive-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and the Delusional I’m Great Executive (despite evidence to the contrary)-Toronto Mayor Rob  Ford.

Does the buck stop here?

Does the buck stop here?

1.  The Bystander Executive: Press conference after press conference this past year at the White House it has been noted that President Obama just didn’t know about the latest scandal (IRS, NSA, Website, etc). There were times when the Press Secretary even stated that the President didn’t know until the media had reported or questioned him about it. Accordingly, Obama learned about the NSA spying on foreign leaders through the media.  He learned about the IRS targeting of right-wing groups through the media. He had no idea that the website would go live in such a disastrous way although his advisors had been warned about the website’s not so good capacity.  Back when Obama was running for re-election against Governor Mitt Romney, Obama went after Romney’s record at Bain Capital noting that he would be more aware of what his “company” does than Romney had been.   At a press conference Obama a noted that he took responsibility for getting the website fixed as soon as possible. In many workplaces across the country you have bystander presidents/CEOs who claim for all to hear that they are the  responsible ones but yet they have no idea what really is happening at the line staff level. They envelop themselves within a tight inner circle and make decisions that they then may not readily follow up on to monitor implementation progress and barriers.  It is almost as if they are a great idea person who cannot be bothered to understand the minutiae of what the work entails. They believe they are strategic visionaries yet they are not fully grasping that they actually are a bit clueless despite their so-called business savvy.  Sometimes these bystander executives will publicly take responsibility while stating “well, person XX really did a messed up job, but at the end of the day I take full responsibility for their mess up.” Hmm. That’s actually throwing someone under the bus and NOT taking responsibility. Advisors in such a situation are left having to either pull back the curtain or go along and move things as best as they can.  Accountability in this workplace type is fraught with the inability to get the higher ups to listen and take action.

2. The Bully Executive.   Two of the big questions in the United Sates these days are “did Christie withhold Superstorm Sandy aid” and “how much did Christie know about bridgegate?”   For both of those questions, many believe that Governor Chris Christie was not fully aware of what his staff was doing (on his behalf).  Supposedly, his staff orchestrated several lane closures to adversely impact the Fort Lee Mayor who didn’t endorse Christie for Governor in the last election. Christie held a press conference and noted that he was angry with his staff and it appears that once he found out (or rather once the media got a hold of this and pressed the matter) he acted quickly to get rid of the bad staff. In a key sense that is a quick measure of  Christie holding himself accountable.  Now there are allegations that he held ransom Superstorm Sandy relief aid in order to get local government concessions.  The latest polls show that the New Jersey public are standing by him, somewhat. Their confidence in him as a leader has markedly decreased but they are still standing by him.   In workplaces across the country, there are many such Bully Executives that are labeled so because of their strong-arm tactics. Christie may not be the actual bully perpetrator in these instances, but many are wondering about the workplace culture he inculcated where his staff can feel readily able to strongarm others in his name and cause.  Accountability in these types of workplaces is fraught with fear of having to toe the line or fall out of favor and then be subjected to bullying efforts themselves.  Even if the executive is strong and decisive, bullying tactics can eventually whittle down staff morale and lead to extremely gray ethical situations.

3. The Self-Important Delusional Executive.  Toronto Mayor Ford is a media darling in so much that the media always loves someone to mock.   The latest media sensation is a video of him at as fast food restaurant where he is drunkenly engaged in some kind of accented rage.  He relishes the camera time as well as living the good life in so much that for him the good life entails smoking crack.  He sees his Mayoral station as a way to do what he wants in his personal life.  He filed his re-election papers claiming that he has been Toronto’s best mayor, ever.  The man has not seen a hyperbole he didn’t like. Mayor Ford claims to have  saved city taxpayers $1 billion, kept property tax increases at 1.75% or less and dropped unemployment in the city from 11% to 7%.  If true those would indeed be great accomplishments that would make him the envy of Mayors worldwide. The truthfulness of those claims, however, highlights the Mayor’s delusions of grandeur as well as fuzzy math skills.  The local newspaper, noted that none of those claims were correct and that as a matter of fact joblessness increased during his tenure and that his purported taxpayers savings were arrived at through “dubious math, exaggerations and omissions.”  He is such a delusional executive that I can envision a future campaign ad where he touts his ability to increase tourism and subsequent city funds because of the enhanced media scrutiny his rack-pipe videos reigned in. It’s that fuzzy math logic that just unnerves the workplace and its employees. No matter how dire the fiscal situation, this type of executive claims that everything he/she does is actually enhancing the organization’s profile and will eventually lead to greatly enhanced coffers; when in actually the executive is bleeding out the bank funds.  This is the type of executive that holds pep talks at all-staff meetings and never shares any negative information.  This type of workplace is fraught with constant lack of trust and concern about the agency closing amongst those in the know and a sense of willful co-conspiratorial delusion amongst another third of the staff.  This type of leader often ends up bringing down the house and yet people claim to be shocked when it happens.   The rap group Public Enemy and John Mayer’s inappropriate tweets of yore warned people “don’t believe the hype.”

Throughout these three types of bystander executive management styles, you see a constant tendency to minimize the challenges they are up against and to be at varying levels of willful disengagement. There is also the claim to want to be transparent, yet the so-called statements meant to inculcate a sense of transparency are actually consistently shifting shades of grey.  In all three executive leadership examples, people have been fired. Well, Mayor Ford had a majority of his mayoral abilities stripped away.  However, all three executives remain and the organizational culture may not have changed despite the media glare. Thus, who at the end pays the price for disengaged leadership?  That would be you and me and other “pooper scooper” personnel that may be milling about.

Dog Scooper bags for the public

Dog Scooper bags for the public

I don’t want to be all doom and gloom. Interestingly,  Starbucks’ CEO came out in the middle of the government shutdown in October and noted that he was not a bystander and that he was taking action to spur an end to the shutdown.   Furthermore, nowadays, the media highlights many stories where strangers  rush to help someone often placing their own lives at risk.  Just as much as the workplace can be filled with bystanders, it can also be filled with those executives and staff that are quite heroic-just as long as no one thinks too hard about it!

5 replies »

  1. Responsibility is the key word. I am lost sometimes cause I try not to lay blame. I’m very liberal and I support Obama but at the end of the day we are only as good as our last gig and in his case nothing has gone right since he took office. I have seen Christie in numerous press conference and while he may not have been the actual bully somewhere within his tight circle he made it ok to act in this fashion. Just like Obama delegates. Somewhere he made it ok that certain pieces of information are handled by others. Both types are wrong in the end but I think may be impossible to find a combination.


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