Meetings and the Bystander Effect

Have you ever heard of the Bystander Effect? (I think of it as the Bystander’s Dilemma). According to, its “the inhibiting influence of the presence of others on a person’s willingness to help someone in need” (

I’ve seen this play out many times in a work meeting. Have you ever been in a meeting, maybe to talk through some issue or problem, and during the meeting come up with a bunch of ideas or action items? Then at the end of the meeting, no one volunteers to go DO any of the ideas or action items?

I’ve especially seen it in Sprint Planning meetings. The user stories are all written, effort estimation is done, but then no one is volunteering to take on any of the tasks for the Sprint. “OK, who wants to go work on this task now?” (silence and crickets)

So what can you, as a technical leader, do about this? Here are some ideas.

Be the Ice Breaker

In the Bystander Effect, frequently once at least one person “breaks the ice” and starts doing something, others join in more freely. You can be that person! When you are at a meeting like this, be willing to volunteer for a task. Yes, I’m sure you are very busy. But why are you at that meeting then, if you don’t think this is important? And if you can volunteer for maybe one of the smaller tasks, then it will at least be enough for other people to start stepping forward.

Be the Encourager

Another way you can help with this scenario, especially if you are not in a formal leadership role, is to encourage other people. “Hey Mary, you are really good at research. Can you go take a look at Action Item 3 for us? I’ll reach out in a day or two to see if there’s anything I can help with?” Note that this can take a lot of emotional intelligence to be able to encourage and ask other people without coming across as “bossy”. But this can be part of what helps you earn people’s respect, by helping out others and at the same time helping the organization solve problems.

Be the Assigner

Sometimes, especially if you are in a more formal leadership role (like technical lead), you have to just assign things to people. “Steve, I need you to take a look at User Story 7.” But this can still be done with tact and grace. Instead of looking over the tasks and asking who wants to work on them, go around the room with the people present and figure out what they can do. “Steve, which one of these tasks can you take a look at for us, to help out the team?” By flipping the script you can help foster a sense of teamwork and camaraderie by having everyone pitch in to help.

With these simple ideas, you can help your team or meeting break through the Bystander Effect and get momentum and movement on the tasks and user stories that need to be done.

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