Skip to main content

Do You Have Bystanders in Your Meeting?

Role of a Meeting Facilitator
April 7, 2022 3:41 pm

The Facilitator’s Role in Managing This Aspect of Group Dynamics

Balancing participation and managing group dynamics are critical roles of a meeting facilitator. What I have learned over the years is that learning about the complex and ever-fascinating field of human psychology really helps me to understand what may be at play in the meetings I facilitate.

Popularized in the 1960s by social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley, “the bystander effect” refers to the fact that individuals are less likely to provide assistance when others are present. An injured person lying on the street is more likely to receive a helping hand if there is only one individual passing them by, than if they are in the middle of a busy street. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any of them will help.

This is caused by “diffusion of responsibility,” wherein we will hesitate to help because we monitor how others are behaving or because we believe someone else will step in and take charge – perhaps someone who is more competent.

So, what does this have to do with facilitation? A version of a bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility is frequently featured in meetings. Your question to the participants or a request for a volunteer in an exercise might be greeted with silence, as no one will choose to step forward.

Remember in these cases that the individuals’ reluctance to engage does not mean that they do not wish to be in the meeting or that they have nothing to contribute. Rather, it is often the intricate workings of human group psychology that make people less likely to contribute when surrounded by others.

How To Avoid the Bystander Effect In Your Meetings

Understanding how the bystander effect can impact your meetings, can help take steps to minimize its effects. Here are some useful tips to do just that:

  • Assign someone to be responsible for an activity. You can talk to them privately beforehand and ask if they would be comfortable volunteering in whatever capacity you have in mind.
  • If you are doing small-group exercises, ask each group to select one person who will speak on their behalf. Smaller groups are less likely to produce the bystander effect.
  • Rather than pose a question to the entire room, pick someone specific to answer it. You can also do a round robin, in which everyone will contribute something.
  • Kill the awkward silence by partially answering your own question to inspire those tentative participants who are probably eager to engage – if you take responsibility first, they will be more likely to follow suit.
  • Provide your participants with a clear outline of what the meeting will involve, so that they know what to expect. This will make them less nervous and probably reduce their reluctance to contribute.


Let us Know

Do you have a unique meeting challenge not covered by one of our blog posts? We’re always looking for different dilemmas to discuss in our articles!