What a Growing Startup Can Learn From the ‘Bystander ApathyExperiment’

By Jubin Mehta|24th Mar 2012
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The Bystander Apathy Experiment is one of the classic examples in social psychology. Demonstrated in 1968 by John Darley and Bibb Latane, the bystander effect is a phenomenon wherein an individual will not offer help in an emergency situation when others are present. The experiment primarily demonstrated how a person will be more willing to help a victim if he were the only one present in the vicinity of the victim.

Numbers from an experiment:

The probability of a person helping the victim if he were the only one present in the proximity: 85 % (pretty good you’d say)

The probability of a person helping the victim in cases when he knows other people are around: 31% (shocking, isn’t it?)


The takeaway:

So, where is the learning for a startup?

When one starts up, the product or the service is at the focal point all the time. Everything other than the product/service is way down in the priority list. The team is small and everyone is dedicated and united with one goal in mind. Usually, two or three people are involved in the development phase and each one is well informed throughout the phase.

And this is also the phase after which many startups die. Reason: Poor execution.

But the one that wades through this phase and holds on, grows. The team builds and so does the problems. New people come in and each one has a sense of ownership till a point in the growth curve. There comes a tipping point in the graph, when the newer people will no longer have that very strong sense of ownership possessed by the initial handful. This employee becomes a bystander and their number grows and there is not a way lot much you can do as the size of the original pie remains the same; only the stakeholders increase.

This is where you take something from the experiment. Pin point directions. Every employee has to have a focused work area. Dropping in a mail to a small team of five will not sort the issue as each one thinks that there are others who’d do it. This might even be out of a belief that the other person would be able to do it better but be that as it may, there is a high probability that the bystanders will standby and the task will remain as it is – undone.

This is a valid point which can also be extrapolated to a company of any size but is vital in the case of a growing startup. Also, I feel the issue here is more to do with incentives. The initial group that sets up a start-up typically has some ownership stake and hence, makes it a point to take accountability. As numbers grow, the extended team may not have such visibility (and hence desire) or the incentives to go beyond what they understand as expectations from them. But definitely, clearly delineated roles and responsibilities can be a huge help!

- Saurabh Deshpande, Human Resource Consultant at Mercer

So, all the startups who're jolly happy with the core team, buckle up for a few more issues as you grow. The path only gets steeper (and awesomer).

- Jubin Mehta

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