Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth Consulting

I recently realized that fully half of my therapy clients had been yelled at or humiliated by their boss and were suffering mild to moderate post-traumatic stress symptoms as a result.

One client’s former manager would visit her cubical, unannounced, and loudly verbally berate her (name-calling included). Another client’s former boss would start virtual meetings with a game he called “Slacker of the Week,” wherein he’d single out one team member for “winning” that week’s “Shit Sales Numbers Contest.”  

Given the potential for psychological trauma in both of these instances, one might think others would step in with some intervention or offer of help. But none of my clients’ colleagues said or did anything to question the toxic leadership behavior. Nor did they extend any kind check-ins to those targeted. Just silence. Business as usual.

Why?

Of course, people fear challenging leaders who have a say in their job security and advancement. And if the organizational culture discourages individuals from offering critical feedback “up” as well as “down,” critiquing a leader seems an especially risky endeavor. But those explanations only take us so far. What accounts for the utter lack of compassionate follow-up? What explains the widespread sense of, “eh, I don’t know, I don’t want to get involved”?

The Bystander Effect

Social psychologists have long known about a phenomenon in which people decide that, since no one else is worried, nothing is wrong. It’s called “pluralistic ignorance” or “the bystander effect.”

In a series of experiments in the late 1960’s, psychology researchers Bibb Latané and John Darley found that people in need of aid stand a better chance of receiving help/intervention if one person witnesses their distress, versus a crowd.

In one experiment, a student who appeared to be having a seizure received help 85% of the time when only one bystander was present, but only 31% of the time when five bystanders were present.

In a related study, 75% of lone individuals who saw smoke seeping out from under a door went for help. When three-person groups saw the smoke leak, aid was sought only 38% of the time. And in groups of five wherein two individuals had been coached to ignore the leak, only 10% of bystanders reported the seeping smoke.

Too Cool to Care

People like to appear cool, calm, and in-control around others. In work contexts, we often don’t know our colleagues on the level we know our friends and family. So we try to exude poise and sophistication. It’s a self-protective measure. When we witness something potentially traumatic happening, we furtively scan others’ reactions. If no one else appears to be freaking out, we decide we don’t have anything to worry about.

Problem is, everyone is looking at everyone else, masking their distress, and telling themselves “this must be normal.” It’s not that they’re non-compassionate, it’s that they’re unsure. Their gut likely says,“wow, that feels awfully uncalled for, pretty destructive.” But others’ apparent apathy and acceptance breeds uncertainty. People feel unable to trust their gut. So they do nothing.

The tragic irony is that everyone is keeping their head down to preserve social capital. This is why “safety in numbers” is often a misnomer.

Trusting Your Gut

If something inside you is telling you that psychological harm is happening in your workplace, trust your gut. Even if no one else seems concerned about it, and even if you’re afraid to speak out.

Every situation is different, but here’s a general path forward. Begin by taking time to clarify the facts in your own mind. What exactly did you observe or experience? How did it make you feel? Then check in with the colleague(s) who appear to have been injured. Ask them how they experienced whatever was said or done. If you determine that, yes, harm has been done, then it’s time to take further steps to address the problem. This is especially true if there’s a pattern of trauma-inducing communication or action. In collaboration with the harmed colleague, you can speak confidentially to another leader you trust and/or an HR advocate so that a process of appropriate intervention can begin.

No one should have to endure psychological trauma at work, but sadly, it is all too common. Using a combination of intuition, care, wisdom, and courage, you can make a difference in creating a more psychologically safe work environment for everyone.

About Andrea

Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth is Founder and CEO of Hollingsworth Consulting, author of the bestselling book The Compassion Advantage (2024), and one of today’s leading global experts on compassionate leadership. Since 2008, she has been studying, speaking, and writing about the science and spirituality of human emotions and relationships. Her articles have been published more than a dozen times in peer-reviewed journals, and she has taught at prestigious institutions like Princeton, Boston University, and Loyola University Chicago. In addition, Dr. Andrea has delivered talks to audiences at some of the top-ranked universities in the world—including Cambridge University in England and Heidelberg University in Germany.

Dr. Andrea spends most of her time inspiring leaders and teams to use The Compassion Advantage to build supercharged organizations through cultures of care— especially in times of challenge and change. Andrea lives with her family in Minnesota where she cheers hard at her son’s soccer games and relishes every opportunity to visit the north shore of Lake Superior.