Feb 17, 2023 Oliver Cummings
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Overcoming Bystander Syndrome in the Boardroom | Nurole Mastermind Group Insights

Oliver Cummings, Nurole CEO

As part of our commitment to helping companies build better boards, Nurole has created a programme of mastermind groups for board members who want to develop their skills and networks. Each month, we moderate a series of these groups, in which non-executives share their problems and opportunities and learn from one another’s feedback.

This month, I was struck by a challenge in which a new board member who brings deep functional expertise might be loath to raise an issue because it seems so obvious to them that they assume it must have been discussed previously. 

Say they are a digital experience expert, brought onto the board of a company operating in an online marketplace that specialises in rare vinyl records. The digital expert notices that there’s a significant drop off in sales in a specific subset of records: Japanese pressings of classic rock albums from the 1970s. 

Aware that these records are loss-making, the board has been focusing on reducing their cost of acquisition. However, from the expert’s perspective, the underlying issue is top line: there are not enough sales, and this is a result of the site’s UX and algorithms, which are not designed to handle the unique attributes of the records, such as the specific release year, label and catalogue number. 

Rather than reducing the cost of acquisition, the expert believes the solution is to customise the site’s filters and attributes to make the records easier to find. All too often, they won’t flag the issue or proffer the solution because they are the only one who has spotted it, and because it seems so obvious to them. 

The situation nods to something known as the bystander effect: the tendency for individuals to be less likely to intervene in an emergency situation when others are present. The presence of others leads to the omission for two reasons: (i) the individual feels less personally responsible, responsibility being diffused across the group, and (ii) they don’t want to stand out from the crowd - if no-one else is intervening, it feels hard to intervene themselves. 

Two very different types of board members might suffer from the bystander effect: at one end of the spectrum, there are functional experts such as the one identified above; at the other end, there might be an individual who knows very little about the subject in question and feels afraid to ask the “stupid question”. The sub-prime crisis is a good example of the latter. The experts were busy cleverly re-packing subprime mortgages to make them seem less subprime, and no-one was willing to ask the basic question of how that re-packaging fundamentally changed anything.

There is another distinct but related phenomenon which can impair the non-expert: our tendency to defer to authority above reason or instinct. The negative consequences of this phenomenon have been recorded in both the aviation industry, where co-pilots and stewards have failed to point out obvious issues to pilots, and the medical profession, where junior doctors and nurses have failed to point out similarly obvious issues to doctors.    

What can boards do to mitigate bystander syndrome and prevent too much deference to authority? 

First, it can be helpful to have more than one functional expert in any given field on the board. This will help to address fears around standing out from the crowd because it is likely that both functional experts will spot the same problem. 

Second, make functional experts feel like they have been brought on board because of their star quality in a specific area. When he appeared on Enter the Boardroom, Nurole’s podcast, performance coach Owen Eastwood reflected that England manager Gareth Southgate had been particularly good at this. 

By telling players what he thought their unique value was, Gareth encouraged them to take ownership of a particular aspect of play. He would subsequently re-enforce that ownership by focusing his feedback on how the player had performed in their area and how that had contributed to the overall success or failure of the team. A chair or SID might do much the same thing, whether in the boardroom itself or in informal conversations outside of meetings. 

Third, create a board culture that values the “stupid question”. On another Nurole podcast, former Ofsted chair Julius Weinberg reflected on a colleague who had been particularly good at this. The colleague had deep knowledge and experience in his particular medical field, but in group discussions he would ask questions that belied his expertise. 

He knew all the answers, but he asked the questions to make others feel comfortable doing the same. Again, a chair, SID or any other functional expert might follow this example, reassuring others of the old adage that there’s no such thing as a stupid question.

Finally, when it comes to too much deference to authority, both the aviation and medical industries have introduced checklists to remove all the quirks of social psychology. Perhaps boards should think about following suit? For a more detailed discussion of the use of checklists to mitigate risk, take a look at Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto

These reflections stemmed from conversations I had with board members in our mastermind groups. The discursive structure of the group, in which members support and challenge each other by finding analogies between business problems, nourishes my thinking as a CEO and invariably provides original perspectives on my challenges. If you found this discussion helpful, I’d encourage you to take a look at our Mastermind Groups by clicking the link below. 

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