Personal Finance

Which irrational fear is stunting your career?



  • It seems logical to expect that the more people are at an emergency, the greater the chance that someone will intervene.
  • This is, in fact, not the case especially when only one person’s action would help a situation.

It seems logical to expect that the more people are at an emergency, the greater the chance that someone will intervene. This is, in fact, not the case especially when only one person’s action would help a situation.

The murder of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old bartender outside her apartment building in the early hours of March 13, 1964 raised an unusual public outcry. Besides the fact that the murder took place, the public was shocked on learning that more than 30 people watched from the comfort and safety of their apartments for over half an hour as the young woman unsuccessfully fought her assailant and died in his hands. None did something to save her from the attacker.

In her 2015 book, No one Helped, detailing the sequence of events during emergency and analysing the murder, Marcia M Gallo writes: “… two weeks after the crime took place, the New York Times highlighted a story initiated by local police complaints, that blamed her death on her neighbours. The women and men of Kew Gardens took centre stage in the media drama that then unfolded, making them infamous bystanders”.

If it is indeed true that the more people witnessing an emergency, the more likely it is that someone will help, why did anyone not help to save Kitty Genovese’s life? Was Ms Genovese a bad neighbour? Did her neighbours dislike her so much that they wanted to see her murdered or are people in general and New Yorkers in particular so conscienceless and apathetic? It is very easy to habour such feelings, pass harsh judgement and even hold the onlookers responsible for the young lady’s violent death but I invite you to consider a different perspective.

There is a tendency for bystanders and passersby to not offer help when needed based on reasoning that may go against common sense but is rational to them at the time. It is known as the Bystander Effect. Paradoxical as that may seem, three psychological processes that underlie the difficult-to-accept rationale for not being helpful especially when it could be life-saving. The first Audience Inhibition: Bystanders shy away from offering help thinking that they will be perceived negatively by others present. Secondly, we all know the concept more commonly referred to as ‘Monkey see, monkey do’. It is known as Social Influence. People observe how others behave in emergency situations, and if others do not act, most people understand inaction by others as proof that no action, help or intervention is required from them either.

Last, when there are other bystanders witnessing an emergency, the responsibility for intervention is less because it is shared by all people present. Not helping in such a situation carries less blame and consequential shame is perceived to range from little to negligible for each one, therefore the motivation to offer help is greatly reduced. This is known as Diffusion of Responsibility.

Unfortunately, this very scenario plays out everyday in our professional lives. Like her neighbours watched the late Ms Kitty Genovese, we watch the sad demise of our success and do absolutely nothing about it because we hide within the so-called team effort. When extra effort is required without us being individually asked to go beyond our job descriptions or pay-grades, we sit back, not wanting to expend any extra effort, time or energy unless the carrot of extra pay, recognition or promotion is dangled before our eyes. Someone else takes the initiative and we soon label him or her a bootlicker. If that someone happens to be female, we come up with even less-flattering reasons why she would be willing to go the extra mile, yet we grumble to no end when they are recognised and advance their careers beyond ours. How do we expect decision makers to fully appreciate our capabilities and recognise us for them when we do not empower them to do so by showcasing our talents?

All of us have the potential to help in emergency situations but not all of us do, and too often it leads to the death of a victim. It is the same way that all of us have the potential to grow our careers and advance into leaders but when we do not offer to showcase our skills when opportunities arise, we avoid doing so because others might think that we are bootlickers, it might be embarrassing, or it is not up to us alone. Sadly, like a victim whose life would definitely be saved by our intervention, the advancement our careers would certainly be greatly enhanced by our proactivity at work.

Adapted from the Darley & Latané, (1968) study of Bystander Intervention in Emergencies.