In the following, we offer tools to actively foster a collegial culture and climate while also addressing complicating factors and consequences of inaction (Figure 1)
3.1 Bystander intervention
A proven effective method of reducing workplace toxicity in complex social systems such as ours is through bystander intervention training (BIT) and “train the trainer” instruction on how to present the information in a concise and engaging way to others. Bystander Intervention is recognizing a potentially harmful situation or interaction between other individuals and choosing to respond in a way that could positively influence the outcome. The value of bystander intervention training is well described by Helena Cawley, President of H.A.B.I.T. Advisors LLC: “The principles taught in bystander intervention trainings can be effective in both the field and office environments. Individuals that apply effective intervention techniques are often able to foresee and avoid problems from developing in the first place and are also effective at addressing them in the moment. However, a coordinated group of trained individuals is the most effective at monitoring and correcting toxic behavior.”
BIT is offered as standalone workshops, at scientific conferences (such as AGU), and abbreviated versions are also available online (see, e.g., the BeVocal initiative at UT Austin as well as a compilation of trainings by the ADVANCEGeo Partnership). The USGS offers a thorough training called “STEPUP! Employee Empowerment Strategies (SEES): A Bystander Intervention Program Designed for Scientific Workplaces” which typically requires four hours of active instruction (one or two-day formats). While no summary is an adequate substitute for actual training, several concepts are highlighted below because they can be applied to many situations prone to interpersonal conflict.
Leader and First Follower – The first person to confront an individual or group behaving in a toxic manner is called a Leader and the next person to speak up is considered the First Follower. When only a Leader confronts the offender, the toxic behavior is not likely to change; however, when a First Follower also confronts the offender, the behavior is corrected a majority of the time. The predictability of this concept motivates an important implication: given that toxic behaviors often follow patterns, it is possible to anticipate if, and perhaps when, they will occur. Therefore, at least two, but preferably more, individuals in a group should prepare by agreeing who will be the Leader and who will be the First (and subsequent) Follower(s). However, this proactive approach can also be applied to less predictable situations. For example, a field team could anticipate when and where they are most likely to encounter toxic behavior while traveling and, through discussion, determine who is more comfortable in the Leader and First Follower roles.
Calling people in – For those untrained, understanding of bystander intervention is often limited to confronting strangers, whereas toxic behaviors in the workplace are often exhibited by those we may know well and interact with frequently. As a result, confronting toxic behaviors has the potential to disrupt or damage relationships and the community if communication is conducted in a way that is alienating to the offender. We therefore recommend adopting an approach of “calling people in” (see, e.g., UTIG Seminar by Dr. Skyller Walkes). There are a multitude of approaches to this; however, the goal is to communicate to the offender that they did something that was damaging to the community with the assumption that their conduct was not ill-intentioned, and that the community desires their inclusion but their behavior must be improved. Since these situations may cause emotional responses, it is important to use language that does not feel challenging (“You never”, “You always”) but to speak from questions rather than accusations (“can you please explain what you meant by… I don’t think I understood;” or “I feel like you said …., is that what you meant?”).
3.2 Complicating factors
Several general factors make active bystander intervention difficult, especially in the absence of formal training, such as: 1) fear of embarrassment and/or ostracization, 2) general conflict aversion, 3) a real or perceived lack of interpersonal and/or verbal skills deemed necessary to handle the situation, and 4) general or specific social anxiety. In addition, 5) if the initial reaction includes anger, one may choose not to speak up, believing it is best to wait until the anger passes for fear of making the situation worse or alienating potential First Followers. Each of these examples can be addressed through training and proactive Leader-First Follower agreements.
Real or perceived power imbalances are perhaps the most severe factors complicating bystander intervention. For various academic environments such as teaching departments, research laboratories, or field teams, this problem can be amplified when “informal” cultures are instituted (intentionally or otherwise) due to their tendency to make those in positions of authority less cognizant of the still-present power imbalances in the system. Clear definitions of expectations for behavior and boundaries for participation in activities should be considered for any organization, but especially where informal cultures persist. Otherwise, negative behavior is more likely to go unchecked as those in lower positions of the power structure remain hesitant to speak up due to fear of retaliation or fear of denial of opportunity (e.g., fieldwork, reference letters, promotions), among others. Early career professionals (junior staff, students, postdocs, and others within six years of completing their Ph.D.) are especially vulnerable to the risk of such denial of opportunity and are therefore structurally disincentivized from reporting problems with their supervisors/mentors. This committee has not identified clear solutions to this problem but wish to describe the issue here for future consideration.
In some situations, bystander apathy plays a role. Bystanders can be less likely to take action in a situation where others are present because each individual may feel that someone else is in a better position to say or do something. This is a well-studied phenomenon and several factors are known to contribute, including the difficulty of interpreting a confusing situation, the perceived or real consequences of acting, the immediate and unpredictable nature of situations precluding preparation or a plan to act, and the fact that situations requiring intervention are not common enough for us to have adequate practice in the required skills.
3.3 Thresholds: When to say (or do) something?
At UTIG, all employees should feel that their workplace is safe and free from toxic behaviors. Taking action in the moment is valuable because toxic behaviors that are left unaddressed or unrecognized may escalate over time (“threshold creep”). Someone who feels their behavior is tacitly tolerated by the community may become emboldened and others may be led to believe that the culture accepts this type of behavior. Moreover, a continuation or escalation of negative behaviors may lead the recipients to feel that their safety (physical and/or mental health) is threatened. This can be particularly acute in the field, where individuals are disconnected from supportive resources, but is certainly not limited to field work.
3.4 Trainings available at UT Austin
The University of Texas at Austin provides additional resources through the UTLearn system. Topics include “Managing Bias”, “Strategies for an Equitable Workplace”, “Be Vocal”, and “Managing Difficult Situations with External Constituents”, among many others. We stress that all members of our community should try facilitating relationships with others at UTIG who are available to discuss lived experiences and challenges (e.g. research staff members are encouraged to utilize the UTIG Mentoring Program for this purpose).