Why is it so hard to speak up at a toxic work culture? The Harvard Business Review described what occurred at Nike when some women informally surveyed other female employees and found a problem. As a result, top male executives are having and bias training has ben instituted. The real problem started long before those women started their own survey. It started when some female em-loyees went to Human Resources and found no assistance.

As the HBR article points out, is is hard to challenge the status quo. Some workers see abuse occurring, but believe it is not their place to intervene. Or, they fear the consequences of intervening. In one study, actors played a man harassing a female worker. In the first scenario, the male actor was smaller and less threatening in his appearance. If a bystander was present, 50% of observers would help. If there was no bystander, only 5.9% of participants would help the woman. When the male actor was larger and more fierce looking, the numbers dropped considerably.

When I was in the Army, every Army unit took a “climate survey” every few years. The survey asked on an anonymous basis how the soldiers viewed the leadership. But, after a few years in the military, I did not need a survey. I felt I could visit a unit and know within minutes whether the climate was good or bad. If soldiers would talk to me as a captain or major who they had never met, then I knew the unit was functional. But, if the subordinate soldiers avoided engaging me in conversation, then I knew these were soldiers who did not believe they were supported by their chain of command. They feared to make a mistake.

People in general are more likely to conform to certain behavior if they know others were also conforming. For example, one study found that hotel guests were more likely to re-use their towels if they knew that most guests re-used their towels – as opposed to otherwise simply hearing a message about protecting the environment. The level of re-use rose 26% if the guest knew other hotel guests had also re-used their towels. And, if the guests knew that the very persons who had been in that same room also re-used their towels, they were 33% more likely to re-use their towels. That is the power of following behavior displayed by others.

Yes, but what happens in a hierarchical situation? What happens when persons outrank other persons? That is the employment situation. In the Army, the message was clear: the leader must set the example. The HBR article makes the point that organizations need to covey a message that some behaviors will not be tolerated. In doing so, the mistreated persons will find their voice. Yes indeed. See the Harvard Business Review article, “Why Its So hard to Speak Up Against a Toxic Culture” here.