For Upstanders

If you notice something, say something

Kim Scott
6 min readFeb 22, 2023

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In Episode 3 of our podcast, Ernest Adams and I talk about what it means to be an upstander, and the advantages that upstanders have. We read some newly edited sections of Just Work. Here they are:

What hurts the victim the most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.

— Elie Wiesel

When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.

— John Lewis

A big part of why I wrote this book is to recognize the essential role of people who stand up to injustice. For every bad experience I’ve had as a woman in the workplace, I’ve had multiple good experiences with people who were there to help me navigate and offer support. I am so grateful to these friends, colleagues, employees, bosses, and even strangers. They are upstanders, and they far outnumber the people who cause harm. Upstanders fuel my optimism that we can solve the problem of workplace injustice.

Upstanders have a reponsibility to intervene

Upstanders are essential to a culture of radical respect. Not only do they help the targets of bias, prejudice and bullying feel less alone and less gaslighted; they also provide clear feedback to the person who caused harm in a way that minimizes defensiveness and maximizes the odds that the offender will make amends. Everyone feels better about the workplace as a result. Upstanders also lead by example, encouraging others to do the same. They demonstrate that disrupting bias, prejudice and bullying can be done without as much risk as many fear. They create a virtuous cycle.

If you witness bias, prejudice or bullying, you have a responsibility to intervene. Admittedly, you can’t always solve the problem. But you can always show solidarity with the person who is being harmed. That acknowledgment — that “something is wrong here” — is invaluable. It helps the other person. And it helps you become the person you aspire to be. I’m guessing you don’t want to be a passive bystander who simply watches harm being done, perhaps feeling bad about it, but not doing anything about it.

The Upstander’s Advantages

Upstanders have several advantages making them the first and most logical line of defense against bias, prejudice, and bullying.

Strength in numbers. In a meeting of ten people, there may be one person causing harm, one person harmed, and one or no leaders. If just one or two of the other seven or eight become upstanders, the whole tenor of the meeting changes — and imagine what it would be like if four or five did. Too often, though, everyone waits for someone else to step up, so no one does: the number of people present ends up diffusing responsibility. Much has been written about this — the so-called bystander effect — and whether the number of witnesses increases or decreases the likelihood of someone intervening. There’s one clear lesson: don’t wait for someone else to speak up!

Neutrality It’s usually much easier for people to acknowledge that they have made a mistake when it is pointed out by a third party.

Solidarity across differences. Often upstanders have different but related experiences they can bring to bear on a situation. For example, I am currently doing some work withErnest Adams is a gay Black man; I am a straight White woman. While bias, prejudice and bullying manifest very differently for each of us, the fact that we have both experienced all three at work makes the important of upstanding clear for both of us. And there are times when it’s easier for me as a White person to stand up to racism and easier for him as a man to stand up to sexism. Being upstanders for eachother is often easier than having to stand up for ourselves. And we both agree we need to invite the straight White men we work with, who may have experienced less bias, prejudice and bullying than either of us have, in to do their fair share of upstanding. –and this makes it easier to understand why it’s important to be an upstander.

Shared identity. If you are overrepresented along the same dimensions as the person whose bias, prejudice, or bullying you’re addressing, it may be much easier for you to be heard by that person. I was working with a Black woman and a Latino man to help a majority White board of directors disrupt bias. They reminded me that it was going to be easier for this board to hear certain things from me, a White woman, than from either of them.

Share the Load. People who have to confront bias, prejudice, or bullying week after week, month after month, are sick of it. They appreciate knowing that others notice what they notice and are willing to speak out. Upstanding also reminds everyone in the workplace that making it compassionate and fair is everyone’s job.

What follows is a story to help explain why an upstander’s intervention benefits everyone.

Those Baby Shower Moments

A manager, Todd, walked into his staff meeting one morning complaining because he had to attend unconscious bias training that afternoon. “I don’t believe that unconscious bias is a real thing,” he declared.

It was an uncomfortable moment. The six men on Todd’s team squirmed in their seats uncomfortably, each wishing the other would say something. Todd was notorious not only for his bias, but his prejudice and bullying as well. They all felt slimed by his bad behavior.

Adriana, the only woman on the team, felt it was her job to be a great software engineer, not to educate Todd about his attitudes and behaviors. She wished one of the guys on the team would say something, though.

Later in the meeting, one of the guys on the team, Ty, offered to buy a baby gift for Rajiv, who was going out on paternity leave. “Nah, Adriana will do it,” Todd replied, gesturing towards her with his thumb. “Women are better at that sort of thing.”

Adriana was in the middle of a critical project on a tight schedule. She didn’t have time to collect money from 30 people, select a gift, buy it, and wrap it. But she did it anyway because it seemed faster than arguing with Todd. As a result, her schedule slipped a bit, which slowed down the work of four other people as well.

Meanwhile, her colleague Ty had just wrapped up a big project and had a little slack in his schedule — that was why he had offered to buy the gift in the first place. He didn’t say anything, but he knew how busy Adriana was, and he was annoyed with Todd. He was annoyed with himself, too. The whole thing was so stupid, and it woke him up a couple of times in the middle of the night. He felt bad for Adriana, bad for his teammates whose work was delayed because hers was, and weak for not pushing harder.

These moments can sabotage an organization that’s running smoothly. When “office housework” tasks default to the person on the team with the least time to do it, that person’s productivity takes a hit. And when one person’s productivity takes a hit, the whole team’s work suffers.The kinds of bias, prejudice or bullying that may be happening on your team may be very different. Maybe they have nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with race or religion or political affiliation. No matter what kind of bias, prejudice or bullying that you observe, you can intervene by using an “I,” “It,” or “You” statement.

This post was originally written on Just Work.

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Kim Scott

Kim Scott is the author of Radical Candor & Just Work. She is co-founder of Radical Candor, Inc which helps teams put the ideas from the book into practice.