Imagine you are in a public bus.

A teenager comes in and puts her shoes on the seat across from you. Her shoes are muddy, and the next person to sit on the seat will most likely get his/her clothes dirty.

Would you say something to the teenager?

Or imagine you stroll in a park and see two men, heads shaved and wearing black leather jackets. They are passing a man of Arab/Muslim origin, who is sitting on a bench, and they’re insulting him.

Would you intervene?

Now turn the questions around and ask yourself: Who in your social network would intervene – and who would not intervene – and how would they intervene, when witnessing these behaviours?

Without social sanction, society frays at the edges. But what drives someone to intervene against bad behaviour? How do we identify the personality traits of individuals who speak up, who intervene, who confront perpetrators of uncivil and immoral behaviours, and who openly and constructively express their disapproval when witnessing such behaviours?

Recent research by Alexandrina Moisuc and team separate those who speak up to feel better about themselves by scolding others in an adversarial manner; the ‘bitter complainer’ from those who speak up to INtervene and INterrupt misconduct in the INterest of the greater good.   Moisuc calls them the ‘well adjusted leader’.  I call them IN-standers in recognition that a sense of empowerment, ‘holding power’, comes from within. This is reflected in words such as IN-group, IN-fluence, IN-timate, IN-joke, IN-spire.

We can all recognise the ‘bitter complainer’, those individuals who suffer from low self worth and as a result, are hostile towards others as a means to feel better about themselves.  They are indeed speaking up but their underlying intention and tone is entirely different from the ‘well adjusted leader’ (IN-stander).

Evidence for this idea is abundant, for example, when individuals who feel insecure or threatened judge others more harshly or when a leader with low esteem becomes the recipient of ‘bad’ news and lashes out in retaliation. This frustration–aggression behaviour describes how an individual displaces their aggression towards a substitute target when it’s impossible to retaliate against the real reason for their frustration. An example of this is shooting the messenger of ‘bad news’ instead of confronting the person or people behaving unethically.

This mode of Speaking Up becomes an indirect form of interpersonal hostility. Bitter complainers’ look out for opportunities to be hostile towards others in a socially normative way.  They operate via the belief that people have fixed traits and are unable to change and that society is hierarchically structured and one can move up in the hierarchy by putting others down. (Social Dominance Orientation)

The ‘bitter complainer hypothesis’ predicts that individuals who score high on aggressiveness and impulsive nonconformity, low on self-esteem, and/or low on social acceptance and poor emotional regulation and are openly disapproving of others, are likely to intervene when they witness an uncivil or immoral behaviour but they do so in an adversarial, confrontational way underscored by the intention of making themselves feel better.

In contrast, the ‘well-adjusted leader’(IN-Stander)  is the individual who confronts another person about his/her undesirable behaviour and who feels connected to and cares about their community/society/workplace and is driven by the desire to make this world a better place. They speak up in a challenging and constructive way and in the belief that people can and do change. When these individuals speak up they do so as caring team members leading the way towards a positive work/social/community environment in which members treat each other fairly and respectfully. Much like an effective team leader, they behave in socially responsible ways and have high ethical/moral standards that they apply to themselves and to others. Therefore, when these individuals notice that someone shows lack of respect for others or mistreats his/her co-workers, they will intervene, often choosing direct communication strategies rather than indirect ones.  This particular research outcome signals an organisational requirement to invest primarily in cultures of Courageous Conversations, where people speak and listen up informally, and secondarily via indirect, formal speak up (whistleblowing) processes.

The ‘well adjusted leader’ (IN-stander) exhibits character strength, a sense of social responsibility, and the knowledge that they are well accepted by the social or work place environment. This is significant because to confront a potentially conflict-laden situation – such as suggesting to a team member to change his/her behaviour – individuals need to have built up ‘social capital’and need to be accepted.

Additionally, they have a tendency to speak frankly and take action rather than ignore a problem, are psychologically well-adjusted and know how to regulate their own and others’ emotions. They feel understood, respected, and trusted by their colleagues, they try harder, push themselves more, and give up less quickly than their peers; they solve their own problems, decide what has to be done, and do not feel controlled by others.  Additional characteristics are that they’re independent, active, competitive, self-confident, and persistent, and they make decisions easily and stay calm under pressure.

Above all, and in contrast to the ‘bitter complainer’, they know how to regulate their emotions.  One might even speculate that certain individuals speak up and express their opposition in order to regulate their emotions: They witness an uncivil or immoral behaviour, they feel bad about it, and intervening causes them to reduce the negative emotions they are experiencing.

The ‘well -adjusted leader’ is able to exert social control by using their psychological resources and social capital to enforce or introduce social norms, rather than bitter complainers who vent their frustrations by verbally aggressing others.

Altruism is positively related to the well adjusted leaders’ (IN-stander) tendency to exert social control, that is, their tendency to confront the perpetrators of uncivil behaviours. Both altruistic behaviours and speaking up when witnessing a person engage in an antisocial behaviour reflect an enhanced concern for the well-being of other people. Research from Montada, Schmitt, and Dalbert (1986) have shown that the emotional reactions individuals have when confronted with inequality reliably predict whether or not they will help the disadvantaged.  For example, moral outrage, as an emotion, is a helpful leverage to confront misconduct but it’s different to anger. Anger as a personality trait is not a predictor of a person’s tendency to intervene. That’s because anger as a trait, does not help individuals build the social capital that is needed to enforce social norms. However, anger as a state, that is, having a strong negative reaction to a person who commits an uncivil or immoral behaviour, contributes to an individual’s capacity to overcome inertia and to confront the perpetrator. However, the effectiveness of this confrontation will pivot on the individuals’ capacity for emotional regulation.

It can be convenient to explain away other people’s pro-social behaviour as selfishly motivated, as that justifies one’s own perversity to obedience, resulting in inaction.

This is a call to examine yourselves: what do you need to set right in your own life so that you can defend the world you truly want?

One way is through learning how to engage in Courageous Conversations,where dialogue has a center, not sides. It is a way of taking the energy of our differences and channeling it toward something new.

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