3 Ways Psychology Can Affect Whistleblowing in the Workplace

Humans are social creatures. For the most part, we like to go with the flow, stay with the “in-group”, and avoid confrontation. It’s an evolutionary trait that’s served us well over thousands of years. 

Just as our ancestors who huddled around a fire instinctively knew there was safety in numbers, many workplaces splinter into groups with shared interests, common goals and similar personalities. We find our tribe, and we stick together. 

As a result, this tight-knit group dynamic can throw up some challenging psychological side effects — many of which can stifle whistleblowing and let misconduct go unchecked in a business setting. 

In this article, we highlight 3 ways psychology can affect whistleblowing, and explain how business leaders can overcome these challenges to create a transparent speak-up culture in the workplace.  

1. Social Identity Theory

Coined by social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner in the 1970s, social identity theory describes the portion of an individual’s identity that’s shaped by the groups they associate with — whether that’s based on their nationality, gender, first language, religion, political outlook, or profession.

These social identities offer a sense of purpose and belonging, while being part of the “in-group” can make members feel safe and comfortable as they’re surrounded by like-minded people.

How does it affect whistleblowing?

When someone is part of a group they closely identify with, they may feel personally responsible for the group’s well-being and success. This could result in preferential treatment for members and decisions being made to benefit the group rather than the business. 

However, this need to protect the group could also lead to serious incidents being brushed under the carpet rather than confronted and acted upon. Furthermore, members may feel conflicted about reporting on another member’s perceived wrongdoing, instead choosing to stay silent. Or, they may be worried about being shunned by the group if they speak out against its actions.

2. Pluralistic Ignorance

When an individual privately rejects a norm, belief, or behaviour but assumes other people accept it, and so goes along with it, that’s called pluralistic ignorance. An example of this in action is the attitude to alcohol consumption on college campuses. Many students may dislike drinking to excess themselves, but they believe their peers are comfortable with the situation, and so they get swept along with a culture of binge drinking. 

How does it affect whistleblowing?

Pluralistic ignorance can create an “illusion of unanimity”, where an individual believes they’re the only group member who doesn’t agree with a decision or action. Often, this can cause them to embrace the decision (or at the very least stay quiet) as they feel the rest of the group doesn’t share their disagreement.

In the case of witnessing misconduct or corruption in the workplace, pluralistic ignorance could make some people feel like they can’t rock the boat and speak out — especially if no one else openly admits their discomfort with the situation.

3. The Bystander Effect

First proposed in 1964, the bystander effect (or bystander apathy) suggests that when in the presence of others, people are less likely to act when they witness wrongdoing, simply because they assume someone else will take responsibility. This can often be seen in emergency situations, where bystanders assume others are more qualified to help, and so keep their distance or simply go about their day. 

How does it affect whistleblowing?

Studies have shown that the bystander effect can occur in workplace settings, where employees often choose not to share their concerns or opinions with managers. 

This could be because they believe their manager or other superiors will already know and are subsequently dealing with the issue. So, they feel there’s no need for them to blow the whistle, and misconduct goes unchallenged as a result. 

How to Overcome These Psychological Effects and Promote Whistleblowing in the Workplace

What these three psychological phenomena have in common is that the group can often get in the way of the individual doing the right thing. Whether it’s loyalty to fellow members, an incorrect assumption that no one else shares a concern, or a belief that someone else will take responsibility, the opportunity for whistleblowing is often missed.

Business leaders must switch on to this reality and do two things to sidestep the group and safeguard the individual: strive to create psychological safety within the organisation and implement anonymous reporting channels.      

What is Psychological Safety?

As described by licensed psychologist Malin Moezzi in our 2023 Report for Healthier Workplaces, psychological safety is a “scientific measure that evaluates the fearlessness of an organisational culture.” 

When high-performing groups display a strong sense of psychological security, they’re far more likely to report their errors and mistakes. By acknowledging and learning from these mistakes, they can effectively identify areas for improvement and work towards correcting inaccuracies. 

However, to build psychological safety, leaders must become role models, exhibiting behaviours that promote vulnerability and curiosity. This starts with acknowledging your own shortcomings and being willing to seek help when needed. 

By openly discussing your mistakes and how you can learn from them, you’ll create an environment where others feel comfortable doing the same. 

The Importance of Internal Reporting Channels

In addition to creating a culture shift where employees feel empowered to highlight mistakes, you must also give them the tools to report issues in a secure and confidential manner.

As we’ve discovered, working in a group setting might prevent employees from voicing their concerns in person due to fears of backlash or ridicule. However, an anonymous internal reporting channel can provide reassurance that you’re taking their opinions seriously — and that you’re taking steps to protect them from retaliation

With a professional whistleblowing app, like NorthWhistle, your colleagues can report wrongdoing in the safest way possible. We go to great lengths to keep whistleblowers anonymous at all times. Voice messages are scrambled, files are stripped of metadata, and all communication is end-to-end encrypted.

In Summary

Many employees want to be perceived as competent, hard-working colleagues in the workplace. As a result, they go to great lengths to be considered team players, often avoiding asking questions or making observations if it puts them at risk of looking stupid or being isolated from the group. They go with the flow of the status quo. 

However, this attitude can be a breeding ground for unchallenged corruption. If business leaders don’t grasp these psychological quirks and implement the necessary cultural changes and reporting methods to encourage whistleblowing, it could lead to fewer employees speaking up when wrongdoing occurs.

This article draws from our 2023 Report for Healthier Workplaces. In it, experts in organisational psychology and strategic HR explore these psychological phenomena and their impact on groups and individuals in the workplace.
Download the full report for free.