When a Bystander Follower is a Toxic Follower

Americans are railing and America is roiling because police officer Derek Chauvin had his knee on George Floyd’s neck. Chauvin’s knee was on Floyd’s neck for a total of almost nine minutes, nearly three of which were after Floyd had become unresponsive. Floyd’s death was in direct consequence of the pressure put on his neck by Chauvin’s knee.    

Several people witnessed what happened. Some did something – such as 17-year old Darnella Frazier, who decided in the moment to videotape the event. Others did nothing. Others stood around and did nothing during the entire nine-minute period, including when Floyd was gasping that he was unable to breathe.

Those who stood around and watched what was happening but chose to do nothing included the three other police officers involved in the incident. These three officers were in close and up close, right next to Chauvin and right next to Floyd. They saw everything that took place and heard everything that took place – but they chose not to act. They chose to stand by and do nothing.

These three men, these three former police officers (they have since been stripped of their status), are Bystanders. Followers who are Bystanders. At least on this occasion, Chauvin was their leader. They, meanwhile, were his followers, enabling him to do what he was doing without interference or interruption.

Bystander followers “observe, but they do not participate. They make a deliberate decision to stand aside, to disengage from their leaders and from whatever is the group dynamic. This withdrawal is, in effect, a declaration of neutrality, which amounts to tacit support for whoever and whatever constitutes the status quo.*  

Imagine how differently this story would have turned out if just one of these three men had done something, instead of doing nothing. Imagine if just one of these three men had not followed where Chauvin led, but had instead intervened, yelled at Chauvin to stop, or even shoved his knee off Floyd’s neck.

Had one of these men done something similar he would have been a Follower who is other than a Bystander. He would have been a follower who refused to follow. He would have been a follower who instead of being toxic was tonic.

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*From Barbara Kellerman, Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders, (Harvard Business School Press, 2008, p. 97.)

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