The Bystander’s Blindfold

Deep in the thick forests of Japan’s Nikko National Park, through beech trees and oak trees that have known hundreds of years, through lush green valleys and clear rivers, there stands Nikko Toshogu Shrine. Set against the green backdrop of forest, the Toshogu Shrine stands as an imposing structure– a five story pagoda lavishly decorated with countless wood carvings and a large amount of gold leaf.

Among these carvings is one that is known across the world, not simply because of its intricacy or location, but also because of its message. Here amongst the colourfully conspicuous vibrancy that lends life to the Toshogu Shrine, amongst the carvings of sleeping cats and flying sparrows and mythical elephants, is the carving of Three Monkeys— with one holding its paws over its mouth, the other covering its ears, and the last one covering its eyes.

While the Japanese often see these monkeys as imparting a message of “speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil”, there is also a second popular interpretation to the message of the monkeys immortalised in this shrine.

This popular interpretation is the one that we’ll be exploring in today’s blog post, and it speaks to the bystander effect. It talks about turning a blind eye to the evils that one sees and encounters.

This monkey with its paws folded over its eyes refuses to see the injustice and the evil that is being perpetuated under its very nose. As an extension, this monkey refuses to get itself involved in what it sees as “not my problem”.


And too often, this monkey has manifested itself in a manager who refuses to acknowledge a bullying incident by an employee, or in a team leader who consistently fails to pick up on the fraughtness and tension within their group due to cruel jokes disguised as banter. 


And sometimes, this monkey may even have manifested itself in you, when you let out an uncomfortable giggle in response to a sexist joke by a supervisor, or when you look away and pretend not to notice when Ava from the Accounts section is gaslighted into believing that her colleague is just joking around and that she needs to “toughen up”.


This monkey with its paws folded comfortably over its eyes, is the manifestation of what it means to be a bystander. And the first step to becoming an upstander, is to take off that self-imposed blindfold. The first step to becoming an upstander, is to have the courage to open your eyes, and acknowledge injustice for what it is.

Bypassing the Bystander Zones

In theory, it sounds easy enough to take a stand. And for an Upstander, it’s easy enough to take a stand in practice, as well. But bystanders within the workplace will cite plenty of reasons as to why they couldn’t/ can’t speak up against an injustice. I’ve come to classify bystanders in the workplace as belonging to one of three zones: 

  1. Unconscious Zone
  2. Uncomfortable Zone
  3. Avoidance Zone

Understanding these zones is critical in ensuring that you have a healthy company culture in which people feel able to contribute their ideas, be themselves and speak up.

Unconscious Zone:

If they’re the kind of bystander who is caught up in their own ego, and in navigating the complexities and the kudos that come with being a leader, so much so that they fail to pay any attention to the dynamics of their group, and completely miss all the bullying that is happening right under their noses they hang out to the Unconscious Zone.

Uncomfortable Zone

If they’re the kind of bystander who sees the injustice that’s going on, and understands the gravity of it, but isn’t comfortable with their capability to deal with the situation due to feeling unsafe or ill equipped to speak up –  they hang out  to the Uncomfortable Zone.

Avoidance Zone

If they are the kind of bystander who sees exactly what’s going on, but makes a conscious choice to not get themselves involved  ‘Oh, that’s a job for HR,’ or ‘Oh, that’s not really my problem,’ –  they hang out in the Avoidance Zone. And this, really, is the most selfish and damaging kind of bystander.

They type who will see all of what’s going on, but refuse to get themselves involved in something that doesn’t concern them or simply because they ‘can’t be bothered.’ 

What these bystanders fail to realise, though, is that it does concern them. Leaders have a duty of care. Failing to acknowledge a problem exists, and failing to address the issue appropriately, means you risk allowing toxic behaviours to take hold of your organisational culture, ultimately ruining employee wellbeing, business and personal success

“Constant Vigilance!”

As Mad-Eye Moody from Harry Potter used to say, “Constant Vigilance!” He may have been hitting the pumpkin juice a bit too often, but he was right about this.


You need to constantly ask yourself what it is that you’re not seeing? You can’t be letting bullying behaviour fly under the radar because you failed to stop, pause and pay attention to your words, actions, beliefs and physical environment. 


In 1992, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers Arien Mack and Irvin Rock coined the term ‘inattentional blindness’ to describe the failure to notice a visible but unexpected object because attention is engaged on another task, event or object. It happens to all of us. 


Too often, our senses are bombarded by so much that we fail to process all of it at once. That’s why it’s important for us to be observant at work. We cannot fix what we cannot see. If we fail to

observe our surroundings, we risk falling into the bystander effect, and our leadership suffers.


We need to be observant enough that we pick up on the small things—  a shift in mood, a change in tone, a palpable level of tension and stress. Because we cannot fix what we cannot see. If we fail to observe our surroundings, we risk falling into the bystander effect, and again our leadership suffers.


So, it’s not enough to just keep our eyes open — we need to keep our eyes peeled!

Stay Self-Aware!

As important as it is to be able to look at, and observe your surroundings— it is also equally important to look inward, and see what needs regulating in your own self.


Try hard to see your day-to-day blind spots. Are you constantly hyper-aware, constantly on edge, constantly in fight-flight-or-freeze mode?


You need to ask yourself these questions and understand how the situation is impacting you on a physical, mental, and emotional level.


By becoming more self-aware and subsequently recognising their strengths, weaknesses and hidden biases, leaders gain the trust of their team members, increase their own credibility and lead by example.


You need to also ask yourself what you are ignoring, and whether it is right to ignore, and what you’re tolerating, and whether such behaviour is right to be tolerated. You need to be able to see the red flags for what they are, and you need to be able to mitigate the risks associated with them.

In conclusion:


  1. Stop being blind to problems in others, yourself and your environment.
  2. Stop creating blind spots to ignore red flags.
  3. Move out of the Unconscious, Avoidance and Uncomfortable Zones
  4. Observe your inner and outer environments.


Take off the self-imposed blindfold. See injustice, and do as an Upstander would do. That, to me, is the message of that monkey immortalised in vibrant carvings, deep in the forests of Japan. 

For more information on how to nurture and reset your workplace culture check out