Workplace mobbing may not be a new concept, but it’s on the increase. And the trauma group bullying causes the victim is devastating.
While many leaders and managers will be familiar with the concept of “workplace bullying,” fewer will have heard of the most extreme type of bullying – “workplace mobbing”.
This new concept in workplace bullying has been described by many as “bullying on steroids”.
That’s because unlike traditional bullying, which usually involves one perpetrator going out of their way to cause emotional harm to a victim, workplace mobbing or group bullying involves an employee enlisting the help of others to join in and act in a way that traumatises a particular co-worker in the office.
The term workplace mobbing was thought to be first described in the late 1980’s by a psychologist Heinz Layman from Sweden. Layman observed the effects of mobbing on an individual and suggested that the associated trauma was akin to someone who had been at the front lines of a battle zone.
A widespread phenomenon?
Many industry leaders agree that the incidence of mobbing is indeed on the rise. Some go as far as to say we have an epidemic of mobbing in our workplaces. They argue that in harsh economic operating conditions, where organisations are driven by the dollar, managers are more likely to ignore such behaviours and focus solely on what provides a return to shareholders – no matter what the carnage.
Others argue that it’s often a manager or supervisor who indirectly encourages mobbing in order to force a surplus employee to resign rather than pay the costs associated with forced redundancies.
The fact is, anyone can be mobbed – it’s not isolated to a particular type of co-worker. But targets are usually seen to be different from the organisational norm, and are often highly competent.
In a mobbing situation, a ringleader or “chief bully” typically incites a number of supporters to deploy numerous strategies to ultimately force the victim out of the organisation. Tactics include spreading vicious rumours, excluding the victim from team meetings, and denying access to materials.
Because a group is involved, mobbing is often more subtle than less extreme forms of bullying – but the impact is more severe because of the number of people involved. As mobbing often manifests as a series of unrelated events, often when a victim complains, they are labelled by others as a “chronic complainer”.
The ringleader or chief bully is usually an emotionally disturbed individual who is threatened by or jealous of an individual. The chief bully receives intense gratification both through encouraging others to cause emotional harm to the victim, and by observing the impact of those actions. They often camouflage their “darker side” by interacting with the victim in a thoughtful, caring and polite manner.
It’s important to recognise that the impact of mobbing is more widespread across an organisation than less extreme forms of bullying. That’s because those co-workers outside the chief bully’s group are often influenced by how the victim is portrayed in the workplace. Once influenced, co-workers who aren’t directly involved in mobbing may shun a victim whose reputation may have been shattered – fearing any association with that person. Such co-workers might not be active participants in mobbing but end up adding to the victim’s trauma through their lack of support.
The bottom line
Leaders, managers and supervisors who turn a blind eye to mobbing in the workplace are by default part of the chief bully’s group. That’s because they have failed to intervene to put a stop to the mobbing.
The prognosis for victims of mobbing is poor. If there’s no early intervention in a mobbing case, damage is quickly done – and it’s frequently impossible for a victim to stay in an organisation.
Professor Gary Martin is the CEO and and executive director at the Australian Institute of Management WA. This is an edited version of his LinkedIn article.
Learn how to identify and address bullying and harassment with AHRI’s short course “Bullying and harassment”.