You can kill a person only once, but when you humiliate him, you kill him many times over. The Talmud.
The phrase “there is strength in numbers” takes a menacing turn when discussing workplace mobbing. In their book “Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace” Davenport, Schwartz and Elliott (1999) discuss the massive psychic toll that “gang bullying” takes on victims. Mobbing is particularly destructive when the perpetrators rank higher, and when they can remain anonymous.
Mobbing is cowardice multiplied, perpetrated against individuals who are typically talented, creative, hardworking, good at their jobs, and conscientious; in other words, against those who by contrast make the mobbers look bad. The worst part is that the cacophony of voices (compounded by the rank differential) may lead other people to believe that there truly is a problem.
Mobbing includes injuring an individual in meetings. These attacks are initiated by a “lead mobber,” a person unafraid to make a spectacle of themselves so they can make a spectacle of other people. Upon instigating an attack, his/her minions chime in accordingly with their own variation of slanderous assault.
Unfortunately the tendency of onlookers is to remain silent for the following reasons: (1) they don’t want to get involved; (2) they don’t want to be associated with someone who is “marked;” and (3) a few sadistic souls enjoy watching this type of interaction. The lead mobber always reminds me of the movie “Gremlins,” in which the most diabolical vermin (the one with the white stripe across his forehead) served as leader.
Mobbing is jealousy manifested outward. What’s ironic is that people intent on reminding you of your rank are the ones most often undeserving of theirs, or, who wish to divert attention from their own failings.
Outcomes of mobbing include:
- Gastrointestinal disorder
- Hyper vigilance
- Energy diverted away from creative pursuits (Davenport et al., 1999)
To the extent that managers ignore mobbers (or consider their story), organizational productivity will suffer from the psychological withdrawal/physical exit of victims, and from the reluctance of onlookers to challenge the cabal. “….interpersonal abuse in the context of a different rank is antithetical to reciprocity, mutuality, and equality… It is meant to demean, to exploit, to wound, to harm, and to damage – and it does” (Fuller, 2003). If people sense they will be verbally steamrolled by a bully who has backup, they will remain silent.
Davenport et al. (1999) note: “It is the culture of the organization that determines whether mobbing behavior has a chance to escalate or is being curtailed at any one point in the cycle.” Top management sets the tone, and it alone has the power to set the example and a zero tolerance policy. Mobbers who practice a thousand cuts by constant harassment gain momentum in a laissez-faire firm.
Our “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” mentality puts the onus of fighting abuse clearly on the victim, who (because of the smear campaign) is already marked. “More than other people, Americans believe if you fail, it’s your own fault” (Fuller, 2003). Bart Brammer mentioned that only someone else can remove a label. In my classes he’s conducted a version of the “labeling game” in which conspirators place a label on their counterpart. Everyone subsequently behaves toward others based on the visual information. This exercise is powerful because it demonstrates (in only a few minutes) the impact of stereotypes and our tendency to internalize.
Mobbers do more than inflict psychic violence – they steal an employee’s soul. They leave her/him with psychic and emotional wreckage that’s enshrouded in humiliation. They are a tour de force that preys on individuals who outshine their peers, with an emphasis on those considered illegitimate climbers. Their approach is systematic, cruel, and unrelenting, designed to break the will of anyone with the audacity to forget their place. Their existence is a testament to negligent management that looks the other way.
Davenport, N., Schwartz, R.D., Elliott, G. P. (1999). Mobbing: emotional abuse in the American workplace. Ames, Iowa: Civil Society Publishing.
Fuller, R. W. Somebodies and nobodies. (2003). Canada: New Society Publishers.