Mobbing: who, why, what, how, when?

The issue addressed in this blog is that of ‘mobbing’, which involves the interaction of individuals, groups, and organizations to target one individual. The process is described as ‘mobbing’ in reference to the work done by Konrad Lorenz (1963), the ethologist who observed bird behaviour. Heinz Leymann, a German-Swedish psychologist, applied these finding to human aggression when he noted that this ‘mobbing’ is how humans attack each other at work. Here is a case described by Leyman (1990)

Leif worked in a large factory in Norway. His job, as a repairman, was to keep the machine park up and running. He was a skilled worker on high wages. He came originally from Denmark and his workmates often made fun of him as he spoke Norwegian with a Danish accent. This happened so often that his personal relations became seriously disturbed — he became isolated. On one occasion he became so irritated that he thumped the table with his fist and demanded an end to all further jokes about his accent. From that point, things became worse. His workmates intensified and widened the range of their “jokes.” One of these was to send him to machines which didn’t need repairing. In this way Leif gradually gained the reputation of being “The Mad Dane.” At the beginning, many workers and foremen did not know that his sudden appearances were the results of “Jokes.” His social contact network broke down, and more and more workmates joined in the hunt. Wherever he appeared, jokes and taunts flew around. His feeling of aggression grew and this drew the attention of management. They got the impression that it was Leif’s fault and that he was a low-performance worker (which he gradually became). He was admonished. His anxiety increased and he developed psychosomatic problems and had to take sick leave. His employers reassigned him to less skilled work without even discussing his problems; this Leif experienced as unjust. He considered himself to be blameless. The situation gradually developed into one of serious psychosomatic disorders and longer periods of sick leave. Leif could not keep his job, nor could he get another one, as his medical history could be only too clearly seen in his job applications. There was nowhere in society where he could turn for help. He became totally unemployable — an outcast. One of the ironies of this case is that Leif had previously been employed by a number of companies where he had per- formed well, had been a good workmate and had been given good references by his employers.

Much of what is referred to as workplace bullying is more accurately described as workplace mobbing. Mobbing is different to bullying, which involves hostility and abusive acts by one or more people. Mobbing involves layers of dynamics between individuals, groups and the organisation. Duffy and Sperry (2007) define mobbing in a way that includes a description of the likely harm to be caused by mobbing to the target:

“The nonsexual harassment of a coworker by a group of other workers or other members of an organization designed to secure the removal from the organization of the one who is targeted. Mobbing results in the humiliation, devaluation, discrediting, degradation, loss of professional reputation and, usually, the removal of the target from the organization with all the concom- itant financial, career, health, and psychosocial implications that one might expect from a protracted traumatizing experience. (p. 398)

Most workplace abuse therefore involves the interaction of individuals, groups and organisations and is not the product of a single bully or small group of bullies. The use of the ‘bully’ concept is caused by the fundamental attribution error. According to this bias, we assume that the actions of others are indicative of the kinds of people they are rather than the social and organisational forces that influence them. Social psychologists refer to this bias as ‘the bad apple’ phenomenon. In fact, there are three interacting explanations for the workplace mobbing phenomenon: a) the individual dynamics (the bad apple); b) the work group dynamic (some bad apples) and c) the organisational dynamics (the bad barrel). This also provides hope, because individual, group and organisational dynamics can either foster or reduce the likelihood of mobbing in the workplace.

A word about nomenclature

I tend to use the term target when I am talking about the process of mobbing, but it is also relevant to speak of victims. Both terms make sense. Target as a term is useful as a reminder about the strategic nature of the process of the concerted process that aims to get rid of an employee. Mobbing also results in victimization, which results in injury – no less than the injury from accidents or violence (Duffy, 2014). Calling someone a victim is not a term of permanent identity, and it is not about people feeling sorry for themselves – or having a career as a victim. It is a simply acknowledgment of the destruction that has been done by the mob to the individual.

The scale of the problem
In terms of the overall scale of the problem (Duffy, 2014), the Workplace Bullying Institute/Zogby International U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, the largest survey of its kind, found that 35% of American workers had experienced workplace abuse at some time in their working lives. A study of health care workers in the United Kingdom found that 37% of participants had experienced workplace abuse in the previous year and that a disturbing 96% of those had experienced abuse by more than one person. In Turkey, a recent study among nurses reported that 86% had experienced workplace mobbing behaviors in the previous 12-month period. A workplace study in Taiwan identified a 1-year prevalence rate of 51% for verbal abuse and 16% for mobbing.

The effects of bullying/mobbing are significant. In a meta-analytic review of studies of school and workplace bullying, Nielsen, Tangen, Idsoe, Matthiesen and Magerøy (2015) found that 57% of victims reported symptoms that would qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD. It is also accompanied by a wide range of physical symptoms including weight loss, headaches, hypertension, heart disease, cancers and other illnesses. Without doubt all of this makes the target less productive and effective at their work.

Parallels with animal behaviour
Harper (2013), an anthropologist, extended the parallels with animal behaviour and suggests that animal behaviour can help us to understand the social and biological foundations of human aggression. It is an an important reminder that aggression needs to be studied from a social perspective that includes the victim, the aggressor(s) and the bystanders as participant (Niehoff 1998: 56).

For example, Maestripieri (2007: 4,5.) tells a tale of the macaque called Buddy. This macaque was bitten and ran away in pain, and then the biting bully escalated his abuse and Buddy’s friends rushed over to join in the excitement. Rather than helping Buddy, his vulnerability made him a target. He also describes how low ranking females will be the ones who immediately harass a newcomer. This is became they have finally got someone to dominate and to express their aggression and frustration. Therefore the newcomer turns the hyper-competitive macaques into cooperative team players. The subordinate behaviour in this case saves the alpha macaques the trouble and potential injury.

This same pattern of harassment is found in wolves who will routinely single out weakened members of their own group. This tends to be instigated by the alpha wolf and is carried out with frenzied compliance by lower ranking wolves. Lawrence (1996:33), a wolf expert noted that a female wolf named Brigit was so shunned by her pack-mates that she ended up permanently embodying the signs of submission. By not leaving the pack once her new social role was fixed as a victim, she accepted her fate as a subordinate.

Rat behaviour is also often studied as a way of understanding humans. After all we talk about ‘the rat race’, ‘feeling like a cornered rat’ or ‘smelling a rat’. Obviously rats are associated in our minds with badly behaved humans. One thing that is notable is that rat agression reflects a characteristic sequence and pattern, much like humans, with sporadic bursts of aggression, followed by intervals of calm and isolation. In rat circles, the male most likely to attempt an overthrow the alpha rat is the one most vulnerable to being targeted. Like humans, monkeys, chickens and wolves, rats have hierarchies and any challenge to this hierarchy may attract a mobbing. The rat who is targetted in this way, loses weight, sleeps less, avoids females and becomes defensive and gradually wastes away.

To extrapolate to humans, Duffy (2009) summarises that those who are most likely to be mobbed are:
• Employees/workers who speak out or challenge organizational dynamics or organizational policies and procedures are more likely to be mobbed than employees who don’t speak out.
• Employees/workers who expose corruption and/or wrongdoing or who speak out in the public interest are more likely to be mobbed than those who do not.
• Employees/workers who work for organizational and other kinds of change are more likely to be mobbed than those who do not.
• Employees/workers who are outsiders and who are different from the cultural norm are more likely to be mobbed than those who are cultural insiders. Such outsiders include those whose gender, race, and sexual identity are different from the dominant identities within the organization. They also include immigrants and first-generation children of immigrants whose communicative styles and practices are different from the culturally and organizationally dominant communication styles.
To this list Harper (2013) who say that it includes all those who are new, who are different, who are weakened or vulnerable in any way.

Organisational culture
There are particular features of organisations that seem to make mobbing more likely. For example, any job that people cannot easily leave. This includes those professions that require a huge amount of training, and are followed by limited job opportunities. Examples would be academia or airline pilots. These provide conditions where there are few alphas, limited diversity and few chances for advancement and all of this would make them ripe for mobbing. It is more helpful to understand these characteristics as the drivers of mobbing behaviour, rather than categorising them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’

Inevitably there will be limited opportunities for progression in these organisation, and so the competitiveness for resources will also increase the aggression, because perks will only be available to some. Anything that destabilises the hierarchy will increase aggression.

The psychology and culture of the mob
Leymann (1990) suggested that there are four phases to the mobbing process: the original critical incident or triggering event; mobbing and stigmatising, which continues for at least six months; personnel administration, where the blame is put squarely on the target; expulsion, which is the overall goal, but might describe the victim walking away from the situation. Sandvik and Sypher (2009), go on to elaborate the characteristic features of the mobbing process in terms of the following categories: repetition (frequency), duration, escalation (intensification) and harm (at the point where the victim has gone beyond endurance and end up with weakened physical, mental, psychological, social and spiritual health).

Harper (2013), writing as an anthropologist, extends this work to give a more nuanced description of the various layers and levels associated with mobbing. The critical incident may commence the mobbing process, however the person who is targeted at this point will be the easiest politically to dispense with. Once the problem has been presented to a superior, the process will continue out of sight in a series of conversation behind closed doors. The troublemaker will be cast as who the overall hierarchy wants to go. This means that the immediate person who has received the complaint may not be responsible for what happens next. However, they will make sure that they do whatever the management hierarchy wants them to go.

Once the triggering event has commenced, there is going to be a phase of gossip. However, if the target takes part in this gossip they will start to relive their story and this is going to be the beginning of how it gets power over them. It is likely at this point that friends will be drawn into a round of ‘small betrayals’. Friends will be called into the bosses office for chats, and will be informed that there is more going on than meets the eye. The boss may sing the praises of the person they plan to eliminate, but he will get the friend to agree that the target is unhappy and would be better of if they left the organisation. One this that Harris (2013) observed is that if the triggering event has been a complaint about discrimination against a particular class of people, then that class will suddenly be treated better.

The target will not understand the beginning of the mobbing process, because most of it will take place behind closed doors. However, little by little the changes will come. People will be put on projects, they won’t want to spend time with you, resources you need will be denied, your office may be moved, you will start to be accused of things. The target will gradually become a mess. By this stage, management will have recruited everyone that you thought was your friend. This is a particularly destabilising time, because people are more likely to believe bad things if friends are also corroborating this version of things. Also by this stage, friends will be exhausted because the target will be endlessly trying to understand what is happening. They will then start to share ‘concern’ about how the target is managing and this tips the gossip scale. Also friends are unlikely to let the target know that they are talking to management, because they will be embarrassed. At a certain point, the erstwhile friend will become aggressive. This usually starts to happen once the manager has started to act on information given by the friend.

The psychology of accusation means that people distance themselves from the target. The rumours that arise will rapidly start to be more critical, and bystanders will gradually be turned into participants. Gradually the stories will gain coherence into one homogenous agreement. The storyline is constantly reinforced that the target is the problem. At this point, it does not matter what the target says it will be used against them. The storyline gathers pace to reach agreement that the target must go. Those who were once friends will not be able to remember anything good about the target, which is a product of cognitive dissonance.

The next phase may involve accusations. There can be many crimes and misdeamours, moral failures and ethical breaches that are brought up. The loss of reputation is a critical stage for dividing the target from their co-workers. Also, this enlivens the gossip machine and makes the stories more interesting. Gradually the reasons for pushing the target out of the workplace will become overwhelming. In the meantime, the target is suffering and is likely to be turning from a reasonable competent worker into an emotionally unstable person who is barely getting the work done. The lies that are told about the target are likely to become outrageous and completely contrary to their character. The bigger the lie the better. These lies can be made up of damning exaggerations. The worker who drinks will be accused of alcoholism, the one who loses his temper will be accused of being a bully. It is likely that some of these accusations will be dredged up from the past, or draws on stereotypes.

There will be increasing accusations that you are doing poor work. And you will be accused of lying, of being mentally unstable and of being threatening and bullying. This last accusation will be particularly effective because of the ‘no tolerance for bullies’ mindset in the workplace. Bystanders who were still not attacking you as an individual can be more easily drawn in to attacking ‘the bully’. It is always easier to get people to attack labels.

The next phase is particularly painful because it involves shunning and ostracism. Atal Gawande discusses the effects of isolation among humans and describes it as being as severe as if the subject has suffered a physical traumatic injury to the brain. The longer people are isolated, the more likely they will have difficulty initiating and sustaining social interactions, appropriately interpreting verbal and non verbal cues and organising their lives around daily activities and goals. They also become severely depressed and hopeless. All of this is similar the victims of mobbing. In addition Gawande notes that up to 90% of isolated people react with irrational anger, as compared to 3% of the general population. Shunning will do more to damage the target than any of the accusations and abuse. The sad thing is that at this point, if the target reaches out for understanding of their suffering to their colleagues they will only reinforce the view that they deserve what has happened to them.

Increasingly at this point there will be false memories, because selective attention will begin to affect actual memories of who the target once was. This is described as ‘leveling, sharpening and assimilation’. Leveling is the distillation of the rumour into a concise story; sharpening is the selection of certain details over others; and assimilation is where the group convinces themselves that whatever is being said about the target must be true.

The psychology and culture of the target.
For people who are exposed to life-threatening events, the normal response is anxiety and fear, particularly about the potential for recurrence. In the case or mobbing, there will be daily recurrences and this can have a devastating escalation of anxiety and depression. Sadness is a normal reaction also to the loss of something precious, in this case the relationship with a work or profession is broken. People will yearn for things to be different. There may be guilt and ruminations about what one has done to deserve what happened, and the impact that this will have on loved ones who are dependent on the target. Anger and irritability are also responses to major responses – and this anger may expressed in the workplace, but more likely within the safer confines of the home situation.

One of the hallmarks of posttraumatic stress is re-experiencing the event. In the case of mobbing this will manifest as ruminations and intrusive thoughts, usually to the point of not being able to think about anything else. For some people, there may be a maladaptive reaching for substances to defuse the tension. This could be food, drink, drugs or tobacco. There is also a strong relationship between physical symptoms and stressful life events. These may include fatigue, gastrointestinal problems, trouble breathing, muscle aches and pains, difficulty sleeping or heart problems.

It needs to be first acknowledged that mobbing that leads to losing the narrative thread of your life will bring about levels of stress and grief that feel unprecedented. Confrontation with this level of suffering changes people and they can truthfully say “I am not who I was”.

The loss of a treasured work role through mobbing is associated with loss of reputation, professional identity, job, economic base and career. It is also very much something that leads to changed relationships. “You find out who your real friends are”. Most career academics spend more time with their workmates than they do with their spouses and family. Yet in the context of a mobbing, the majority of relationships in the workplace will no longer be available. This is a very lonely place to inhabit.

The person who loves their career has a relationship with their work that can feel fundamental to the self. There is a philosophy that underpins their confidence which suddenly gets pulled from its moorings. The whole basis for how one argues and thinks can become irrelevant, all the carefully developed tools are no longer part of the game that is being played. This can lead to a complete existential overhaul, which leads to a more profound questioning of the nature of good and evil.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross famously demonstrated that grief is a profound and patterned state of stress and depression associated with the loss of a loved one. Janice Harper (2013) suggests that recovery from the mobbing process depends on the psychological stage of grief they are at when they seek help. Early recognition can help the target gain control of their emotional responses, which may be enough to modulate the mobbing response even if it does not save their career.

Denial: The first stage of grief is denial and for mobbing targets this stage is critical. The usual process is that the target denies what is happening, but this does not stop the anguish and pain. Unfortunately, this means that the target is likely to be unable to perform to their best ability. Good supervision is likely to uncover what is happening very quickly – but what happens next depends on the skill and experience of the supervisor. Similarly, the target may seek help from a mental health professional, and this may help to build strength for the intensification of aggression which will undoubtedly follow.

Anger: It is completely natural to become angry when one is treated unfairly, especially when one’s survival and that of the family is threatened. Anger is not everyone’s response, and for some people anger will not happen until after the event. However, anger expressed in the workplace at this point is going to give ammunition to the mob and therefore it is to be avoided at all costs. However, sometimes people are accused of anger and called ‘intimidating’ and ‘threatening’ even if nothing is directly expressed. It is enough for someone to show on the target’s face for this accusation to arise.

Bargaining: when it comes to death and dying we may try to bargain with god, even when the odds are against us. Bargaining with employers at this stage is usually useless. The more evidence that is presented to the leader of the mob to demonstrate that they are wrong, the more determined they will be to prevail. For the mob, this is simply evidence of desperation and the ‘win’ is in sight. Harper suggests that bargaining should either be done very early, or else should be held off until the target is out of the workplace (but has retained legal rights)

Depression: The depression and anxiety associated with mobbing can be debilitating. It can hit while one is still on the job, and commonly becomes profound after job loss. The target needs to use every tool in the book to counter this depression from the outset including comedy, exercise, community service, travel and cognitive therapies. Broadening one’s support base is also important, because there are so many losses associated with the the workplace.

Acceptance: This is the first true stage of healing. The earlier one can remove oneself from the mob, the faster and greater the recovery both professionally and psychologically. Unfortunately the previous phases of grief can get in the way, which is why it is helpful to understand that these phases are normal. The best thing to do is to recognise what phase you are in, and whether you have become stuck. It is important to address whatever phase you are in.

A diagnosis is an important first step in understanding the experience. Dr Heinz Leyman developed a questionnaire and typography of 45 mobbing actions, covering five categories (

Effects on self-expression and communication
Effects on social contacts
Effects on personal reputation
Effects on occupational situation and quality of life
Effects on physical health