Mobbing, bullying and other nastiness!

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The following post, slightly edited, is a follow up to the previous one, “Letter to the college student.” Not only does it address bullying and mobbing in the workplace, it extends to cover such behaviors on college campuses. The reader is urged to read and reread this one carefully, and make it the focal point of a small group discussion in the home, at work or on campus, perhaps during a future fraternity meeting or as a case study during a class in the school of business.  -Editor


Psssst, hey reader! Got a second?

Can I get you to join me as an invisible partner as I replay my conversation with “Pat?” C’mon, just hop into my pickup truck and we’ll head to my favorite coffee shop. Along the way I’ll provide some context. That way you’ll fully appreciate my conversation with Pat. I promise not to take too much of your time.

Now what I need for you to do, reader, is to reflect on all the nerve wracking stuff that’s sweeping the globe these days; acts of terrorism, reports of hateful behaviors on college campuses, hazing, sexual violence against women, gang warfare, cyberbullying…and the list goes on.  Hold those thoughts for now.

Turning now to “Pat,” who stopped me in a hallway a while back. Pat’s facial expression was covered with anguish. Normally when I smile at someone, I expect a smile in return. This time, however, it became clear right away that would not happen during this unanticipated hallway stop with Pat.

“Can we step into a vacant conference room just around the corner?” Pat asked me, eyes darting nervously up and down the hallway and over my shoulder. Clearly, Pat did not want to be seen huddling with me, I suspect because of all the attention my articles and workshops on eradicating workplace bullying had been getting at the time.

“Terry, I was about to send you an e-mail after reading you last column. I’m still recovering from a devastating recent experience and it has been tough, really tough for me.” Pat proceeded, describing how giving presentations and presenting alternative positions in the organization have become painful experiences for many. “There’s this tendency to shoot the messenger, and the attacks are getting more personal, which has the effect of leaving the presenter with no desire to ever want to present again.”

During the typical presentation, Pat explained, one person in the audience would start asking pointed off-the-wall questions. Others would then quickly chime in, putting the presenter in a helpless and defenseless position. And it would get worse from there.

“Given a choice, I’d never want to place myself in that position again, ever! My supervisor was not present during my last presentation but the next level was, and they either sat back and watched or joined in with the rest of them. It was sickening.” And the most hurtful thing was that some of these same people who treated me so badly during the meeting afterwards smiled in face as if nothing happened. I lost all respect for them.”

“Sounds to me, Pat, like you’ve been mobbed,” I said, an assertion met with a blank stare. “The one that cut open the “wound” that leads others to join in on the attack is the “vicarious bully,” or the “serial bully” who has a sordid history of going after anyone he or she sees as threat “

So what is “mobbing?” Simply put, it is when a group of people verbally attacks a target in an attempt to undermine their credibility and, often, to drive them away. Like a pack of wolves, once the mob “smells blood,” they move in for the kill, the feeding frenzy.  Targets leave the experience demoralized and may even seriously doubt his or her personal safety. The other side of the danger is that others who may not be the target may retreat into silence rather than risk being treated in a similar way.

The late author Tim Fields knew a thing or two about mobbing. His groundbreaking book — Bully In Sight, How to predict, resist, challenge and combat workplace bullying! — is internationally recognized as the premier book on bullying. Fields, who was based in the United Kingdom, pointed out that “mobbing” is preferred to “bullying” in continental Europe and occurs in those situations where a target is selected and bullied, or mobbed, by a group of people rather than by one individual. Fields says that every mob has a ringleader, or “serial bully,” as some like to describe this personality.

“If this ringleader is an extrovert, it will be obvious who is coercing others into mobbing the selected target,” he writes. “This person is typically the shouter and screamer and thus is easily identifiable.”

If the ringleader is an introvert, Fields suggests that the person is likely to be in the background coercing and manipulating the mayhem, getting group members to mob the selected target. “Introvert ringleaders are much more dangerous than extrovert ringleaders,” Fields writes.

What does it mobbing look like? It  is  intentional shouting, biting sarcasm, snide and cutting remarks, constant interruptions, vicious attacks on the data presented, etc., that can be debilitating. And on the subtle side, it ranges from publicly pointing out the trivial stuff — a typo, comma splice here and there — to rushing the person to finish while conspicuously clock watching, “icing the person,” all with malicious intent.

In combination with rolling eyes, glaring, engaging in “side” conversations, doing e-mail, etc., the impact can be humiliating. Taken alone, any one of these behaviors may be annoying, uncivilized and despicable, and even tolerable at times. However, it is when they happen continuously, purposefully and in many variations, that they can become psychologically injurious to the target.

On the college campus it usually takes the form of vandalizing property with offensive comments, graffiti, threats and taunts, most likely done by a group. It can also manifest in the classroom but tends to be more subtle.

Unlike physical domestic violence where the evidence can be clear — bumps, bruises, cut lips and black eyes — mobbing “violence” gets inflicted on the target’s psyche, shattering his or her confidence, undercutting professional credibility and reducing the person’s productivity. Here the injury is largely invisible, does not heal as fast and the scars tend to be permanent. Most targets of mobbing – in the workplace or on the campus – can recall with relative ease their experiences of many years ago.

So what compels others to join in the mobbing?

First, there’s the “vulturing phenomenon.” Similar to what happens after one or two lions manage to snag a wildebeest, the smell of blood attracts hyenas while vultures circle above ready to move in on the carcass.

Second, I speculate that fear, itself a strong motivator, could be part of the explanation. Let’s take this fear thing a little further. If you really think about it, joining in the fray as a “mobee” is logically the safest place to be. Why? Silence on the part of bystanders could incur the wrath of the chief bully who relishes having others join in the feeding frenzy, thereby allowing him or her to sit back and “stay above it all.” The chief bully will not tolerate anyone who does not participate in the mobbing and will just a quickly turn their rage on the non-participating bystander.

How to put an end to mobbing?

Mobbing in an organization or on campus is like cancer in that, beginning with one malignant cell, can spread quickly, destroying vital elements of the organization. It can do serious damage to an organization or school’s brand and reputation and can even lead to those who ignore the problem to lose their jobs.

I like Fields’ succinct answer to the complicated “solution” question: “The golden rule for attacking a mobbing situation is to identify and focus exclusively on the chief bully, and concentrate on holding this ringleader accountable.”In a practical sense, it means that those who lead meetings or campuses must “lead by example” and set the right tone as to how respectful environments will look like. They need to move swiftly to remove the “cancer” and exact severe punishment on violators.

Another part of the answer is to stop the silent collusion on the part of third-party “bystanders” who will typically just go along to get along. Some effective tactics for getting bystanders “off the fence” may include coaching them on how best to interrupt the behavior in ways that best fit their levels of comfort.

Let me leave you with this, hopefully, uncomfortable thing to think about:

Imagine the Pats who are out there walking around with invisible scars from being wounded by workplace or campus mobbing and think about those who have been mobbed out of the organization or off the  campus. If the mere thought of this makes you cringe in discomfort, then good…shucks, why should I have all the fun?

So thanks, reader, for joining me in this conversation. Could I now enlist you in this undeclared war against workplace and campus bullying and mobbing? Look forward to seeing you on the frontline. Now I will let you go back to what you were doing before I pulled you aside.

And have a good day!

(c)Terry Howard is an award-winning writer, trainer and story teller. He is  currently a senior associate  with Diversity Wealth, a member of the Cross Cultural Academy and contributing  writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle and the American Diversity Report. One of his articles was recently published in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution and the Huffington Report. He can be reached at terry@diversitywealthcom. or

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