We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival. Winston Churchill
The mobbing instinct
What do birds, meerkats, chimpanzees, seals, squirrels and fish have in common with humans? Probably several things, but one thing they share is that certain examples of these species engage in mobbing behaviour. Mobbing involves a series of abusive actions in order to remove a threat to a group. Ethologist Konrad Lorenz applied the word mobbing to animal and bird behaviour in the 1960s. One example of an ornithological mobber is the Australian noisy miner bird, colonies of which erupt into a chorus signalling alarm at the approach of a predator such as a goanna, snake, or hawk. The birds then act co-operatively to fly around the predator, striking, diving, clicking and snapping at it until the predator is injured, is still, or leaves. Noisy miners also gang up on fellow members of the colony to drive them out. On the other side, owls can be targets of mobbing, particularly if they are injured and visible during the day. Small birds surround the owl, sending out an alarm call to beckon more birds to the mob, and infect them with their mobbing behaviour. The birds come close to the owl to display, peck or swoop at it until the owl leaves. In animals, mobbing can occur against predators from different species or even against members of their own species in a bid for individual and group survival. In humans, the invective is directed against fellow members of an organisation in order to oust them from groups or places.
Mobbing can happen anywhere
It is the involvement of both the group and the organisation in the abuse against a target that differentiates mobbing from bullying, which can involve a single offender harassing a target. As Kenneth Westhues states on his website devoted to mobbing in academia, mobbing represents “the bursting forth of two instincts at once; the instinct to join with others in an unusually cohesive group, and the instinct to destroy a target”. No one is safe: it occurs amongst children at school, amongst adults in the workplace, amongst academics, teachers, healthcare and legal professionals, in clubs and associations, everywhere. It can happen from the top down, when subordinates are mobbed, in can happen upwards, when people gang up on leaders, or it can happen sideways, to peers of equal standing. Mobbing represents a co-operative campaign of prolonged and frequent harassment by a group who views itself as the superior and righteous “in” group, and the target as a deviant outsider. Other names for mobbing include “ganging up”, and “psychic terror”.
In Sweden in the 1970s, physician Peter-Paul Heinemann applied the concept of mobbing to group aggression in children and adults. Soon after in the 1980s, also in Sweden, Heinz Leymann developed comprehensive research and concepts related to mobbing in workplaces. On his website, the late Leymann acknowledges that the concept of mobbing is an old one, stemming back to the beginning of various cultures. Many examples of mobbing are scattered through history and culture; the Salem witch hunts and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies are two famous examples. So although the practice of mobbing is ancient, the research is relatively recent. It has however attracted multidisciplinary interest, particularly as it appears to be a global public health problem.
In their recent publication, Mobbing: Causes, Consequences and Solutions (Oxford University Press, 2012), Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry define mobbing as “the targeting of an individual or group of individuals within an organisation or school and the subjecting of that individual or group of individuals to a series of abusive and humiliating behaviours designed to cast them in a negative light, destabilise them, create suspicion about their worth as members of the organisation and, ultimately, to either force them out of the organisation or to render them as suspect and unworthy while remaining within the organisation.”
The measurement of abuse in schools and workplaces is often subsumed under the headings of bullying or harassment, so prevalence rates aren’t always easy to disentangle and compare. But let’s take the unscientific approach, and ask how many of you have been involved in a situation in which a person was ganged up on and victimised, either subtly or overtly? I would say there is a good chance that many of you have, whether as a target, a bystander, or a participant. The research that does exist shows that mobbing is common, and a global public health problem. A 2010 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute showed that in the American workplace alone, 35% had experience bullying first-hand, and 15% had witnessed it. We can assume that many of these cases were in fact examples of mobbing.
How do mobbers mob?
Mobbers use an arsenal of direct and indirect unpleasant behaviours to undermine their victim: character assassination through malicious rumours and falsehoods; ostracism; hostile verbal and non-verbal attacks; organising others to join the attack; sabotage of work or personal belongings; and often blaming the target as the problem, using psychological labels or negative terminology. As Duffy and Sperry are careful to point out, mobbing is symptomatic of a dysfunctional environment. The group and organisational dynamics explain the mobbing, not the personal characteristics of the target alone. Individual attributes are relevant only in how they interact with the group and organisational context. Certain environments are more prone to abuse than others, for example those that value productivity over people. People in groups become infected by the mobbing, and sometimes reasonable people might act unreasonably because of the group dynamic. There is also a sense that acting as part of a group reduces individual responsibility.
The organisation may unwittingly become part of the mobbing by ignoring the problem, or blaming the victim. Indeed, it seems rare that an organisation is actively helpful in addressing mobbing, or that victims get appropriate reparation. Organisations are part of the problem, and are often unlikely to have the resources to respond to individual problems without putting the benefit of the organisation first. For example, people who have been mobbed might follow reporting procedures in their organisation, but the people who respond, such as Human Resource officers or senior managers, have a conflict of interest. To acknowledge a member has been mobbed is to admit liability to some degree, and a failure of duty of care. Not only that, it might involve allegations of misconduct and consequences against its leaders. It seems that organisations often feel it is in its best interest to ignore mobbing, although the cost in terms of employee turnover, group morale, absenteeism and sick pay can be substantial. Not only that, but mobbers are likely to strike again.
The effects of mobbing
So, what of individual targets? How does mobbing affect them? Duffy and Sperry acknowledge that the main experience of targets is loss: loss of self confidence and identity, loss of self respect and dignity, loss of sense of belonging, loss of belief in a fair world and in the humanity of others, loss of adequate functioning professionally and socially, loss of mental and physical health, loss of income, loss of lifestyle, loss of coping resources… loss in nearly every domain. Citing Leymann, ‘loss of coping resources… a feeling of desperation and total helplessness, a feeling of great rage about lack of legal remedies, great anxiety and despair’. Physical consequences include headaches, gastrointestinal and cardiac problems, impaired immune functioning, sudden death or suicide. Psychological consequences can include anxiety, depression, or symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as hypervigilance and intrusive thoughts. On top of this, there are a whole host of negative feelings and consequences: disbelief, shock, denial, loneliness, avoidance behaviour, feelings of powerlessness, inferiority and humiliation. Add to this eating and sleeping difficulties, increased stress and fatigue, and a tendency to engage in addictive behaviours, and you have a veritable cocktail of personal collapse. It is little wonder that targets start acting differently, but the mobbers can take even these behavioural changes to use as further evidence for their campaign. It is also little wonder that targets might harbour the desire for recognition and revenge, sometimes fatally so if the target resorts to homicide. And of course, family members and relationships of targets inevitably suffer, as targets withdraw, shut down, become obsessed, and require additional support.
Targets of mobbing are exposed to a prolonged and frequent series of abusive events, or cumulative trauma. Mobbers are often covert, so targets cannot always directly identify and deal with the many insidious and damaging behaviours that slowly erode everything the target values. Indeed, targets often blame themselves, and are slow to recognise what is happening. Once they have recognised it, it is often hard to produce evidence or specific things to include in formalised grievances. As Evelyn Field, psychologist and bully blocking expert says, it is hard to treat until targets receive validation and justice. This, however, is often difficult to do, as targets have to fight to solve the problems themselves. Simply doing this requires a certain level of confidence, energy and clarity that the victims might not have. It also requires the organisation to recognise and respond fairly and respectfully to allegations.
Targets are placed in a no-win situation. If they stay in the toxic environment, they may continue to be exposed to the abusive behaviours that are damaging their psychological and physical health. They might not easily be able to leave, if circumstances do not permit it. Even if they do leave, they will be followed by the effects of mobbing – it is likely they will need to ask for references from their mobbing colleagues, and once they are in a new situation they may try to avoid similar labels, so change their behaviour or underperform in order to escape attention. They can fight, but this is often not effective or viable if the targets are suffering, they can flight, if their circumstances permit it, or they can freeze and go into emotional shutdown. The latter is a common response.
The costs of mobbing to both organisation and targets are substantial. To prevent it, Duffy and Sperry recommend proaction, not simply reaction, at every level, starting with specific anti-mobbing legislation. Sweden introduced anti-mobbing legislation in 1993, and other places that have followed suit include France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Quebec, some states in the US, and South Australia. Mostly, legislation addresses mobbing in the workplace. As “The Healthy Workplace Bill” formulated in the US by the founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute makes clear, protection needs to be non-status based and protect people from psychological and physical harm in the workplace. While some places have anti-bullying legislation addressing bullying in schools, mobbing itself as a distinct problem has yet to be included in legislation. Another problem is that mobbing can occur elsewhere, not just as school or in the workplace. Robert Clarke MP, Attorney-General in Victoria, Australia, has advocated for the federal adoption of Victoria’s anti-bullying legislative changes introduced in 2011, known as “Brodie’s Law” in reference to the young girl who committed suicide after being the victim of bullying at work. An admirable aspect of these legislative changes is that they criminalise bullying irrespective of where it occurs; workplaces, schools, universities, anywhere. To fully address the scope of the problem, anti-mobbing legislation would also need to similarly criminalise psychological harassment by a group and organisation in any environment.
In terms of organisations and groups being proactive, Duffy and Sperry recommend introduction and active enforcement of anti-mobbing policies, awareness and vigilance amongst staff, safe reporting structures, respectful responses to allegations of mobbing, and an overall valuing of tolerance, respect and diversity in the organisation with a focus on individuals as well as performance. For individual targets of mobbing, intervention needs to be handled carefully, with therapists who are experienced in handling trauma. Blaming the victim, or focusing on the target as the source of the problem, can retraumatise the targets. Indeed, many targets appear to be higher than average achievers, some with the propensity to stand up for what is right. Such characteristics might be why they were perceived as a threat in the first place. Victims need to be carefully guided towards reinstating some control and sense of purpose in their life, towards positive social support and good health. Targets need to know that they are not to blame, that they are not beyond redemption, that this behaviour is unfortunately normal, and that they can work towards healing and a future.
Article 12, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.