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Workplace Bullying: Mobbing is Emotional & Psychological Terrorism

Workplace Bullying, Corporate Terrorism
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Terrorism is all around us wherever we go—at home, at school, and at work. We may not recognize terrorism is happening but it is. Radical changes will need to take place before we can eradicate terrorism, especially in the workplace.

No one deserves to be terrorized for any reason. In the workplace, mobbing is emotional and psychological terrorism deliberately inflicted on an individual with the express purpose of destroying that person emotionally, psychologically, physically, and professionally.

The definition of terrorism is the use of terror in a systematic way as a means of coercion. Terrorists in every form have one common agenda and that is to create fear, chaos, havoc, terror, and destruction in those they target. Their purpose is to feel in control, to make a statement, to divert attention away from themselves, or to call attention to something.

Psychological terrorism is the deliberate targeting of an individual in a way that leaves no physical scars but leaves psychological injuries or trauma that have long-lasting impact.

“Terrorism…uses human feelings for ammunition.”

~~Vali Hawkins Mitchell

By far the most devastating form of psychological terrorism in the workplace is mobbing. In an article titled Mobbing: Psychological Terror in the Workplace, Viorel Constantinescu (2014) states that workplace mobbing is the intense systematic psychological harassment of an individual in the workplace, carried out by one or more colleagues or superiors, using weapons that include gossip, intimidation, humiliation, discrediting, and isolation.

There are many theories about the psychology of mob bullies. In past articles we have discussed behaviors and characteristics of bullies in general. Bullies, and their behavior, seem to substantiate the different theories that attempt to describe the psychology behind why people bully. In her book [Kindle edition] titled The Complete Guide to Understanding, Controlling, and Stopping Bullies & Bullying at work: A Guide for Managers, Supervisors, and Employees, Margaret R. Kohut (2007) lists six of these workplace mobbing theories:

  1. Instigators and participants feel compelled to force adaptation to group norms; personal work style differences are not tolerated.
  2. Mobbing perpetrators enjoy animosity; whomever they do not like have to be expelled from the midst of the organization.
  3. Seeing and creating the suffering of others gives these people great enjoyment.
  4. Having recruited willing sycophants, these bosses feel their position gives them the right to do what they are doing.
  5. In order to destroy the person who threatens their fragile egos, these people will do whatever is necessary to achieve their goal.
  6. The organizational structure of the company gives a mob free rein to do whatever they want to whomever they please. Top management is ineffective because it is indifferent, ignorant, or gullible and believes everything they are told about the target.

Any one, or all, of these six different theories could be a factor in the mobbing behavior perpetrated against a target in the workplace. Knowing the possible psychology behind mobbing doesn’t make it okay; these theories are only an explanation of why mobbing may be happening in any particular situation. Understanding the why behind mobbing behavior is often the first step in understanding some of the characteristics targets have that lead mobbing instigators to pick a specific target.

Mobbing instigators generally choose different characteristics in their targets than bullies do. For whatever reason, some of which are listed below, an employee is targeted by people within an organization to force them out of their job using unethical methods cloaked to appear legitimate. In an article titled A Story to Tell: Bullying and Mobbing in the Workplace and published in the December 2010 issue of the International Journal of Business and Social Science, Lacey M. Sloan, Tom Matyók, Cathryne L. Schmitz and Glenda F. Lester Short name many of the characteristics of mobbing targets:

  • Refuse to be subservient or controlled by others; outspoken.
  • Superior competence; highly skilled.
  • Educated; highly creative; dedicated.
  • Positive attitude; well liked.
  • The best employees.
  • Honest; ethical.
  • Work well with others; team players.
  • Employees under age 25 or over age 55.

The authors go on to state that people employed in social occupations, such as social/health services or education, are at a higher risk (2.8% more likely) of being targeted by bullies or of being mobbed. If these people are often seen as some of the best employees in an organization, what happens to cause mobbing to take place?

Surely these exemplary employees would be the ones least likely to be mobbed. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Margaret R. Kohut (2007), in her book [Kindle edition] titled The Complete Guide to Understanding, Controlling, and Stopping Bullies & Bullying at work: A Guide for Managers, Supervisors, and Employees, states that anyone, regardless of age, devotion to the company, creativity, experience, sense of responsibility, ability to organize tasks, or their high level of self-initiative at work, can become the target of mobbing. This means, no one is safe from mobbing in the workplace and rising numbers of mobbing incidents confirm this.

There are many reasons mobbing happens in the workplace. Viorel Constantinescu (2014), in his article titled Mobbing: Psychological Terror in the Workplace along with Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry (2014) in their book [Kindle edition] titled Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying, identifies several reasons mobbing happens:

  • Human Resource management deficiencies.
  • Unstable workplace.
  • Personality traits of the target; laugh too loud; talk too much; gay; straight.
  • Group dynamics.
  • Interpersonal relationships between work colleagues.
  • Frequent organizational changes.
  • Professional activities causing high stress levels.
  • Management ignores, tolerates, misinterprets, or instigates mobbing.
  • Asks too many questions; speaks up about what is right or wrong.
  • Possesses opinions or ideas; gets things done; has a vision; doesn’t have a vision.
  • Doesn’t understand the organizational culture.
  • Isn’t a team player; is a team player.
  • Lack of activity; boredom.
  • Absence of clearly defined rules and norms; work interferences.
  • Abuse of power; instigator chooses to leverage authority when settling disputes instead of identifying faults within the system.

To many of us looking on from the outside, several of these reasons seem to be trivial, ludicrous or plain do not make sense. The catalyst that triggers mobbing doesn’t have to make sense; it’s just there.

Mobbing evolves through several phases that occur in a specific sequence. Every time mobbing has been reported or studied, these five phases, in the same order every time, have been observed to have taken place. Margaret R. Kohut (2007) in her book [Kindle edition] titled The Complete Guide to Understanding, Controlling, and Stopping Bullies & Bullying at work: A Guide for Managers, Supervisors, and Employees, lists the five phases mobbing behavior goes through:

  1. Conflict – While conflicts, in and of themselves, are not mobbing behaviors, they are the first step in the mobbing process if the conflict is not resolved quickly and amicably.
  2. Aggressive Acts – If the conflict is not resolved, it will continue to grow and, in time, aggressive acts, such as psychological assaults, will begin to take place toward the person who will eventually become the mobbing target.
  3. Management Involvement – At this time and as the hostilities continue to develop, upper-level management personnel have a choice to make. They can step in and call a halt to the developing situation or they can join in and begin the isolation and expulsion process.
  4. Branding – This is a crucial step in the mobbing process. The, by now, clearly identified target has to be labeled (branded) as an employee who is difficult or mentally ill to justify what is happening to the target. This branding is done only to seriously escalate the mobbing and almost always leads to expulsion from the workplace.
  5. Expulsion – The target either resigns because they can no longer put up with the extreme stress the mobbing has caused or is fired.

Even though these phases have been identified as part of the mobbing process, there are required conditions that have to be present in order for bullying behavior in the workplace to be labeled as mobbing. Viorel Constantinescu (2014), in his article titled Mobbing: Psychological Terror in the Workplace along with Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry (2014) in their book [Kindle edition] titled Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying, identify the seven mandatory conditions required for workplace behavior to be called mobbing:

  1. Conflict – This is the crucial first step and has to happen to set the stage for the mobbing process. The initial conflict consists of four progressing elements: a) escalates out of control, b) involves increasing numbers of people, c) leaves the target without effective intervention by management, and d) results in the target being blamed (known as the scapegoat).
  2. Duration – To be considered persistent behavior, it has to happen for at least six consecutive months. If we categorize mobbing behavior according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) for disease duration, acute diseases last less than six months; chronic diseases last longer than six months. Mobbing is considered to be a chronic conflict.
  3. Frequency – Must happen several times each month in consecutive months.
  4. Actions – At least two of the following five categories of negative actions happen: a) free speech is prohibited, such as not being allowed to voice own opinion or being shunned, b) systematic isolation from colleagues, c) change in tasks assigned, such as tasks being above or below professional capacity, d) reputation is attacked using such actions as gossip, talking behind target’s back, incorrect evaluations, etc., and e) violence or threat of violence is used.
  5. Inequality – Unable to properly defend self because of an inferior position in the company.
  6. Successive Stages – The five phases, listed above, happen in order.
  7. Intent to Persecute – The intent of the mobbing is to force the person to resign through the use of discrimination or treating the target differently than the other employees.

If all seven of these conditions are not happening, or have not happened, then the workplace behavior cannot be called mobbing. Otherwise, what is happening is just plain bullying by one or more people in the workplace.

Not all organizations are the breeding ground for mobbing behavior; however, there are certain organizational characteristics that make mobbing more likely to happen. Lacey M. Sloan, Tom Matyók, Cathryne L. Schmitz, and Glenda F. Lester Short (2010) identified one organizational characteristic that promotes mobbing in their article titled A Story to Tell: Bullying and Mobbing in the Workplace. Viorel Constantinescu (2014), in his article titled Mobbing: Psychological Terror in the Workplace identifies another organizational characteristic, and the No Bullying website article titled Mobbing in the Workplace, identifies a couple more in their article titled Mobbing in the Workplace. Let’s look at these organizational characteristics briefly:

  • Organizations with a laissez-faire, or laid-back, leadership style.
  • Organizations with secure job positions, such as in the non-profit sector, education, military, and medical industry. The private sector seems to be a bit more immune to mobbing behaviors in the workplace.
  • Industries or organizations on the decline in overall demands for their products or services.
  • Publicly held organizations, facing increased pressure from shareholders, often have upper-level management ignoring behaviors while focusing on improving the bottom line.
  • Bureaucratic organizations, such as government, because upper management tends to ignore the behavior with the attitude that the situation will resolve itself.

Mobbing does not happen overnight. There is a gradual evolution of behaviors and events that can be summed up into four distinct stages. Research describes the four stages. Heinz Leymann (1996), in an article titled The Content and Development of Mobbing at Work, Viorel Constantinescu (2014), in his article titled Mobbing: Psychological Terror in the Workplace, and Lacey M. Sloan, Tom Matyók, Cathryne L. Schmitz, and Glenda F. Lester Short (2010) in their article titled A Story to Tell: Bullying and Mobbing in the Workplace, all identify and discuss the four stages listed below:

  • Stage 1 – Conflicts are the critical incidents that can lead to mobbing; they are present in every organization but not every conflict will lead to mobbing. Most of the time, the triggering situation is a conflict and mobbing can be considered an escalated conflict.
  • Stage 2 – Stigmatizing can also lead to mobbing, however, by itself doesn’t lead to aggression or expulsion from the workplace. Being subjected to stigmatizing and other behaviors on a nearly daily basis and over a long period are based on the intent to get back at the target or to punish them. Aggressive manipulation is the main characteristics of the behaviors.
  • Stage 3 – Management personnel need to step in at this point and put a stop to the mobbing or it will continue to escalate until the target is forced out in one way or another. During this stage, it is very easy for management to misjudge the situation and place blame for the mobbing squarely on the shoulders of the target instead of the instigator. Most of the time, management joins in and escalates the mobbing to get rid of the “problem” employee. Only about 1.7% of employers actually conduct a fair hearing to protect the target from further bullying.
  • Stage 4 – This final stage leads to social isolation and, eventually, expulsion from the workplace with long-term negative physical and psychological effects on the target. Mobbing may even continue, even after the target is no longer part of the workplace, in the form of continued negative rumors, about the target, to organizations where the target attempts to seek employment. This continued behavior allows the perpetrators to keep up their position of rightness for participating in the mobbing while also allowing them to continue maintaining power over their target.

Mobbing is emotional and psychological terrorism, plain and simple. While there are many theories about why mobbing happens, research has not yet been able to identify specific reasons pointing to why it happens. There are distinct phases that mobbing follows but, in order for the actions to be identified as mobbing, there are seven distinct conditions that have to be met for the behavior to be called mobbing.

While many organizational characteristics are found with in businesses and organizations, only a few characteristics tend to promote mobbing behaviors. Mobbing isn’t something that develops suddenly or without warning; it follows a specific pattern and occurs in four distinct stages. In the next article we will look at some of the ways you can protect yourself from being mobbed or, at least, minimize the effects of mobbing if you are the target.

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