Generally, conversations about “the Mob” harken back to grainy, black and white films and names like “Bugsy,” “Capone,” “Bonnie and Clyde.” However, mobbing in the workplace can make the practice of leadership feel like a horror movie—not only making it difficult to accomplish the goals that leader should be focused on, but creating a real and present health hazard for the target of the mob.
Mobbing is, in effect, group bullying. The group targets an individual with character assassination, humiliation, blame and criticism, along with questioning the target’s knowledge, skill and ability.
The group uses a variety of tactics, including scapegoating, innuendo and deprecating rumors, all while presenting themselves as nice and even supportive in public encounters. The target is intimidated, humiliated and badgered through persistent, targeted, hostile behavior (verbal and nonverbal) designed to undermine the integrity of the target (Lacey, 2010).
Many organizations rightfully view their close bonds and willingness to stand up for one another as an attribute. However, the same family-like culture that causes a group to protect members when they’re affected in ways that threaten the norms of the group can sometimes become the breeding ground for mobbing.
This is particularly true when a new group member arrives who is somehow different from the norm. This is further complicated when the group is predisposed to believe that the new member is somehow unworthy, lacks competence or in some way threatens the status quo. For these and other biases, the group is more likely to turn against the new person and see them as a threat.
Targets of workplace mobbing can be innovative, creative problem solvers who are dedicated, principled and devoted to the organization’s mission and vision. These are some of the same characteristics that managers, administrators and executives may consider in looking for potential leaders.
Other potential targets include those who are different from the dominant culture in their religion, sexual identity, race, gender, age or cultural background. Again, these may be characteristics that are perceived as strengths to those in the position to appoint, promote or assign leaders in the group.
Mobbing can have profound emotional and physical health effects on the target. The overwhelming stress associated with a hostile environment can contribute to significant illness. Some targets struggle with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Others, having been previously successful, never work again or take jobs below their education and experience.
In some of the most serious cases, the target ends up taking their own life by suicide or the lives of others in violent response to the perpetrators.
Like many other workplace injuries, the most effective strategies to address mobbing are preventative in nature. This includes being deliberate about the opportunities you accept as a potential leader. Anything you can do to fortify yourself outside of your leadership responsibilities, such that you have options available outside of the role, can be helpful.
Another important benefit of giving yourself options is the real possibility that the best option for the target of mobbing may be to walk away from the position, assignment or perhaps the organization itself.
Finally, unlike physical injuries, victims of mobbing will likely need support from family, close friends and, in some cases, professional help in the way of counseling to deal with the emotional scars.
Most of all, the target of mobbing will need to summon every bit of emotional strength they can muster to do the self-care necessary to not only recover but thrive.