David Cliff: Are you a victim of the mob - or are you part of it?

The chairman of the Institute of Directors' Northern Sector Group on a facet of workplace bullying you may not have thought about

Adam Peck/PA Wire A person using a computer mouse and keyboard
A person using a computer mouse and keyboard

Whilst it should never be tolerated, the concept of bullying in the workplace is a well-established one.

Humankind’s natural will to have power and desire for evolutionary advantage ultimately results in people wrongly manifesting that power in the workplace, often to the intimidation, oppression and general depletion of the mental health of others.

The problem is that bullying is often actioned by “up-tariff”, escalated formal approaches within organisations who fail to have the informal mechanisms to resolve and address a bullying issue.

Whilst the legislation keeps bullying as defined by the experience of the bullied, nonetheless, many people fail to understand the complex power transferences that go on in a bulling scenario.

To this extent, the bully is just as much caught in a cycle of unconscious repressed processes upon the bully, in ways that are beyond his or her awareness.

This inevitably results in projections onto the victim, rationalisations, anything that keeps away from the truth of the underlying pathology, which results in the bully acting as he or she does.

The fact that we have events such as anti-bullying week, in common with all mental health campaigns and indeed other public courses is a helpful thing to maintain such issues in the public awareness.

What is less known in the public psyche, to a certain extent is so complex that it can scarcely be believed as a more complex phenomena of mobbing.

Far more insidious and harder to detect, mobbing involves the manipulation of “group think” by an opinion leader within a group.

This opinion leader will exploit the weaknesses of the group, their affiliations with that leader and create mayhem by targeting an individual in ways that make the individual ultimately collapse and leave. The truth is the key target is to ensure the absolute humiliation of the individual. Their departure from the organisation is simply not enough.

Most international research suggests that at the core of a mobbing scenario is someone with underlying psychopathic disorder, but toxic group think and narcissistic personality traits can also feature in manifesting this hostile targeting of an individual, utilising complex group forces whilst the key protagonist stands well back supporting, marshalling, counselling and cosseting their groups’ minor concerns into flames fanned into an outright offensive against the target individual.

Research from the continent suggests a suicide rate of 7% plus can result from this type of workplace process and a greater number suffer long term underlying mental health problems long after the departure.

Such individuals rarely take action at industrial tribunal level as their depletion is complete by the time they leave the organisation.

However, that non-employability subsequently often leaves some sufficiently desperate that some try and yes, there have been some notable tribunal judgements and high court judgements over the last 10 years that make this an infrequent risk for an organisation but with disproportionately high levels of damages awarded when proven.

The problem about the mobbed is that as with every day one-on-one bullying, often the victim is blamed first. They are seen as in some way deficient, not able to “punch their weight”, insufficiently emotionally resilient as they suffer daily, having their buttons pushed by protagonists who hold nothing but hostility for them, with managers who struggle to understand the issues and how they affect the individual, let alone the malicious underlying processes that are at work at the time.

Mobbing, in the animal kingdom is a group/herd behaviour. It is frequently conducted by birds who will mob a target individual from another species until it gives territory.

In the animal kingdom, the technique is to use safety in numbers to create evolutionary advantage. In the human world of homosapiens the same evolutionary mechanism can be used to gain social and/or organisational advantage at the expense of others and the establishment of a perverse power base within the organisation.

The Scottish legislature was changed a few years ago to recognise mobbing. I take some pleasure in having identified the condition to some of the protagonists that ultimately lobbied for a change in legislation.

We have no similar recognition within England and Wales other than is subsumed under employment legislation in relation to bullying.

Mobbing, however, is a serious manipulation of group processes within organisations, which is often hiding in plain sight of managers, HR professionals and indeed colleagues.

Those not involved in the conspiracy maintain a stunned silence lest the very pervasive forces they are witnessing visited upon colleagues are turned upon them. It’s a serious issue for many, it’s nasty, insidious, malevolent and savvy organisations need to wake up to its presence.

I was very touched to give a senior manager in an organisation one of my previous articles on mobbing, who presented it to his CEO. That CEO immediately “fessed up” that he may have been part of a mobbing exercise against the individual concerned and apologised immediately. Such is the nature of awareness once something that is tacit within organisations is made explicit and we all have a debate about it.

Scarcely a week passes by when I find I am not participating in helping organisations look at that debate and those are to be counted amongst the more enlightened, learning and progressing as they go in what are the complex myriad relationships that exist in organisational life.

Sadly they are a minority and alongside bullying, mobbing remains the under-sung, less well known phenomena that is just in the “too difficult” box for so many.

  • David Cliff is Managing Director of Gedanken and Chairman of the Institute of Directors’ Northern Sector Group.

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