Crowd control: how to combat mobbing
April 10, 2023
I was four and in kindergarten. I had attended my dad’s company Christmas party on the weekend where Santa had given me the coolest, most sophisticated school bag. It looked like the kind the grown ups used that they carried over their shoulders with shiny buckles and fancy straps, but with fun colours. As we painted our four-year-old masterpieces in art class, a jealous classmate, Betty, walked over, armed with a loaded paintbrush and looked me in the eyes before slathering blue paint all over my precious new possession. I can still feel the hurt of that moment, the tightening of my body and that intense puzzlement of, WHY?! My four-year-old self struggled to understand how someone could be so utterly mean.
Fast forward to grade 7. I was 12 and hanging out at the local mall with my friend Noemi. Noemi and I lived in the same neighbourhood but went to different schools. As we browsed the racks of a favourite tween storefront, along came two of Noemi’s school friends – the “Mean Girls.” Noemi went to a French-speaking school and the Mean Girls liked to speak French in front of me thinking I didn’t understand. They loved to exclude me and make fun of me. I was a few years into taking French in school by now and had a year of French immersion under my belt so I could make out some of what they were saying – essentially that everything I looked at was ugly and everything I did was worthy of intense mockery. And if I had any doubt, the looks of disgust on their faces and their snickering as they looked at me as they spewed their comments made clear that their words were anything but kind. I vividly remember the fire in my cheeks, the tightness in my chest and muscles, just like with Betty in kindergarten, and that feeling of aloneness from being ostracized. Noemi – my “friend” – did nothing to help, and, in fact, kind of joined in with the Mean Girls.
Workplace bullying is just schoolyard bullying all grown up. It doesn’t feel any less hurtful and it doesn’t have any less of an impact on its targets. It obliterates psychological health and safety, impacting mental health with outcomes like depression and anxiety, and other stress-related effects like irritability, headaches, poor sleep and eating habits, as well as substance abuse. And it destroys self-confidence, creeping into productivity at work. To put it bluntly, it’s devastating. And if it’s happening in your workplace, it’s taking a toll on the organization’s people, teams and the bottom line.
Mobbing and its ringleaders
Mobbing is group bullying. It is the continual and systematic harassment and abuse of targets by peers. There is usually one or a few ringleaders who rally their peers to target someone, creating a hostile environment with the ultimate goal of forcing the target out of the workplace. You can recognize a ringleader by the characteristics and the tactics they use to entrench their power and build the mob. They:
- are socially adept and popular
- are highly effective at organizing others to participate
- use peer pressure, intimidation and fear
- manipulate coworkers into believing that the ringleader is the only one who can be trusted, fostering an “us against them” mentality, including against leadership
- ostracize and socially isolate those that don’t join the mob
Common mobbing tactics
Mobbing is frequently subtle and covert. Common tactics include:
- ostracizing and isolating
- character assassination through rumours and public discrediting of the target’s performance or competence
- smirking, laughing and whispering in front of and about the target
- intimidation and staring, glaring or following the target
- tampering with or sabotaging work
- false accusations
- overt hostility, humiliation or passive aggression
Ringleaders are effective at discrediting and dehumanizing targets, so the mob sees targets as weak or deserving of the abuse. This enables peers to feel validated in their negative views of the target and with their choice to not intervene. Peers may actively contribute or be complicit for fear of reprisals.
Targets can be those who are different from the group in some way – those who are nonconfrontational, marginalized or vulnerable – which makes them easy to pick on. But surprisingly, targets are often not who you might expect. They frequently are employees who are competent and dedicated to their jobs, well-liked and ethical. They can be the star performers who ringleaders feel are making peers look bad, “unfairly” getting others’ work opportunities, or demonstrating through hard work that peers aren’t working up to par.
Combat mobbing in your workplace
Harassment, including mobbing, persists when we don’t address the risk factors for harassment in our workplaces. See my blog on why harassment persists to learn about those risk factors and what to do about them.
To combat mobbing, put these strategies into action:
- Separate groups: if you have toxic teams, cliques or factions, break them apart and dismantle the negative dynamic.
- Upstander training: there are no innocent bystanders when it comes to harassment and bullying. Provide employees the skills they need to have a voice and be UPstanders instead of passive bystanders. One of the most effective ways to stop bullying is for employees to speak up against it.
- Find the champions: most employees need someone else to take the lead before they jump on board and follow suit. Studies show the tipping point to shift a culture happens with only about 13.5% employee support. So find your champions of the behaviour you seek to see in your organization. Champions will lead the way.
Train and support leaders: train leaders in harassment and bullying, and mobbing in particular, to give them the tools to properly address and support employees with these issues.
- Work collaboratively with the union: any cultural and behavioural change will happen faster and be more likely to succeed if you have the buy-in of the union and it works in tandem with the organization to promote a better culture with employees.
- Act immediately: condoning or turning a blind eye, or failing to act expediently, allows these issues to fester and become a cancer in the organization. Act quickly to address these issues diligently and with the attention they deserve.
- Have patience and persevere: shifting a culture doesn’t happen overnight. Be persistent and unwavering in seeking the culture you want to achieve. With dedication, commitment and focus it will happen.
*Names were changed to protect identities