Mobbing: A real workplace phenomenon

A recent fairly damning report suggested a culture of bullying and intimidation at the Police Federation, demonstrating that all organisations need to be careful about the culture that is maintained within. Plato, reciting Socrates’ concept of the cave, postulated a notion of beings that were subjected to one eternal view of their reality. Their entire understanding of the world was made up of reflections on the wall of a cave that they were eternally required to view.

Values, ideologies, face systems and beliefs emanated from the perception of the regular appearance of different shadows upon the wall. But they were shadows nonetheless. The one person removed from this vista and allowed to see the reality of the projections of solid matter onto the walls, or indeed the fact that the residents were in a cave and there was a wider reality outside, would be labelled dissident, heretic, mad.

So it is the same in organisations sometimes, when a form of “group think” takes hold. At the risk of mixing metaphors, it can result in “emperor’s new clothes” thinking, where the group think defines a false reality that is both self-reinforcing and self-validating. Within such thinking, fascism, totalitarianism, fundamentalism and other extremes can be nurtured, maintained, extended and justified.

In a more mundane way, such processes can result in inefficient organisations, that fail to adapt to the external realities around them and ultimately render themselves in a position of extinction, whether they be run by thought leaders, such as the Clive Sinclairs of this world, through to the banking community.

The resultant group processes can confine and restrict organisations to a primitive form of tribalism where one’s membership eligibility is the ownership of the dominant belief systems. In such organisations, innovation is stifled, difference is seen as dissident rather than progressive and innovation is seen as a threat, rather than an opportunity.

Such organisations are harbingers for inefficient practice, bullying, racism and other ills that threaten a pluralistic diverse society for its own health, and they must embrace equality as a central tenet.

At its worst, bullying can be well maintained and culturally reinforced with an organisation. Many people remain actually intolerant of the bullied, seeing them still as in some ways “weak”, defective, unable to fight their own battles.  The fact is that when one is on the receiving end of an individual who is sanctioned by organisational forces, finding the inner resource to counter this is a challenge indeed.

Bullying is extraordinarily hard to prove. The difference between an assertive line manager, for example, and a bully is a fine one indeed; small wonder so many people tolerate this in the workplace.

The Police Federation case, however, brings to light a lesser known form of bullying which is every more tenacious within our organisations and gives way to complex group dynamics.

Another case, that of the Socialist Workers’ Party taking it upon itself to investigate internally an allegation of rape, in a process which led to a number of principled resignations from activists within the party. Despite their belief in a little enthused-about political ideology these days, they nonetheless left the party on principle.

Mobbing is a little-known term amongst HR professionals and senior managers. Bullying is hard enough to take on board. Countenancing the orchestrated group process, calculated not just at the removal of an individual, but their systematic shaming and humiliation is something that is a difficult one for reasonable people to swallow.

At its heart is usually an instigator who attempts to mobilise the weaknesses of others into wreaking havoc with the life of a target individual. This can be by cold shouldering, complaining, grievances, sabotage, gratuitous talk down, the list goes on.

Groups rarely are capable of a single consciousness and usually the process is orchestrated by a ringleader who stands well back from the disharmony and the bile generation they inspire in others to attempt to destroy the individual concerned.

The stars of organisations are typically particularly vulnerable to this, those with different thinking, those with innovative ideas and those who are particularly committed to achievement rather than affiliation are primary targets. I have intervened and advised MDs, HR professionals and others over the years on the complexities of such situations.

The subtleties of mobbing is that it is easier to blame the victim for a while, the sheer weight of blaming, sabotage and allegation initially lending credence to the group and weakening the individuals’ credibility. Undetected, the mental health of the individual deteriorates. Some estimates vary, chiefly from the continent, where a suicide rate as high as 20% is not unusual amongst victims.

The potential liabilities for the organisation are manifold with claim and counterclaim, investigation, legal liabilities under health and safety law, industrial tribunal and yes, not infrequently, action that goes beyond this to the high court.

It is interesting to notice that mobbing was accepted as a phenomenon within Scottish employment legislation a few years ago, but despite this, it is still a comparatively unused term in England.

Unaddressed, mobbing can undermine the very nature of an organisation, result in massive liabilities and individual tragedies.

The antidote is better scrutiny, more challenge and the involvement of specialist support where a mobbing situation may occur. It is a phenomenon that is often hiding in plain sight but its discovery often leads to “too little too late” responses by organisations that make a bad situation far worse.

David Cliff is Managing Director of Gedanken and Vice Chairman of the Institute of Directors’ County Durham and Sunderland Committee.