Workplace Bullying: Are You Part of the Mob?

Workplace Bullying: Are You Part of the Mob?

None of us would like to think that we could ever become a bully. If you are like most workers, chances are you have probably been bullied (or at least mistreated and misunderstood by an abrasive boss or coworker) in the past, and didn’t like the feeling. It’s hard to imagine participating in that behavior. But is it possible that you are participating in bullying behavior without even knowing it? Is it likely that you may participate in “mobbing” to collectively bully someone as a group?  Recent findings based on famous research indicate that not only is it possible, but it is also probable.

Janice Harper, writing in The Huffington Post, discusses the famous “Stanford Prison Guard” experiments, which found that “when playing the role of guards, ordinary non-sadistic people became increasingly aggressive, were arbitrary in their punishments, and exhibited pleasure at the humiliation of their “prisoners.” The more they dehumanized these prisoners, acted under the cloak of anonymity, and realized there would be no accountability for their abuses, the more their aggression escalated.”

Harper describes how Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist behind the experiment, says it applies to the workplace and how ordinary workers can go from non-sadistic to inhumanly cruel.

Mobbing Stage #1: Blindly Agreeing with Management or Authority

It starts innocently, and perhaps even well-intentioned, when workers want to comply with management (or with coworkers) that someone needs to go for the good of the company (or the good of the group). This is where workers begin to take sides. Harper states, “ The first step onto the slippery slope of mobbing behavior thus often begins with something as simple as agreeing with management that the targeted worker must go — even if the decision to terminate the worker is clearly arbitrary or punitive or in some cases illegal, such as retaliation for reporting sexual harassment, discrimination or unlawful behavior.”

Mobbing Stage #2: Gossip Leading to Isolation and Unfair Scrutiny

After a group mutually decides that an employee should go, it is not long before gossiping about that employee starts, which can take a life of its own and increase the size of the mob and the unfair treatment of the employee. Says Harper, “Soon gossip turns to damaging rumors and speculation, which in turn lead to false reports being made to management, refusal to cooperate or work with the worker, and depriving the worker of resources necessary to do their job. The worker is further subjected to a series of secretive investigations, damaging evaluations, allegations of misconduct, and workplace surveillance”

Mobbing Stage #3: Punishing the Target for Fearful Behavior Caused by the Mob

Ever hear the old adage that if you have nothing to hide, there isn’t anything to be afraid of? Unfortunately, in the world of workplace bullying by mobbing, there is plenty to be afraid of. Targets, rightfully so, start feeling paranoid, fearful, angry, and helpless by the treatment of their co-workers and start acting accordingly. This behavior by the target is taken as more evidence of wrongdoing by the mob. Harper indicates “the mobbing target learns to be constantly on guard and in fear of even the most benign social encounters, leading the targeted worker to appear paranoid and mentally unstable, regardless of how mentally stable they were before the mobbing began.”

Stopping the Mob: No Simple Answers

Stopping mobbing behavior isn’t easy, particularly when it is much easier to follow the herd. But first steps toward a more compassionate workplace involve taking responsibility for one’s own action and not engaging in gossip. Second, is to decide that you will not “go with the mob” and attack, belittle, or humiliate the chosen target. Third, feel their pain. Although it’s easy to say empathy is the answer, in practice, empathy is not always easy. How often do you really put yourself in someone else’s shoes? Can you empathize with someone everyone agrees needs to go? Can you empathize with the person that is the butt of jokes in the workplace? Can you stop yourself from leaping to judgment?

It may not be easy, but it’s up to all of us to improve how we work together.

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I’ve been a strategic consultant on workplace conflict to executives worldwide for more than 20 years. My work brings individualized solutions to your teams’ lost productivity, loss of key personnel, low morale, and the high costs resulting from bullying, abrasive behaviors and interpersonal workplace conflicts. I turn destructive conflict into productive communication.


I’m Kathleen Bartle, Conflict Consultant.


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