Certain work settings seem especially susceptible to vicious and petty workplace behaviors. The electronic media is one of them. If you’re looking for an example, the much publicized 2012 ouster of Ann Curry as co-host of NBC’s “Today” morning talk show offers lots of food for thought.
In a detailed piece for the New York Times Magazine, Brian Stelter plumbs the depths of the behaviors and organizational culture that helped to bring her down:
…Curry felt that the boys’ club atmosphere behind the scenes at “Today” undermined her from the start, and she told friends that her final months were a form of professional torture. The growing indifference of Matt Lauer, her co-host, had hurt the most, but there was also just a general meanness on set. At one point, the executive producer, Jim Bell, commissioned a blooper reel of Curry’s worst on-air mistakes. Another time, according to a producer, Bell called staff members into his office to show a gaffe she made during a cross-talk with a local station. (Bell denies both incidents.) Then several boxes of Curry’s belongings ended up in a coat closet, as if she had already been booted off the premises. One staff person recalled that “a lot of time in the control room was spent making fun of Ann’s outfit choices or just generally messing with her.” On one memorable spring morning, Curry wore a bright yellow dress that spawned snarky comparisons to Big Bird. The staff person said that others in the control room, which included 14 men and 3 women, according to my head count one morning, Photoshopped a picture of Big Bird next to Curry and asked co-workers to vote on “Who wore it best?”
Then-executive producer Jim Bell appears to be the original catalyst for much of this. He labeled his effort to push out Curry as “Operation Bambi.”
Maureen Duffy on Curry and mobbing
Therapist and consultant Maureen Duffy, co-author with Len Sperry of the excellent Mobbing: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions (2012), sees the Curry situation as a workplace mobbing. In an insightful blog piece, she carefully parses the Stelter article and draws the inevitable conclusion that Curry was mobbed out of her job:
Whatever your personal opinions of Curry and her work, she was clearly mobbed out of her Today show job. Workplace mobbing is a process of humiliation and degradation of a targeted worker with the purpose of removing that worker from the workplace or at least from a particular unit of it. It is a dark side of organizational life, involves co-workers ganging up on the target, and includes management’s involvement through active participation in the mobbing or through failure to stop it once it becomes known to them.
Maureen cites these indicators of workplace mobbing that led to Curry’s downfall:
- “Precipitating event or situation”
- “Targeting of a worker for elimination and involvement of management or administration”
- “Unethical communication about the target and series of negative acts”
- “Isolation and exclusion of the target, more ganging up, and resulting escalation of mobbing”
- “Elimination from the workplace”
“Bullying” vs. “puppet master” bullying vs. “mobbing”
Some readers may be curious about the use of labels “bullying” and “mobbing” to describe targeted workplace mistreatment. They are variations on a horrible theme, as I see it. Sometimes smaller-scale bullying can expand to mobbing, which may have been the case with Curry. For that reason, among others, I regard workplace mobbing as a form or subset of workplace bullying, but others passionately draw sharper lines between them.
In a blog piece last year, I attempted to distinguish between (1) standard-brand workplace bullying; (2) what I call “puppet master” bullying; and (3) genuine mobbing. Here’s how I characterized “puppet-master” bullying:
In these situations, a chief aggressor’s power and influence over a group of subordinates may be sufficient to enlist their participation in mistreating a target, creating what looks and feels like a mob.
However, what may originate as a form of bullying can transform into broader-scale mobbing:
…(G)enuine workplace mobbing occurs when the malicious energy is shared among the many, who proceed to go after the few. …(R)egardless of its origins, this is now a mob, with individuals owning that animus in ways that fuel each other’s antipathy toward the target.
What appeared to start as an effort by producer Bell to bully Curry out of her co-host slot morphed into a toxic stew that went well beyond his machinations. Definitions and distinctions aside, the combination of Brian Stelter’s reporting and Maureen Duffy’s assessment has persuaded me that Ann Curry was the target of a full-blown mobbing by the time she left her job.
Workplace mobbing situations often require careful study to understand. While even “typical” bullying scenarios can be difficult to unpack, mobbing involves multiple actors and sometimes rapidly shifting emotions and energies among them. In addition to the Duffy & Sperry book referenced above, please consider:
- The superb body of work of University of Waterloo sociologist Kenneth Westhues remains a starting place for me in grasping these dynamics. Ken writes mostly about mobbing in the academic workplace, but his work applies to virtually all occupational contexts. I describe his writings in this blog post about bullying and mobbing in academe.
- An earlier work on workplace mobbing, and still valuable, is Noa Davenport, Ruth Distler Schwartz & Gail Pursell Elliott, Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace (2002).