“Puppet master” bullying vs. genuine mobbing at work

One of the ongoing debates among those who study psychological abuse at work is the question of “bullying” vs. “mobbing.” At times it is presented as an either/or dichotomy. Some will use the term bullying exclusively, while others will use only the term mobbing.

Personally, I think of workplace mobbing as a form or subset of workplace bullying, but others don’t necessarily agree with my distinction. In any event, I’d like to look at two forms of multiple-aggressor abuse at work that may stand at the fault lines between common conceptions of bullying and mobbing.

“Puppet master” bullying

Let’s start with what I call 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. For example, if the aggressor is a mid-level manager, he may recruit HR to help out with the dirty work and encourage the target’s peers to shun or bully her.

Even in cases of peer bullying, one aggressor can use intimidation and persuasion to turn others against a peer-level target.

One of the key indicators of puppet master bullying, all too infrequently realized, is what happens when the master is removed from the scene. Typically, much of the malicious energy that fueled the puppets fades away, and so with it much of the bullying behavior.

Genuine mobbing

By contrast, genuine workplace mobbing occurs when the malicious energy is shared among the many, who proceed to go after the few. It may have started as puppet master bullying, but regardless of its origins, this is now a mob, with individuals owning that animus in ways that fuel each other’s antipathy toward the target.

In these situations, even removal of the key instigators may not be sufficient to end the target’s torment, because too many individuals are now emotionally invested in his demise.

Target perceptions

From the standpoint of the target, the distinctions often matter little in terms of the experience of being on the receiving end. Whether it’s someone surgically directing or controlling her minions to bully an individual, or a true mob descending upon a lone target, it sure as heck feels like a mobbing.

For those studying these behaviors and trying to develop measures to curb them, however, the distinctions do matter. With puppet master bullying, removing the instigator(s) may be enough to stop the abusive behavior. With genuine mobbing, however, the remedy is even more difficult, because the emotional impetus to act has now infected an entire group.

Is one more common than the other?

I have yet to find a study that delineates between these two forms of bullying. However, based largely on a decade’s worth of listening to accounts of personal experiences, I believe that puppet-master bullying is more common than genuine mobbing, perhaps by a significant margin.

That said, I also believe that in certain vocations or professions, one form of abuse or the other may be much more prevalent, grounded in variations among organizational hierarchies and group cultures.


Related post

Does the Holocaust help us to comprehend targeted, malicious workplace bullying?

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15 responses

  1. I experienced both work place bullying and mobbing~My aggressor managed to ‘recruit’ co-workers into her little game of mistreating me by not speaking to me and by talking about me while I stood right there! It was simply the most awful thing I have ever gone through in my life. I purchased a book about mobbing in the workplace and gave it to the person who I felt led the posse, the one who slapped the backside of the horse that they had me sit on with a noose around my neck,(figuratively speaking of course) as a retirement gift. He never thanked me or acknowledged receipt of this book. I feel workplace bullying and mobbing go hand in hand. Once a worker has been targeted by the aggressor the others simply seem to fall in place and begin to ignore and treat rudely the targeted person. It is one of the highest forms of emotional abuse that exists.

  2. Pingback: Is Bullying or Mobbing? Or Both? - Inside The Workplace

  3. Having been a target of multi-faceted bullying (the impetus behind which I have given up trying to understand) I am reminded of Eeyore’s wise words…

    “But, Eeyore,” said Pooh, “was it a Joke, or an Accident? I mean…”
    “I didn’t stop to ask, Pooh. Even at the very bottom of the river, I didn’t stop to say to myself, `Is this a Hearty Joke or the Merest Accident?’. I just floated to the surface and said to myself, `it’s wet’. If you know what I mean.”

    I just struck out for dry land, shivering and praying I wouldn’t drown in the effort to save myself.

  4. Dr. Yamada, thank you for this thoughtful post (as well as your previous post on the Holocaust).

    Figuring out who is directing the workplace bullying and mobbing is getting to the essence of the problem. Is it one clever psychopath, a hierarchy of psychopaths, or just weak-minded “normal” people who gang up on individuals in an attempt to feel better about themselves or safer in their positions?

    Normal people can be shamed, educated, made aware of how their behavior affects others. If they have a shred of empathy, they can learn to treat others better.

    Psychopaths are a different story. The whole world needs to learn about charming psychopaths and how they manipulate situations. How is it, with all our degrees and forms of communication, that most of us remain naively unaware of these creatures? I was unaware and I suffered for it.

    One person was overtly abusive to me and others kept their distance. Then I was isolated, picked apart, manipulated, and then thrown into an unethical situation of my supervisor’s making (which I did everything I could to straighten out). It took me a long time to figure out that my “nice” supervisor was orchestrating the whole situation, and enjoying every moment of it.

    I saw occasional slip-ups, when she revealed her true nature. The last time was after I submitted my notice. She took me into a room and there, she dropped the mask, revealing pure rage. She was furious – how dare I quit when she wasn’t done playing with me? She then tried to humiliate me on my exit, a strategy that backfired on her.

    Mary Lou and Kachina, in case you are interested, I have found the Workplace Bullying group on LinkedIn to be validating.

    Kachina, great Eeyore quote. There were times when I wasn’t sure I would survive. Now that I have, I’m going to fight to keep others from drowning.

  5. Dr. Yamada-

    I’m curious to know if you would expand a bit on “That said, I also believe that in certain vocations or professions, one form of abuse or the other may be much more prevalent, grounded in variations among organizational hierarchies and group cultures.”

    I realize you may be reluctant given a lack of empirical evidence and agreed upon definitions, but what are your hypotheses based on your subjective experience?

    • Hi Kachina, what you quoted IS my hypothesis, i.e., that certain patterns of abuse will be more prevalent than others based on institutional hierarchies and cultures.

      For example, I think the dominant cultures of academic institutions may explain, at least in part, why researchers like Ken Westhues — whose case studies of academic mobbing are invaluable resources — tend to favor the mobbing paradigm.

      Of course, there are variations among the variations, which is why I reiterate my point that it’s dicey to generalize too much from a single experience. Somewhere in that mish mash of personal understanding, subjective evaluation, and empirical data lies truths and insights that take us forward in our understanding.

  6. Thank you. I agree that it can be dangerous and counter-productive to speculate and generalize. I know I am biased due to my subjective experience, but am interested in other perspectives that advance and broaden my understanding. I really appreciate your devotion to the cause/issue/problem and value your willingness to share your insights.

  7. These kind of people moving from sole bullying to mobbing tactics is showing their insecurities – the leaders are generally the most insecure needing others to support their bullying. Sad.

  8. Principals can be the worse bullies. I’m dealing with one right now. Mobbing has come into the picture, especially after I filed a union grievance. I just want to move to another job within the district, but I think I will be working at the same school next year. Then, they will really retaliate. My principal is so “evil” that she needs an attorney as part of her personal staff. Only in Baltimore!

  9. Cindy~Principals are some of the the wost bullies! I agree~but it’s not only happening in Baltimore, sadly enough. Education has become a toxic environment. Administrators who have pushed around those they believe are under them, to classroom teachers, who out of shere frustration bully the teacher assistant in the room, have become endless. It’s got to stop~Lawyers though, may think different. They’ve become an intricate part of this system, highly profitting off the misery, and power abuse the uppers in the system inflict on its workers. I hope you’re doing well this year.

  10. Gosh, this topic continues to fascinate me due to the profound wounding that this type of workplace behavior inflicts upon individuals.

    When pondering the topic two specific themes tend to surface for me and these are my own hypotheses pertaining to this troubling phenomenon.

    The first theme centers on the concepts of hierarchal and egalitarian worldviews and how the hierarchal worldview that is predominant in Western cultures can contribute to setting the stage for some problematic behavioral issues. The internalized mindset that someone’s self worth and dignity is inherently viewed as either being better than/less than another is one of the paradigms at the core, in my own opinion, of the behavioral framework that enables bullying and mobbing to take root.

    Of course, there is a long history of this worldview being influential in almost all aspects of human planning/decision-making that it is most difficult to step outside this mindset and look at it from the outside in, so to speak.

    The second theme comes from the social work/psychology concepts of group dynamics wherein varying individuals in a system-whether it be the family of origin, school, work, etc.-identifies with or is chosen for a specific role to occupy in the generational hierarchal system. Dominant personalities who evolve into exhibiting offensive behaviors (due to a host of reasons) are the most problematic to a group system, in my opinion. The more charismatic offender personalities often find their way into positions of authority over others, which can set the stage for some very nasty group dynamics, which ultimately results in there being one or more chosen to be identified as a scapegoat.

    When we add the element of this behavior occurring in a closed system such as a small workplace, the results can reach very troubling toxic levels for the target(s). Such is the system that I worked in for the past twelve plus years-nine of which involved severe bullying and an attempt at mobbing.

    At any rate, those are my thoughts to date on this phenomenon that seems to remain under the radar, although I do believe that it is gaining momentum, thanks for the efforts of folks on this blog and individuals like David who work, in part, at the grassroots level in order to enlighten the public about this issue so that it can be identified as a serious social problem that needs legislative support in order to regulate-in time-this illegal behavior.

  11. This identifies a real problem, and part of the solution starts with. Too many people fall into this or fail to place into perspective as a peer process pecking order game that originates on the play ground in nursery school. Some people have refined this practice to a terrorist activity that only works on fear and once these scary individuals are recognized we understand they come a base of insecurity.
    In the same work place where these practices occur, you can find key policy discrepancies (I.E. lack of) that lend to this behavior,
    such as mandatory drug testing and supportive psychological heath assistance programs.
    Any type of predatory behavior is immoral, but by gossiping (I.E. back stabbing) only validates the problem.

  12. Thanks so much for sharing this information. Puppet Master bulling seems to be a common activity in the federal government, and in particular with the USDA Forest Service, which is so toxic that it receives almost 700 formal EEO complaints by employees every year.

    At some point, we as a society need to start valuing ethical people again and promoting decent and kind people into positions of power. Right now all I see is self-serving narcissists or sociopaths (the “worst of the worst”) people getting high level management positions in the federal government. Even EEO and Civil Rights staff are management minions now and care little for the well-being of employees – it is a dreadful time to work for the federal government.

  13. Interesting stuff. Hierarchy = access to victims and always has. To stop this abhorrent behaviour we have to identify the root cause and cut off the avenues they follow. Sociopaths crave power; we need to look at removing the hierarchies themselves and move towards a more egalitarian workplace. A good work force is self managing – I’m not saying all managers are bullies, but the majority are. These people are never motivated by what the company wants, they’re invariably lone wolves carrying out their sadistic agendas while hiding behind the policies and procedures like the cowards they are. The Trebor factory in England removed its managers, adopted a flat organisational structure – productivity increased, and the sick pay bill/staff turnover fell drastically. We could do with a return to this friendlier version of capitalism; it’s better business; it’s more profitable.

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