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.
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.
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.
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