Workplace bullying and mobbing: Abuse vs. conflict

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As I wrote in my previous post, Dr. Maureen Duffy and I are doing a final review of our forthcoming two-volume book set, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (ABC-CLIO, 2018), scheduled for publication in December. The process of re-reading 25 chapters featuring the work of over two dozen contributors highlights recurring themes for me. Among others, I keep coming back to this question: In terms of negative workplace interactions, what factors distinguish “conflict” from “abuse”? 

You’ll find differences of opinion on this question among our learned contributors. For me, the distinction between workplace conflict and workplace abuse often boils down to two major factors, namely, (1) the intentions of the parties, and (2) the power relationships between the parties.

If a party’s main intention is to cause harm or distress to another (thus meeting a common legal definition of malice), then the situation is more likely to be an abusive one.

If the power relationships between the parties are significantly uneven due to some combination of internal hierarchy (e.g., supervisor vs. subordinate), numbers (e.g., many vs. one), personality matches (e.g., exploiting someone’s emotional vulnerabilities), and resources (organizational, financial, etc.), then the situation is more likely to be an abusive one.

If one side exhibits malicious intent and exercises a significant power advantage over the other, then the situation is very likely to be an abusive one. The combination of bad intentions and the ability to effectuate them can be overwhelming to the less-advantaged individual.

Here is where we find some of the sharper dividing lines between disrespect and incivility on one hand, and bullying and mobbing on the other. Of course, there are others, including repeated acts of aggression and the greater presence of serious health-harming effects with the latter.

If you’d like an illuminating comparison in terms of social relationships, consider spousal or domestic partnership relationships. It’s one thing for a couple not to get along, perhaps even to the point where the conflict has elevated to frequent disagreements and verbal and non-verbal aggression. It’s quite another for one party to continually subject the other to verbal and/or physical abuse in a one-sided show of aggression. (This illustration is among the reasons why I have long joined with others in believing that workplace bullying is more like domestic abuse than schoolyard bullying.)

Again, I’m simply sharing my thoughts on this topic as an ongoing response to reviewing the forthcoming book volumes. I’m sure that once these volumes are published, I’ll be drawing upon them frequently for more observations and insights.

5 responses

  1. Thanks! How about if the abusive behavior is automatic and ingrained in ones personality, and an unconscious defense pervasively and rigidly practiced like with personality disorders?



  2. “workplace bullying is more like domestic abuse than schoolyard bullying” A good insight. Something similar in multifamily residential situations. Relations aren’t intimate like a family, and not formal like in the public square, but in the common areas and activities there is conflict between seeing it as “my space and place” vs. “public behavior, as in the library, a concert, etc.”
    Always enjoy your blog.

  3. It’s a corporate legal game…conflict or personality issues are not illegal, so they use “interviews” to coerce employees to “agree” to call violence, discrimination, etc…by non-illegal behavior (or be disciplined for some made up infraction)

  4. I was looking at the power & control wheels for domestic violence and was stunned when I realized the eerie similarities/parallels between the characteristics of abuse in domestic violence situations and workplace bullying (in the ivory tower). Seeing your blog post reinforces my instinct about these parallels. It also seems to me that bullying in the ivory tower is almost easier to hide because of the focus on peer review, “constructive criticism”, “mentoring” etc. It’s like these items provide an almost perfect cover for the bullies because they realize that they can manipulate these lofty goals to serve their darker purpose under the guise of “assisting a person to succeed”. So this allows for situations in which socially sanctioned hazing rituals almost become the norm, only people don’t necessarily realize it.

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