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.

Shelley Lane’s broad-ranging look at incivility

I’m delighted that Dr. Shelley Lane’s (U. Texas-Dallas) Understanding Everyday Incivility: Why Are They So Rude? (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017) has now been published. I was honored to write the Foreword, and I’d like to draw on it for this post.

Understanding Everyday Incivility is an informed, wide-ranging, and provocative examination of a topic that carries everyday significance. As Dr. Lane points out in the first chapter, this is not a volume about manners and etiquette. Rather, here we find civility and incivility observed and interpreted through the lens of a communications scholar and teacher who happens to be a thoughtful human being. The volume examines civility and incivility in multiple settings, including workplace tensions (naturally!), family disputes, road rage, online behavior, relationship issues, school dynamics, politics, community relations, and more — all framed by a communications perspective.

The book is neither a breezy self-help manual nor a heavy academic tome. Written in an accessible style, it is backed by research and insights that lift our overall grasp of the topic. It’s a humane and stimulating invitation for all of us to navigate this challenging world with more heart quality.

By the way, my original introduction to Shelley had nothing to do with workplace stuff! A few years ago I was researching online for memoirs of study-abroad experiences, and I discovered Shelley’s book recounting her junior year at the University of Stirling in Scotland. You can read the full story about how our paths crossed here!

How bad organizations create outsiders

For many years I’ve used the term institutional construction of outsider status to describe how bad organizations turn internal critics into outsiders, even if they remain on the payroll. The critics are generally competent — perhaps even excellent — at their jobs, but to the dismay of their employers, they will say what’s on their minds, offer suggestions for improvement, and when necessary raise ethical or legal concerns.

For whatever reasons (legal, practical, etc.), the respective organizations do not rid themselves of these individuals, at least not immediately. However, at best the organizations sort of tolerate them, while finding ways to subtly and not-so-subtly marginalize them. Such responses may fall short of outright ostracism, hostility, or retaliation, but suffice it to say that targets of such marginalization will never be in the inner circle and will never be seriously considered for certain types of promotions. They may also begin to feel isolated, as the organization’s responses (or non-responses) to their criticisms can send cues to co-workers to stay away from them. The targets may well perceive what’s happening, but they often find that it’s not easy to challenge practices, behaviors, and decisions that are cloaked in foggy subjectivity. At times, targets will internalize their perceived isolation and further withdraw from certain types of organizational engagement.

I see this a lot in academic institutions, where protections of tenure and academic freedom are designed in part to safeguard faculty speech, thus making it harder to discipline or terminate professors for expressing themselves on matters related to institutional governance and scholarly work. Lacking the right to simply get rid of a critical tenured faculty member who is performing satisfactorily, the schools will find ways to tolerate and marginalize the individual. Of course, tenured professors should never assume that they are bulletproof from wrongful retaliation for their exercise of free speech, even though tenure does add a strong layer of protection.

Unions and collective bargaining agreements (CBA) can also provide employees with greater free speech protections than those enjoyed by the average American worker. The typical CBA stipulates that a covered employee may be terminated only for just cause, which is usually defined as failure to perform competently, material misconduct, or financial necessity. Labor laws also afford these workers with the right to engage in concerted activities for mutual aid or protection.

As welcomed as these protections may be for workers fortunate to have them, they can only do so much. As I suggested above, no one is truly bulletproof in today’s workplace. If one is employed at a not-so-great organization and decides to become a critic, at the very least they can expect to be marginalized and to face an opaque ceiling when it comes to advancement.

When boss behaviors fall short of bullying, but still prompt an “oy”

If we define workplace bullying as intentional, often repeated, verbal or non-verbal mistreatment of employee that causes mental or physical harm, then it follows that a lot of not-so-great behaviors fall short of that threshold. Bullying, as I’ve come to think of it, is targeted and usually malicious in nature. “Bad bossism,” on the other hand, is simply that.

I just read Adam Bryant’s New York Times interview of Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini, and I’m glad that I don’t work for her. (Barstool Sports, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a “bro” site featuring lots of sports talk and photos of scantily clad co-eds.) While nothing in the interview necessarily cries out “bullying boss,” Nardini’s punishing management practices and assessments of humanity aren’t for everyone: 

1. She’ll run people into the ground in order to build a better Barstool.

I think I’m punishing. I have a large ability to grind. If I want something or if I believe in something or I think something should be done better, I will push and push until I exhaust people.

I really value stamina and drive. I am bad with stagnation and complacency. It’s not just about winning, but did we do everything possible to make something happen?

2. That includes being available 24/7, and she’s going to test that during your interview phase.

If you’re in the process of interviewing with us, I’ll text you about something at 9 p.m. or 11 a.m. on a Sunday just to see how fast you’ll respond.

[In response to the followup question of permissible response time] Within three hours. It’s not that I’m going to bug you all weekend if you work for me, but I want you to be responsive. I think about work all the time. Other people don’t have to be working all the time, but I want people who are also always thinking.

3. She’s got a single-lens, 90/10 view of humanity.

I had to learn, and I’m still learning, about the kinds of people on my team who can run in my system, which is pretty hard-driving.

…There were people who weren’t into it, and it took me a long time to learn that there are people who I call “90 percent players” and there are “10 percent players.”

The 90 percent players are superdependable. They work hard every day, and they’re amenable to whatever you want to do.

And the 10 percent people may not be great 90 percent of the time, but 10 percent of the time they’re genius, and they’re genius at the moment that matters.

It took me a long time to learn that there’s a beauty and a gift in the 10 percent people, and you have to be able to unlock it.

Oy, indeed.

It would’ve been great had interviewer Bryant followed up with a question about work-life balance, but we’ll have to imagine Nardini’s response. (I’d predict some variation on “work hard, play hard.”)

To be fair, Nardini is no different than any other CEO who expects their underlings to demonstrate fulsome devotion to their jobs. She’s merely among the latest to regard her management philosophy as worth bragging about. Of course, we’re used to hearing this stuff from certain male CEOs, so perhaps it’s a sign of ironic, umm, progress, that a female CEO is spouting more of the same.

Addressing workplace bullying, mobbing, and incivility in higher education: The roles of law, cultures, codes, and coaching

At the just-concluded International Congress on Law and Mental Health in Prague, I presented a short paper, “Addressing Workplace Bullying, Mobbing, and Incivility in Higher Education: The Roles of Law, Cultures, Codes, and Coaching,” as part of a panel discussion on legal issues in higher education. In assembling this talk, I drew heavily upon sources discussed in past blog entries, as I have long been interested in bullying behaviors in academe. Here’s a slightly edited version of my outline for the talk:

I. Introduction

  1. Short definitions
  • Workplace bullying – Intentional, often repeated, and health harming mistreatment of an employee by one of more other employees, using verbal and non-verbal means.
  • Workplace mobbing – An intentional “ganging up” on an employee by multiple employees, using bullying-type behaviors.
  • Workplace incivility – Behavior that violates conventional norms of workplace conduct.

2. Impacts

  • Reduced employee productivity, attentiveness, and employee morale, increased attrition and absenteeism;
  • Increased employee benefit costs and liability exposure;
  • For workplace bullying and mobbing, significant mental and physical health effects, including clinical depression, PTSD, suicidal ideation.

II. Bullying, Mobbing, and Incivility in Academe

  1. Are they problems in academic institutions?

Yes, books and studies have documented this. See my blog post, “Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in Academe: The Hell of Heaven?” (rev. 2014).

In the United States, political controversies in the aftermath of the 2016 election have fueled bullying, mobbing, and incivility on campuses.

2. Bullying, Mobbing, Incivility: Common Status Combinations

  • Board > administrator(s)/faculty
  • Administrator(s) > administrator(s)/faculty/staff
  • Tenured faculty > non-tenured faculty
  • Tenured faculty > tenured faculty
  • Faculty > mid-level administrator(s)/staff/graduate students
  • Staff > staff

3. My Pet Theory: “Dilbert in Tweed”

Academicians are adept at intellectual analysis, manipulation, and argumentation.  When applied to the tasks of teaching, scholarship, and service, these skills reinforce the most socially useful aspects of the academy.  But many of us who have worked in academe have seen what happens when they are applied in hurtful or even malicious ways.

Of course, exquisitely rationalized actions and explanations occur in many organizations, but in dysfunctional academic settings, they often rise to an art form.  After repeated such bludgeonings, we may become accustomed to, and sometimes all too indifferent towards, intellectual dishonesty and rhetorical “mal-manipulation.”  Call it Dilbert in Tweed.

Because this kind of mental facility often is at the heart of both perpetrating and defending bullying, academe becomes a natural petri dish for such behaviors, especially the covert varieties.  After all, so many decisions in the academy are based upon very subjective judgments.  This can create a particularly attractive setting for the passive-aggressive bully and the quiet-but-deadly mob.

(Passage adapted from David C. Yamada “The Role of the Law in Combating Workplace Mobbing and Bullying,” which appears in Kenneth Westhues’s edited volume, Workplace Mobbing in Academe (2004).)

III.       Relational vs. Non-Relational Organizational Cultures

Drs. Linda Hartling and Elizabeth Sparks, “Relational-Cultural Practice: Working in a Nonrelational World” (2002), paper published by the Wellesley Centers for Women:

A “relational” culture is one that values “growth-fostering relationships, mutual empathy, mutuality, [and] authenticity,” creating qualities of “zest, empowerment, clarity, sense of worth, and a desire for more connection.”

By contrast, the authors identify three types of “non-relational cultures” that hurt morale and productivity:

  • “traditional hierarchical” cultures that emphasize top-down power;
  • “pseudo-relational” cultures that value superficial “niceness” over constructive change; and,
  • brute “survival” cultures that pit everyone against one another in the quest for status and institutional spoils.

IV. A Suggested Therapeutic Jurisprudence-Informed Approach

  1. Build a relational work culture
  • Nurture civility and responsible speech, i.e., the Golden Rule
  • Manage incivility with non/less-punitive interventions (coaching, counseling)
  • Avoid civility codes

2. Prohibit Abuse

  • Anti-bullying provisions in employee policies
  • Progressive discipline
  • Avoid long, drawn-out, multi-layered disciplinary procedures
  • Incorporate legal liabilities and obligations: Especially discrimination & harassment laws (most nations); whistleblower & anti-retaliation protections (most nations); anti-bullying & mobbing laws (some nations).

Bad bosses: The consistent jerk vs. Jekyll & Hyde

Workers of the world, given your druthers, would you rather have a boss who is a jerk all of the time or just part of the time? Believe it or not, it may be easier to deal with the full-time version.

Jena McGregor, writing for the “On Leadership” column of the Washington Post, reports on a research study by Fadel K. Matta, Brent A. ScottJason A. Colquitt, Joel Koopman, and Liana G. Passantino published in the Academy of Management Journal, finding “that employees are less stressed and have more job satisfaction when their bosses are always unfair than when their boss is unpredictable.”

One part of the study involved a lab experiment with college students getting feedback from a boss in simulated work environments:

To no one’s surprise, those who got the consistently nice feedback fared best when it came to the heart rate monitoring. But those who consistently heard how much it sucks to work with them did better than those who sometimes heard compliments and sometimes got burned.

The second part of the study surveyed actual workers in a variety of work settings and found the same thing:

Again, employees who had unpredictable managers were more likely to be stressed, dissatisfied with their jobs and emotionally exhausted than those who said they were always treated unfairly.

The Jekyll and Hyde boss

These research findings dovetail with what we’ve heard for years about bad bosses, workplace bullying, and workplace incivility, namely, that the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde bosses may cause higher levels of stress and uncertainty than those whose behaviors are predictable and consistent. We tend to prefer certainty to uncertainty, perhaps even to the point of opting for a reliably jerky boss over one who offers kudos one day and rants the next. After all, many of us exercise such a preference in other human interactions, ranging from personal relationships to dealing with authority figures such as police officers.

So what lies beneath these Jekyll and Hyde behaviors? In a blog post earlier this year, business school professor Joel Brockner discusses a study by Szu Han Lin, Jingjing Ma, and Russell Johnson that offers two possible explanations. The first is “moral licensing”:

One is moral licensing, which is based on the idea that people want to think of themselves and their behavior as ethical or moral. Having behaved ethically, people are somewhat paradoxically free to behave less ethically, either because their prior behavior gave them moral credits in their psychological ledgers or because it proved them to be fine, upstanding citizens.

The second is personal resource depletion:

A second explanation is based on Roy Baumeister’s notion of ego depletion, which assumes that people have a limited amount of self-control resources. Ego depletion refers to how people exerting self-control in one situation are less able to do so in a subsequent situation. Ego depletion helps to explain, for instance, why employees tend to make more ethical decisions earlier rather than later in the day.

Of course, this also begs the question of whether too many employers hire too many bosses who have low levels of ethics and self-control to begin with, leaving a very thin margin of error in terms of everyday treatment of subordinates and peers. As I have mentioned frequently here, research indicates that the higher we go up the organizational chart, the more we find leaders who demonstrate anti-social and psychopathic qualities. Accordingly, the presence of bad bosses probably means that some employers are drawn to the wrong kind of people as potential managers and leaders in the first place. In such instances, they’re more likely to see Dr. Jekyll at the interview, with Mr. Hyde showing up for the first day of work.

From the archives: Some overlooked nuggets

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(image courtesy of

Minding the Workplace now covers some eight years of blogging, including nearly 1,500 articles posted. Many of these pieces have staying power thanks to Internet search engines; articles from years ago continue to attract page views as a result. But some pieces don’t get many search “hits,” even if they’re still relevant. I’ve gathered ten of these articles from the middle years of this blog (2011-2014). None rank among the 250 most-read posts, but I believe they’re worth reading. I hope you’ll agree!

Selective praise as a form of workplace marginalization (2014) — “Have you ever worked in an organization where some people receive lavish praise from higher ups for the most modest of achievements, while others do remarkable things but receive, at best, an obligatory nod from the folks in charge?”

Understanding the Holocaust (and why I’m writing about it in a blog about workplaces) (2014) — “Allusions to the Holocaust, Nazis, Hitler, and the like must be offered carefully. This includes discussions involving employee relations. Even terrible workplaces are not concentration camps. But I respectfully suggest that these comparisons are important and useful when severe workplace bullying and abuse are under examination.”

Workplace gossip: From intelligence gathering to targeted bullying (2014) — “Spreading malicious gossip is among the most frequent bullying tactics used, especially by those who demonstrate psychopathic qualities. Calculatedly and without conscience, they plant the seeds in casual conversations and e-mails: Oh, you know what I heard? Guess what so-and-so told me. You can’t share this with anyone, but….”

Words rarely heard: “Boss, I think you need to get some help” (2013) — “The hierarchical nature of our workplaces often means that managers, supervisors, and executives who engage in bullying and other aggressive behaviors will not be referred to counseling or mental health services, and their suffering co-workers will continue to pay the price. Let’s take a look at why this is so.”

On creating organizational culture: What if your boss simply doesn’t care? (2013) — “We talk about good leaders who strive to create healthy organizational cultures, the places where people want to work. We talk about bad leaders who crack the whip, bully, and treat others as expendable parts. But what about bosses who don’t think much at all about the quality of work life within their organizations?”

Professional schools as incubators for workplace bullying (2012) — “It has long been my belief that the seeds of workplace bullying are planted in professional schools that prepare people to enter occupations such as law and medicine.”

Are some workplaces “bullying clusters”? (2012) — “Are bullying and related behaviors concentrated within a smaller number of toxic workplaces? . . . The concept of a cancer cluster has led me think about whether we can designate specific workplaces as “bullying clusters.” If we can, is there value in doing so?”

Can workplace incivility ever be healthy? (2011) — “Those of us who study workplaces generally assume that incivility is a bad thing. After all, an interaction involving incivility can ruin a work day, especially if it comes from your boss. At times, incivility can elevate into active disrespect and even bullying. . . . However, there are times when incivility may be an understandable consequence of a disagreement or difference of opinion. Such exchanges — often marked by the use of otherwise rude, harsh, or offensive words — can clear the air, hopefully paving the way toward a healthy resolution.”

How lousy organizations treat institutional history (2011) — “How do lousy organizations treat their own institutional history? In other words, how do they treat their past, recent or otherwise?”

Loyalty, “betrayal,” and workplace bullying: Does insider status matter? (2011) — “Suppose an employee openly disagrees with a position taken by her boss. Does her status as an insider or outsider impact the likelihood of being bullied by the boss? In other words, is a boss more likely to bully a “disloyal” subordinate who is part of his inner circle or favored group versus one who is not?”

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