Bullying and Mobbing in Group Settings

Janice Harper, PhD, Author of Mobbed!

By Janice Harper, PhD

Bullying is an abusive behavior that has received considerable concern among policy makers, educators and workplace advocates in recent years. Most of this attention, however, has focused on the actions of the individual, typically labeled, the bully. Bullies are commonly regarded as evil people who should be purged and punished, with little attention to the range of human behaviors abusers reflect, the organizational and interpersonal contexts of the abuse, and the broader social forces that cause such abuse to spread in group settings.

As a cultural anthropologist, my focus has been on the behavior of the group and on organizational cultures that can lead otherwise good and decent people to behave in cruel and inhumane ways given certain patterned and predictable features of mobbing and how people respond when a leader targets someone for punishment. We act differently in group settings than we do in individual interactions, and as several studies in group psychology have shown, humans will almost always turn against each other when leadership signals that someone is undesirable and/or weak, vulnerable or a threat.

When a leader, whether by way of their social position or influence over the group, targets someone for abuse, others will gradually and systematically distance themselves from the targeted individual, revise their views and memories of that individual to justify their shunning, and join in the abusive behavior through insults, name calling, sabotage, accusations and other cruelties. Once it is clear they will not be punished for their abuse, they will continue to escalate their aggression until the target has been eliminated from the group or rendered so invisible and weak that their presence won’t be noted.

This group behavior is termed mobbing and it is common in any group setting where there are limited options for the target to leave voluntarily or to be easily discharged. The objective of mobbing is always to persuade the target that regardless of whether they have any place to go to, and regardless of the legalities or fairness of their treatment, they will leave or be forced to leave (often through accusations of misconduct or violations of law). The more the target fights back or shows any anger, the more likely they will be regarded as a threat to the group. The more evidence a target presents demonstrating that any accusations are unjust and/or their treatment abusive, the more members of the group will reject that evidence and become more insistent that the treatment is deserving, necessary for the good of the group, and of the target’s own doing.

Perhaps worse, mobbing is what one target described as crazy-making. Targets of mobbing can be expected to be so beaten down by the abuse that their personalities will change; they will become confused and enraged; become suspicious of even innocuous behaviors (often leading to paranoia, which is hard to distinguish from normal behavior if people really are targeting them), and they can become depressed and even suicidal.

Mobbing is common in workplaces, the military, communities, housing associations, and any group home setting where people live communally but cannot easily relocate. For this reason, housing for the elderly and disabled is a high-risk setting for mobbing behaviors, where interventions based on the bully paradigm fail to protect individuals who find themselves the target of group aggression. If anything, the target is likely to be called a bully by the very people who have engaged in bullying behavior, because bullies have been socially demonized as deserving of elimination, while the very label is a form of dehumanization. Accusing the target of always making complaints and being disliked by everyone can be used to portray the target of abuse as the abuser.

My own research in this area has drawn on primate and non-primate animal studies, genocide, warfare, group psychology and organizational cultures. I have a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from Michigan State University, and have written a popular book on the topic, Mobbed! What to Do When They Really Are Out to Get You. I have been a frequent contributor to Psychology Today and The Huffington Post, regularly coach targets of workplace and community mobbing, and am currently writing a book on mobbing, hazing and bullying in the military with Lt. Col. Kate Germano.

For more information on my background and expertise, visit my website at http:www.janice-harper.com and see http://janice-harper.com/essays-on-mobbing/ [Kindly keep the links as part of this statement.]

Janice Harper, statement presented to the Massachusetts Commission on Bullying, 7 August 2017. Used with permission.