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Mobbing - Bullying and Emotional Abuse in the Workplace

Updated on September 24, 2012

What Is Mobbing

Mobbing is a form of emotional bullying in the workplace carried out by multiple co-workers.

Problems at work are a typical topic of advice columns. Many working people have their own unhappy stories to tell, and entire books have been written on the subject of problems at work.

Discussions of sexual harassment have been commonplace in recent years, but dysfunctional on-the-job behavior from coworkers is not necessarily sexual and can affect both genders.

If difficult behavior from coworkers is multiplied among several people, the situation could become even more difficult. Authors Noa Davenport, Ruth D. Schwartz and Gail Pursell Elliott use the term "mobbing" to describe on the job harassment perpetrated by more than one person.

The authors define mobbing in their book, Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace, as "'Ganging up by several individuals, to force someone out of the workplace through rumor, innuendo, intimidation, discrediting, and particularly, humiliation."

According to Davenport and Schwartz, "Every day, capable, hardworking, committed employees suffer emotional abuse at their workplace. Some flee from jobs they love, forced out by mean-spirited coworkers, subordinates or superiors -- often with the tacit approval of higher management."

The term "mobbing" has gained a great deal of popularity in recent years. In fact, as of this writing, a Google search of the words "mobbing" and "work" together (to differentiate it from animal behavior) brings up 396,000 results. Shy people are more likely to be at risk of this kind of behavior than more outgoing people.

Still, none of this is to say that all, or even most, shy people will experience mobbing in the workplace. It is, however, helpful to know about it, why it may happen, what to do about it if it does, and how, if possible, to avoid it.

Circle of mobbing behavior
Circle of mobbing behavior

How To Deal with Co-workers Who are Troublemakers

We all must work if we are to succeed in life. Unless we were born wealthy, we have no choice in the matter.

We have many challenges in any job. To add the need to deal with coworkers who are troublemakers is one more difficulty.

It is through our jobs that we get our feeling of self worth as well as a way in which we contribute to society and the way in which we fulfill our dreams and ambitions. For some people, the whole vision of themselves revolve around their work.

On the other hand, on the job we are thrust into a situation with many different people of varying personality types and temperaments. To a large degree, we have no choice about those with whom we work.

Some of the people we work with may be neurotic or have other psychological issues. Add to this today's difficult economic conditions and highly competitive atmosphere, and you often have the ingredients for trouble.

Sometimes people are even subjected to very bizarre behavior on the job by their coworkers that makes it difficult to concentrate or do their work to the best degree possible.

The problem with many jobs, some say, is that they are one big social club. People judge others only on their ability to do the job, but on their ability to "fit in."

For some severely shy people, this can be a particular challenge. Throughout their lives, they may have trouble getting others to recognize their best qualities because of their quietness. Others may even mistake them as being unfriendly or aloof.

It has been suggested that vocabulary is one of the main reasons for advancement in a job. But, after all, if you have a good vocabulary but you're too shy to use it, it's not going to do you a whole lot of good. I think a far more important factor is how outgoing and personable you are.

This is not to say that vocabulary is not important; its just one of the many ways you impress people with your smarts.

So work hard to reduce your shyness if you find is is a probem for you on the job. Do your best to project self-confidence and an outgoing manner to your fellow employees. It may be just as important as the quality of the work you put in.

mobbing emotional abuse and shyness
mobbing emotional abuse and shyness

Mobbing Behavior and Shyness

Co-workers who are troublemakers can be a problem for anyone, but shy people may have particular trouble with difficult fellow employees.

Shy people often find themselves to be judged more harshly than extroverts on the job. Dr. Jonathan Cheek has found that underemployment, uneasy work relationships and slower advancement tend to mark the careers of shy people.

Jacqueline Horner Plumez, Ph.D. found that many people lose their jobs not because of incompetence but because of failing to make the right connections. She found that making a good impression on the right people is just as important as work performance.

Ability to get on well with one's coworkers is often named as one of the primary work requirements in a new job. Unfortunately shy people often have more trouble gaining approval from others, including coworkers. They sometimes fail to establish that essential "camaraderie" among their supervisors and fellow workers.

If someone sees that a shy person is lacking in the various social graces, they may be inclined to see that person as less competent in other areas as well. This can hinder their chances of advancement or even of keeping their present positions.

Also, if people see that the shy person seems nervous or ill at ease in a new job, they may incorrectly interpret this as uncertainty about his or her ability to do the work rather than simply being a normal shy behavior.

Some shy people may in fact find that their work performance is judged better when they work by themselves than when they work with others-even if the type of work they are doing in both cases is exactly the same!

Since shy people will have a tougher time than non-shys advancing in the workplace, they must concentrate not only on their work performance but also on socializing procedures to make such things come more naturally for them.

mobbing in the workplace
mobbing in the workplace

Games People Play

Psychological Mind Games in the Workplace

Game playing is as old as mankind. No, I'm not talking about the fun, recreational kinds of games like shuffleboard or tiddlywinks. I'm talking about the mind games that people all too often tend to use on one another. Shy and unassertive people can be particularly vulnerable to these kinds of games.

This is not to say that using a little psychology on other people is always a bad thing. For example, if one of your friends feels inferior, you could build up her self-esteem by showing appreciation for what she does well. This is an example of the conscious use of applied psychology and, if properly handled, it could be a good thing.

I'm talking about the negative psychological mind games, and they are often practiced unconsciously.

A particularly pernicious game is the “I am better than you are” game. in this case, the game player wants to believe that he is superior to others in some way, or that others have some kind of deficiency in one or more areas.

This is a common tactic of physical and psychological bullies. It is really a sign of low, not high self-esteem. Such people feel a need to put down others in order to make themselves feel important.

Obviously, such psychological mind games can damage friendships. After all, friends are there to support one another, not to slam each other with undue criticism or barbs.

Bullying behavior can result in loss of friends. If those friends are the target of the bullying behavior, it can cause bitter feelings to develop and a complete collapse of the friendship.

Unfortunately, bullying and psychological mind games are not limited to the playground. They can haunt you throughout your entire life.

Psychological mind games are not uncommon, for example, in the office or workplace. Workers who are bored or who are trying to improve their own standing in the eyes of the boss may attempt to put down a coworker, make him or her look bad, or try to get him or her to do an unfair share of the workload.

Although it is obviously counterproductive, it is not even uncommon for a boss or supervisor to play psychological mind games on their employees.

Unfortunately, there is no simple, pat procedure for dealing with such mind games in the workplace, but one key is to avoid participating in or listening to gossip. Remember that the gossiper may be gossiping about you behind your back as well.

The best course of action is to focus on doing your work to the best of your abilities. If the game playing becomes intolerable, it may be time to look for a different place to work.

definition of gossip
definition of gossip

Beware of this Troublemaker in the Workplace

There are a lot of different kinds of troublemakers out there, and many them you will find in the workplace.

Unfortunately, we all have to deal with troublemakers throughout our lives. It begins in childhood, and one of the major challenges for parents is to keep their children away from the bad influences that can turn children in the wrong direction.

Some authors have attempted to catalog and name some of the different types of troublemakers out there, but there are so many that no author has succeeded in describing all of them. J. George Frederick described some of the people one should avoid marrying in his 1949 book "How To Get Tough With Yourself Through Inverse Dynamics." George Zgourides, Psy.D described Some of what he called "nasty opponents" in his 1993 book "Don't Let Them Psych You Out!"

The particular type of troublemaker I would like to discuss is what I call, for purposes of this article, the "agent provocateur" and what Zgourides called the hysteric or the "sh_t-stirrer." As Zgourides described it "he or she loves to get everybody in an uproar, and then sit back and enjoy the fireworks."

The agent provocateur is one of the most dangerous types of coworker you will encounter in the workplace. Why? Because he or she is usually so entertaining. As Zgourides put it, this type of person "loves drama and tragedy."

The agent provocateur is usually a very keen judge of human nature. He or she (and it may or may not usually be a she) has their ear to the grapevine at all times. They know what is going on in the workplace at any moment. They are aware of the various power struggles, the little dramas, the personality clashes, the ladder climbing, and the various little tidbits of gossip that make life in the workplace such a soap opera.

The agent provocateur is usually highly entertaining! They can draw you in to their story, as they tell you about all the little ins and outs of the workplace that you weren't even aware of! They are usually great talkers, and they can keep you regaled with secret stories of the workplace that were otherwise completely unknown to you!

Such a person is especially appealing to the shy person, because he or she can do most of the talking, leaving a shy person free from the struggle of "what to say next."

The interesting thing is, the agent provocateur is usually right! Their judgments of people are usually on the money, and they have a very keen knowledge of exactly what is going on behind the scenes in the workplace! Listening to them can be highly entertaining!

But unfortunately, the agent provocateur is a trap, a snare and a delusion! He or she is much like the serpent in the Bible. What he or she says is highly interesting, and even mostly true, but it could lead to your downfall in the end!

Why is this? Because everyone is a target of the agent provocateur -- including you! Write this out in big bold letters and put it above your mirror so you will see it every morning: The person who gossips about others behind their back will probably gossip about you behind your back!

This is just the nature of the agent provocateur and the gossip. This is why they are so seductive -- and also so dangerous! They are alluring, they can suck you in, but they can also end up biting you in the backside.

You can be as sure of this as you can be sure that the sun will rise in the morning and set in the evening: the agent provocateur will gossip about you as well! They will know the little mistakes you make: the things you do wrong, your various faults and shortcomings, and you can be sure that they will share these things about you.

The agent provocateur will not necessarily appear to be your enemy. In fact, they may be quite friendly. But they are still extremely dangerous. The only way to stay safe from their snares is to avoid them entirely, but this will be extremely difficult in a small workplace.

If you get caught up in the wiles of the agent provocateur, you can be sure that it will come back to bite you eventually.

benefits of being assertive	for shy people
benefits of being assertive for shy people

Assertiveness Skills For Shy People

At Work And In Life

Assertiveness is an essential skill, not only in work, but in life in general. The assertiveness skills we all practice are the result of fine-tuning over many years. It doesn't happen overnight! However, the more practice you get, and the more you push yourself, the better you will become.

While you may not always achieve your desired outcome, you should always give it your best effort. Here are 10 tips for increasing your assertiveness.

1. Think positively. Believe in yourself. Feed yourself positive thoughts.

2. Remember that assertiveness does not mean changing other people. It only means changing yourself and your own responses to people. Changing your own behavior will cause others to behave differently towards you.

3. Remember that your own assertive behavior is based on the choices that you make. Your behavior and the way you respond to people has consequences. It's largely your choice as to what those consequences will be.

4. Don't berate yourself over your own decisions or mistakes. See every situation as a learning opportunity that provides a positive opportunity for you to change your future behavior.

5. Pay attention to your body language. Strive to make it match your words. After all, people will believe what they see more than what they hear.

6. Assertive behavior is like crossing the street. You want to stop, look, and listen, and then think about how you will react. This will help you to stay in control of the situation and your own emotions.

7. Focus on resolving the situation, not on gaining the upper hand. Remember that the person you are interacting with may also be angry at the situation.

8. Think about your choice of words. Certain words or phrases can send out the message that you are a pushover. These are phrases such as “I'm afraid...” “I'm terribly sorry,” “can I just...” or “could you possibly...?” Substitute “I” statements instead, such as “I would really like it if we could resolve this problem before four o'clock.” Use factual statements rather than judgments or accusations.

9. Don't be afraid to say "no" when necessary. You're only giving yourself the same rights that you allow to everyone else. Remember that you are not rejecting another person personally, you're just turning down their request.

10. Adopt a "can do" attitude. Don't fall into the mindset of believing that things just happen to you. Adopt the attitude that you make things happen.

5 Phases of the Mobbing Process - Mobbing doesn't just happen

How does Mobbing happen? Gail Pursell Elliott, author, consultant and expert on this topic, explains the 5 phases of a mobbing process during a 2009 teleconference presentation. Share this information with human resources professionals, managers, and others in your organization. Contact Gail through her website,

School Mobbing and Emotional Abuse - ABC News Story

This interview with author Gail Pursell Elliott is an excellent overview of what mobbing is, how it happens, and what can be done about it. School Mobbing and Emotional Abuse is published by Routledge and is an approachable, easy to read book for counselors, parents, teachers, students, families, and others. Part 2 of the book includes a collection of insightful essays that provide good springboards to conversation and reflection on treating ourselves and others with dignity and respect as individuals.

Debate - What's Your Take on Mobbing?

Is it a real issue? Vote on the matter by entering your comment in the box below:

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Reader Feedback on Mobbing

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    • TimothyArends profile imageAUTHOR

      Timothy Arends 

      6 years ago from Chicago area

      Sounds like a god way to encourage employee cooperation and helpfulness!

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 

      6 years ago from Central Florida

      As a boss, I'd see this happening and it is difficult to combat. Frequently it would be instigated by one employee who liked seeing dissention and turmoil, but would enlist others to carry it out. It's not easy to get rid of a person like that but frequently that did solve the problem.

      I tried one reward system of my own devising that seemed to help. Employees got a certificate and gold stars for submitting praise for other employee's helpfulness. There was a weekly drawing from all the submissions and the one submitting and the one being praised each received a coffee mug filled with candy or a lunch certificate to a fast food place. There was a marked increase in cooperation and everyone vied to get more stars on their certificates.


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