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When a Bully is the Target

©2013 Gail Pursell Elliott

The term mobbing originates from the animal kingdom, generally referring to birds although it does occur in other species. There is a barnyard behavior known as chicken pecking which is not when one bully chicken picks on another, but when all of the chickens target and isolate one bird and take turns pecking it. Each one pecks just once or twice. Not one of them really does enough to do harm. The end result is a horrific death because of the accumulation of all the pecks.

This is a good example of how random mobbing can appear and how damaging it is. Nobel Laureate, Konrad Lorenz, first described mobbing among birds and animals in his 1966 book, On Aggression. He attributed the behavior to instincts rooted in the struggle to survive. He also observed that humans are subject to similar impulses but are able to control them.

What does this have to do with the bully at work? The target of a mobbing in the animal kingdom generally is a predator. The target of a workplace mobbing often is someone who represents a threat in some way. Anyone can be a target, including a bully. When I present programs on mobbing, occasionally a few participants will tell me that they believe they have a mobber at work and that a group of them plan to get together to stop or expose him or her. This is dangerous ground, for these well meaning individuals are forming a mob. People often view their actions as justified when they join together to drive out another coworker. When the target is a bully it becomes reminiscent of the villagers going after the beast in the castle. Mob rule takes over and people will engage in behavior that may be out of character.

While a person who engages in bullying behavior needs to be dealt with professionally, mobbing is not the way to do this. When mobbing springs up in an effort by staff to eliminate anyone, bully or not, it may indicate a misstep on the part of management to recognize and handle unpleasant employee relations as they occur. When issues are not addressed in a satisfactory manner, people may take matters into their own hands in whatever way they can. Mobbing is one of these. At that point rumors fly and individuals will look for an opportunity to discredit, blame, isolate and intimidate the target. A bully is not necessarily a mobber, though these terms have been used interchangeably by some and indeed a person may play the role of both bully and mobber. In fact, a bully may be part of a mobbing not as a target but as a willing participant who is encouraged by the mobber to engage in more overt forms of abuse.
A real concern from an organizational standpoint is that both arrogance and anarchy on the part of employees can be the aftermath once a mobbing has taken hold and has been successful. No longer trusting appropriate management to handle situations, employees may inadvertently set up their own quiet network to handle individuals or situations on their own. Both perpetrators and targets may participate in a code of silence when there is a real fear of retaliation or when staff members are convinced that nothing will be done if situations are reported. When this occurs it is usually way under the radar and appears confusing to Human Resources and others. You know that something is not right but you can’t quite put your finger on it. Mobbers work in the shadows and operate on the fringes of policy. I know it is October and this may sound like the scenario for a Halloween drama or the Twilight Zone, but this actually can and does occur.

It may seem preposterous to have to protect a bully from a mobbing but it is necessary to ensure that all people are treated with dignity and respect. It must be remembered that a person who engages in bullying is still a human being and so are those persons who become mobbers. This is why setting expectations regarding conduct and ethics to corroborate with the organization’s mission is so important. Even more important is management at all levels setting the example by behaving in accordance with those expectations. Consistency with these behavioral expectations along with appropriate consequences for not meeting them helps to build trust and opens the door to better communication, collaboration and teamwork.

Konrad Lorenz believed that human beings, while being capable of mobbing, can also use their ability to reason to stop themselves before acting this way. I concur with this belief. While we can get caught up in survival, especially in uncertain times, we have the ability to think and to reason. We can respond rather than react to the words and actions of others and set standards for our own behavior within the professional experience as well as in our own lives.

* * * * * *

Gail Pursell Elliott, “The Dignity and Respect Lady”, has over 20 years experience in middle and upper management, founded Innovations “Training With A Can-Do Attitude” in 1998, and is author of several books including School Mobbing and Emotional Abuse and co-author of the book Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace. Her weekly Food for Thought is read by people around the world. Gail trains employees for corporations, associations and universities, designs sessions upon request to address specific needs and timely issues, and is a featured speaker at conferences as well as a media expert on workplace and school violence. Gail has been a guest on such programs as MSNBC’s Deborah Norville Tonight, ABC World News NOW television programs and the Workplace Violence Today program on talk radio.
Contact Gail through her website: http://www.innovations-training.com

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