In this post we’ll look at the little that is known about what to do about mobbing. But first we’ll do a bit of recapping:
Mobbing is group bullying, and in mobbing-prone institutions it can reach 30%, with the male to female ratio being 47 to 53. (The previous sentenc has been revised in light of comments 1 and 2.) It is typically very harmful to its victims. The victim may be expelled from a group’s community of who deserves basic respect. Approximately 12% commit suicide; other people develop heart conditions, ptsd, and other serious illnesses.
One question the earlier post looked at is why people someone works with might in effect attack her when she is at a physically and psychologically very low point, such as receiving quite dangerous treatment for cancer. It is not uncommon for cancer patients to experience this even though an expert on cancer and society tells me that – apart from lung cancer – this is no sigma attached to having cancer. The literature on mobbing suggests one is looking at the situation the wrong way around. Mobbers, like robbers, look for opportunities, such as when one is careless or less able to defend oneself.
Another thing mobbers do is to write letters to colleagues and friends without telling one anything. These may be the product of their own fantasies and they are often libelous. And I have been sent one from someone who was sent it by a mobber. I’m changing the names and indications of the situation in order to protect identities. You may need to know that Frost, described in the letter, has affiliations with the departments of both the writer and the recipient.
Anyway, here goes:
Dear Professor Adams,
Congratulations on your impressive new grant and the project it enables. As with all children, the likelihood of success depends very much on the qualities of their parents.
Thus we are totally dismayed to see that the notorious Professor Barbara Frost is listed as a co-PI. Her self-promotion and pursuit of more stipends are now legendary. She has failed dismally in every office that she has held – just ask around. Her record of “Do it my way or else” has created innumerable problems. She has shown an inability to complete anything – look at her publication record. Her wooing of members of the senior administration when she held various faculty leadership positions and seeking promotion to full professor was both absurd and successful.
It has amused us to reflect on which exams in your department she might be able to pass – given that she is apparently is a member of your department. Your project will have a major credibility problem so long as she has any position of power or influence. We will be interested to see what transpires and what credibility it will acquire.
Some interested colleagues.
Just about every sentence is false, but that does not diminish the effect the letter has on its recipients or on the subject of the letter. Suppose you lived in an atmosphere where such a thing was no surprise; we might even expect it would badly affect your health.
So why do people do these things, and what can be done to stop it? The news here is not good, going by Mobbing: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions, the most recent book on the subject.
According to the authors of the above book, there are two major factors in the causes of mobbing: narcissism, even pathological narcissism, on the part of at least some of the mobbers and an administration that places protecting themselves and the institution above protecting employees. I think that in addition to narcissism, other psychological elements can play quite a role. Some people do not, for example, understand how harmful their behavior is. There may also be other elements: some people really cannot understand that one might do something simply from the joy of creating something; for such people, one must be acting to promote oneself, even if, as the actual facts reveal, the victim must be terrible at promoting herself since the mobbers obviously do not know what she accomplished.
What should the victim do?
The authors seem to think that psychotherapy is something a victim should seek, but they warn against dealing with any therapist who is largely ignorant of mobbing. They think that an inexperienced therapist might well start to blame the victim. In addition, they think victims should seek redress and that the therapist should know this, and know how it is to be done. For example, they think that most internal human resources people will be hopeless at dealing with the situation, since they will in the end seek to benefit the institution, not the victim.
Families may also need to be more supportive than they are inclined to be. It can be very hard to think a beloved partner couldn’t do something, just as parents unfortunately may blame a bullied child for not being more popular.
What should an institution do?
Institutions can do a lot to create a workplace that values respect and the recognition of dignity, but it is hard to see how to get that started where it is absent except by legal action, which can be very, very expensive. Even lawyers who will take a case on contingency may well require advance payment to cover basic costs in case of a complete loss. The sum can easily be more than academics normally envisage handing over to someone.
If you are fortunate enough to be in a position where you can do something positive about mobbing, the book is a great resource. It also carries a lot of information for victims, but the problem is hardly easy to resolve. The literature on how to deal with the pathological narcissist in the workplace has a constant refrain: there is nothing you can do and you need to stay away from the person as much as possible. Consider leaving your job. Remember, your health may well be seriously at stake.