Mobbing (and cancer), Part Two

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.

16 thoughts on “Mobbing (and cancer), Part Two

  1. “perhaps 30% of faculty are victims … Approximately 12% commit suicide”. Since the mobbers must, pretty much by definition, significantly outnumber their victims, we can conclude from this that virtually every faculty member is either a mobber or a victim of mobbing. And since approximately 12% of the victims commit suicide, we can conclude that approximately 3% of faculty members commit suicide. This is alarming if true, but where do these numbers come from?

  2. Or rather, we can conclude that well over 3% of academics commit suicide, if we assume that the 70% who are not victims of mobbing have suicide rate that’s more in line with the rate for the general population. This, together with the fact — if it is a fact — that approximately 30% of academics are victims of mobbing and most of the remaining 70% are mobbers, makes academia sound pretty horrible. Even if the mobbers outnumber the victims by just a little bit, it follows that at least 60% of academics are either mobbers of victims, but presumably they significantly outnumber them. Being a mobbing victim is seriously bad, and being a mobber can’t be a very nice way to live either, but if you go into academia, odds are you’ll end up being either a mobber or a victim. Perhaps the lesson we should draw from this is an amended version of the last two sentences of the post: “there is nothing you can do and you need to stay away from academic departments as much as possible. If you already work at one, consider leaving your job. Remember, your health may well be seriously at stake.”

  3. The easiest thing to do would be to prepare a booklet of 100 -300 examples of problematic behavior and 100 – 300 examples of problematic letter writing. Have legal experts review it and link each example to appropriate legal remedies and make it a resource for all human resource personnel so that they don’t have to rely solely on their own judgment or biases.

  4. Good catch, curious reader. The comment was supposed to be part of a recapping, and I saw when I looked back that I’d left out a crucial qualification.

    Let me point out that one person may be a multiple mobber, and mobbees may also mob.

    Tryllans, explicit guidelines may not be much help, but you suggest interesting ones. In a mobbing prone institutions, people complaining about regulations being broken may simply be seen as troublemakers whom one needs to get rid of.

  5. Thanks for the clarification, annejjacobson. One thing remains unclear to me, though: do you believe that more than 3% of academics commit suicide?

  6. A curious reader, when we realize the 30% refers to mobbing-prone organizations, we don’t end up with the conclusion you describe.

  7. OK. Thanks for revising the post. The original post said that perhaps 30% of faculty members are victims and approx. 12% of the victims commit suicide.

  8. That is a very interesting idea, Tryllans. Do you have any idea where such examples would be found, so that they can be sorted into types of letters, examples of which could then be made? Or, where would a person start in exploring such a project?

  9. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

    it is hard to see how seeking counsel, and (if even possible) avoiding the devastating work environment, might be an effective response. One issue is that in any academic field which relies so heavily on sociological factors, the effects of this behavior include that it silences the victim. So it is unclear how career preservation might occur, if the individual’s character and voice have been successfully delegitimized. The genuine travesty is the case in which the victim was a target for ruin because, as ‘annejjacobson’ noted in the previous thread that recorded examples had been, they had only been “Change agents; High achievers; Enthusiastic (eg those who volunteer); Those with integrity; Those with ethical standards; Promoters of human rights, dignity and respect.”

    The good news, if any, is that there are perhaps vestiges of meritocracy, and people reasonable enough to seek to understand an individual on more than whatever false testimony. So the individual who has had to deal with this — if they care and are talented and aspire always to progress with regard to their work, and if they are kind toward others, and honest and practical about their situation, and are ethical (for example, caring about the issues discussed on this blog), and their character traits are witnessed as simply belying the monstrous things that, beyond their control, have unjustly harmed them — might also have genuine friends and supportive allies. So perhaps trying so to speak to be greater than one’s circumstances; and continuing to work hard with regard to one’s research; and reaching out to those who are worth their salt with whom the individual might share productive and positive work relationships, is the only possibly viable response.

    But so much might of course not be sufficient, and that might help explain the suicide and ptsd numbers. (I’m unsure about how the link to physical illness could be confirmed.)

    On a lighter note: ‘Academic mobbing’ is a somewhat clumsy and potentially misleading term. I think that the situations that annejjacobson et al have described are more accurately comparable to the Zimbardo paradigm.

  10. Anonymous,

    You raise a lot of interesting issues. Let me suggest that the question of the need for therapy vs finding supporters is really complicated. If in your organization there is really just one group relevant to your performance and a number of them turned on you, you may have no recourse in the institution and need to seek legal redress. Even if there are others who value you in your group, they may well lack the courage to risk defending you.

    One of the very unfortunate facts is that we have a tendency to blame ourselves, and that sort of phenomenon may be where the need for therapy comes in. In addition, it is pretty bad if you get situated outside the class of people deserving respect, so a good number of people can say you are, e.g., disgustingly immoral to your face.

    Things can look different in a structurally more complicated situation. E.g., if you are in an art department with a history and a studio component, then you might thrive with the studio people even though the history people are always cutting you down, telling the dean you are awful, contriving to give you courses at terrible times, etc.but supposing the history people are the more powerful, so you are cheated on merit pay, have these terrible letters written, etc, then maybe you should just leave, if you can.

  11. Here’s a situation.

    A woman friend has an office job (non-academic), where her supervisor (female) is very hostile towards her.

    My friend is a very well-intentioned, efficient person, although very sensitive.

    I had thought that her supervisor saw my friend as a rival for her position, but the other day my friend tried to go for an interview for a new job and her supervisor refused to let her leave the office, even though my friend had invented an urgent dental appointment as an excuse to leave.

    Probably, the supervisor saw that she was “dressed for an interview”.

    So the supervisor does not want to let my friend work in peace in her job nor seek a new job, which would be an easy way to get rid of a possible rival.

    That is, we have a situation of almost motiveless ill will on the part of the supervisor.

    I wonder what goes on in the supervisor’s mind.

    The stuff one reads about mobbing generally talks about “narcissistic personalites” or
    “sociopathic disorders”, etc., but that is very abstract.

    Does anyone have any sense of what is the mindset of people that mob, how they think, how they justify their actions to themselves (assuming that they justify or rationalize their actions)?

    Thank you.

  12. If you are looking from more specific motives and attitudes, I can descrbe some, and others might have more things to say. First, though, I am so sorry to hear about your friend!

    1. Some people can feel upset and confused when challenged or obstructed. Hurting other people calms them down and gives them a sense of control.

    2. Some people want to control everyone and every thing and they may even what others to know they have control over them. Nothing happens without their permission, which, like their praise, is scarce.

    3. Some people have serious deficits in their ability to attribute emotions to themselves or others. They cannot feel guilt because they cannot imagine others’ hurts. As I remember, these are called alexathymics – they seem to lack a vocabulary for emotions. I knew someone in faculty governance like this. Lots of people can stab you in the back, but he stabbed people in the front.

    4. I think it is a relatively new hypothesis about borderlines that they actually don’t feel other’s disapproval, and they’re still in the stage of overt or covert tantrums. They were never able to pick up on how destructive their behaviour is, because they don’t get negative feedback. A sobering sight in a senior academic.

    5. Perhaps partly from narcissism, some people cannot stand others’ success. They’ll work to create a picture according to which the other is a cheater.

    6. Some people operate in little groups or clusters of colleagues that benefit one another; they may be very hostile to outsiders, anyone with new ideas that might distract from them, etc.

    Maybe a shorthand is: a lot of people make others feel bad because it helps them feel good.

  13. Anne:

    Thank you so very much for your complete and thoughtful reply.

    I’m going to forward it to my friend and then talk about it with her the next time I see her.

    I’m sure that she’ll find it useful. We were both very puzzled as to what goes on in the minds of mobbers.

  14. Thanks a lot everyone, it’s so good too feel understood… In fact, mobbing is serious subject. I also experienced this terrible feeling. When I started my first job, my colleagues didn’t seem to like me. I guess they recognized me as a kind a competitor…Don’t know, but I really was desperate because I noticed their scornful looks and their behavior. They didn’t insult me or anything, “just” ignored me.. I suffered that much that I thought about quitting the job..Fortunately I did not! Was helped me out of this situation was a life coach. Actually I found him by accident on the internet. It’s was truly helpful. I found this online coaching platform ( where you always have access to professional advice! The coach I’ve choosen was a life coach, specialized in work related problems. He gave me valuable tools to handle the situation. Although I already had given up, it reached to attack my problem rather than just to hide. So, I want to encourage everyone to go ahead and do not let others decide about your life!!!!
    Best Regards,

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