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.

academic mobbing (and cancer)

The topic of academic mobbing really deserves more than one post. This post is mostly about what mobbing is. The material also answers a very puzzling question asked in a post about cancer patients; hence, the word in parentheses.

Addition: in the light of comments 3,4 and 5, let me suggest it is important that readers add up in their minds what’s going on in mobbing. It can end your chances of advancement and wreck your health. In addition, as the comments below indicate, you can end up isolated from the community. Perhaps worse, mobbers may feel free of any constraints of humanity in dealing with you. What are we to say of people who do this? Evil? Very ill? Lacking in an important kind of reflective self-awareness? Probably many different kinds of things, but one element (that Naomi Zack pointed out to me with regard to a specific case) is an unblinking determination to preserve or enhance a current distribution of power.

In the next post on mobbing, i’ll look at what we know about what can be done.

What is academic mobbing? You can think of mobbing as group bullying, but in the work place it can take on its peculiar characteristics. It also goes far beyond typical school bullying. For example, it can encompass obstructing any promotion chances you have, spreading rumors about the quality of your work and the ethics of your motivations. Perhaps you did fund raising that brought in several hundred thousand dollars; mobbers may well tell your dean that actually the fundraising was done by someone else, and you are simply making empty boasts when you claim you did it. Perhaps you work in a fairly cutting edge areas; they will tell people not in a position to judge (e.g., the upper administration, the board of regents) that you are selling out in a way that harms the university.

Of course, letter writing is a great pastime, and mobbers may write to your professional friends with their own made up accusations. You will not be told, of course, that this has happened. Thus those targeted in this way are often denied procedural fairness and natural justice (see link immediately below). Mobbers charges are often based on little more than fantasy, but they are not about to ask the victim for confirmation.

Why in the world would anyone do that? The profiles of the victims are interesting, and indicate that those at high risk are most likely to be:

* Change agents
* High achievers
* Enthusiastic (eg those who volunteer)
* Those with integrity
* Those with ethical standards
* Promoters of human rights, dignity and respect

It is a good guess that those targeted for the first two reasons are very threatening, particularly since faculty are quite notorious for not liking change or challenge. It is far easier to believe the work is fraudulent in some way than to believe it is better than yours. If you are very surprised at that, then it is quite possible you are just very far from the type of person who would mob. As far as I can see, part of what explains the latter characteristics causing scorn is that mobbers, like most of us, use themselves as models for understanding others; as a consequence, they cannot believe that people are motivated by anything other than self-interest, because that is their principal motive. You may think you are lobbying the board of regents at some personal risk because you think a great injustice has been done; they cannot believe that, and so they assume you actually have an entirely different agenda that has to do with self-promotion.

Denise Dellarosa Cummins raised the topic of mobbing in a discussion on a post a couple of weeks ago, and she mentioned three articles:

Since you or someone you know may be mobbed, it is well worth your while to look it. Mobbing is not just an inconvenience; approximately 12% of mobbed adults commit suicide. Many get heart trouble, ptsd and other very serious health problems. Around 30% of people in a mobbing-prone organization will get mobbed, and universities are mostly mobbing prone.

Now, onto the puzzling question.

I found a question raised in here, important and puzzling. It raises the question of why anyone would want to cause great and unnecessary stress to a cancer patient undergoing pretty dire treatment. Given people do sometimes cause great stress to cancer patients, it is important.

What is so puzzling is the news that anyone would. Suppose you have an obnoxious neighbor whose even more obnoxious pet armadillo has been burrowing in your yard. Your neighbor is bad but you frankly hate the animal, because it is messy, dirty, destructive and very, very smelly. So you think you will petition the community board to get permission to relocate the thing. But suppose you find the person is receiving life-threatening treatment for cancer, with perhaps an attendant brain fog. Surely that would change your plans. You can wait on their pet armadillo.

Now there may be many different reasons why some people would go ahead. But mobbers have a distinctive kind of reason. Mobbers strike when one gets sick, a lot of research confirms. Thus a mobber would see the neighbor as vulnerable and so affording an opportunity for action. Asking why a mobber would do something that causes great and unnecessary distress to a cancer patient is like asking why the buglers stole your briefcase the one time you forgot to lock your car. These are people waiting for the opportunity.

(I owe the views about the undesirability of armadillos as pets to a recent “This American Life.” I do not recommend listening to that episode. In fact, the armadillo, Otis, comes off well; the humans not so much.)

You’ve seen the behavior, now know its name: Academic Mobbing

In looking at a Chronicle of Higher Education discussion of the Huntville tragedy, I discovered a URL for a site about mobbing, with lots of interesting articles.

Have you ever seen a flock of birds turn on one of its own?  Apparently that’s the source of a common label for a sort of group bullying that can go on in academia and elsewhere.  It’s Mobbing.  In its full-fledged  form, it involves  a wide-range of harrassing behaviors, including very explicit public rudeness, negative letter-writing, refusal of ordinary requests, denial of  standard opportunities, and so on.

One site takes Ward Churchill to be one of mobbing’s victim, as did the jury, apparently:

Colorado professor wins wrongful-termination suit

Ward Churchill’s ‘little Eichmanns’ reference to victims of 9/11 started a storm that led to his firing.

April 03, 2009|DeeDee Correll,BOULDER, COLO. — The University of Colorado professor who likened 9/11 victims to a Nazi leader was fired in retaliation for his controversial remarks, a Denver jury ruled Thursday.

Jurors in the wrongful-termination lawsuit filed by Ward L. Churchill agreed with the embattled professor’s contention that he was the victim of a “howling mob,” not the perpetrator of academic misconduct.

It’s effects can be severe, and include  post-traumatic stress disorder.  One letter writer to CHE raised the question of whether the Huntsville perpetrator had been the victim of  mobbing.  We certainly don’t know now, but it is a  reasonable question, I should think.

I’m afraid that the recurring standard advice I keep seeing is to leave, to get out.  It really is toxic.  Of course, that’s the sort of situation where one might be tempted to say “But if you go, then they win.”  But the point is that it is already a lose-lose situation, though the target may be the only one to realize it.  Other advice includes staying away from it as much as possible.

Here’s a useful set of links to sites on mobbing, including school bullying.  Some of these are meant to help victims, while others are about the research being done on the  phenomenon.  Since legal issues can be involved, there are  links to sites  in several different English speaking countries.

Thank you all, bloggers and commentators.

As we announced April 23, Feminist Philosophers is shutting down. This is one of a series of posts by FP bloggers looking back on the blog and bidding it farewell

I joined the blog about 4 months after Jenny began it. It has meant a lot of different things to me. One major meaningful feature has been the gendered conference campaign, which has also been extended to other venues, such as anthologies. Of course, applying the idea that there should be adequate representation of women has involved a lot of tedious counting. ‘One anthology in Ethics, fifty entries, three by women’ can’t usually be determined to apply in one look. Still, knowing we were addressing an often scandalous situation made it worth while.

When we started the campaign we were faced with a pretty grim picture: conference after conference with men-only invited speakers, volumes in which there were at most a few women. I had to remind myself that philosophy isn’t really a men-only field.

There’s lots more to notice, but I am going to mention only a few.

First, working on Feminist Philosophers has given me many opportunities to learn a lot. Sometimes I’ve become much more aware of areas in which I knew little. Disabilty studies has been one such.

Another thing I’ve come to think as we’ve discussed things is that appeals to intentions or lack thereof veryoften can’t adequately excuse ignorance. In a real sense, intentions may not matter. I think of this every time I hear Joe Biden discuss his touchy behavior. I fear he still fails to have done the work to understand why women have a space problem with grabby men.

Other issues I have had the chance to work out over several years. Through the blog I’ve really had a chance to think a lot about the role of institutions in what can make academic life difficult for women. For example, there’s mobbing.

In the workplace or in academia mobbing is group bullying. It is very harmful to the target
mobbed and also to the group doing the mobbing. It is very tempting in considering mobbing to ask who is at fault. However, people who have studied mobbing see the underlying fault to be more with adminstrations who encourage a wild west ‘might is right’ ethos than with the individuals citizens. It is hard to foster an atmosphere of respect if one doesn’t show such respect.

Another important lesson I think most of us on this blog took to heart is: Don’t suppose you can solve problems in interacting with faculty by appealing to the administration. You could end up with a wrecked career.

As I look through the blog, there seems tobe so much that won’t become quickly date. Have a look!

Finally, let me leave you with a sample of a feature the blog used to have. The Sunday Cat was started nearly 12 years ago, and I think the boom in cute cats on the internet was only just starting. Perhaps, indeed, we were among the innovators. The example below is of Maru, a very beloved cat on the ‘net.

Have Mercy

Brian Leiter has now posted a list of the names of the signatories to the petition to Hypatia regarding Rebecca Tuvel’s article. He characterizes the petition as outrageous and invites them to either explain themselves or retract.

I would like to enjoin the profession as a whole to cease with these degrading displays. Shot through far too much of these debates is an eagerness to treat other people as shiny objects we can publicly display for the comment and opinion of others. And each new presentation of a shiny object detracts from long overdue attention to systemic issues in the profession, indulging instead in treating individuals as culpable for collective action problems and challenges associated with our unhappy professional culture. Aside from the offensive futility in managing our problems in this way, there is something deeply disingenuous in characterizing one group of people as a mob and then holding them up to mob reaction. If you don’t like “mobbing,” then don’t contribute to this and don’t invite it.

More generally, surely there can be more than the comically simplistic presentation of two sides here. The tendency to present these complex systemic (systemic!!!) issues as bifurcating into nameable good guys and bad guys insults us all, and some far more than others. We do not need to create demons when they haunt us all via the long legacies of awful in our profession. It is possible to feel great concern and humanity for all who have been affected by this. It is possible to see all of the issues raised here as incredibly vexed and radically difficult to address. It is possible not to want anyone involved to suffer more or to be held up to further opprobium. None of these possibilities will be realized if we don’t stop looking for shiny objects to sully and start talking about the systemic issues involved.



What?!? This is how a chair should act?

from the CHE:

The job of a department chair is one of the most demanding on the campus. Chairs serve as a buffer between the faculty and the administration. The essence of the role is to protect and support the department’s faculty, both the full-timers and the adjuncts.

A lot of the chair’s work involves clearing obstacles that prevent people from thriving. The more that faculty members were unencumbered, I found, the better they were able to teach, do service work, and be productive researchers. If they needed something to help them succeed, like more space, or money, or time, I would do my best to get those things for them, and that became a major source of my own job satisfaction.

Complaints about tenure discrimination, harassment, bullying, unfair allocations of resources may mention the at least unhelpful chair. I myself will never forget the (fortunately distant) chair who said of a dean, “The dean is my boss; I must do what he says.” So I’m wondering, are there chairs like the above in philosophy? Can we use them? I mean at least get a sense of who they are and whether they like help in areas where we (broadly understood to include the CSW and others) have expertise?

I’ve been wondering about civility in our part of the academy (search under “mobbing” if you are curious). Perhaps we could get some people who’d be prepared to have role in a civility project.