Overcoming mobbing: An interview with Maureen Duffy, PhD

According to a survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), 35% of American workers have experienced bullying directly. An additional 15% have witnessed it.

Maureen Duffy, PhD, has seen first-hand the damaging effects of workplace bullying and mobbing. Duffy is a family therapist and co-author (along with Len Sperry) of Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying.A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Duffy about her practice and her book, and here’s a bit of what I learned.

  • Mobbing and workplace bullying are distinct but interrelated phenomenon. In general, bullying involves one or more bullies who abuse an individual without organizational approval. In contrast, an individual is mobbed (i.e., marked for elimination from the organization) with the sanction and often active cooperation of senior leadership. That said, mobbing victims are often bullied as part of the mobbing process.
  • “De-legitimization” is central to mobbing. During “de-legitimization” the employee/target is stripped of his accomplishments and dignity. Once publicly identified as a valuable employee, the target is now regarded as undesirable. He then becomes an object of unethical communication and other questionable practices until he either quits or is fired.
  • Workplace “outsiders” are more likely to be targets of bullying and mobbing. Who’s in and who’s out is always defined within the context of the organizational norms and goes well beyond age, ethnicity, gender, and other EEO protected characteristics.
  • Victims of bullying or workplace mobbing who find their way to therapy often have no vocabulary for what they’ve experienced.
  • Workplace bullying and mobbing affects not only targets, but also their partners, spouses, and children.
  • Many targets attempt to “tough it out mentally” without fully appreciating how destructive the mobbing/bullying process is.
  • Closed/defensive workplaces with a punitive culture are more prone to bullying and workplace mobbing than those with a pro-employee/pro-management culture.
  • Individuals with a history of prior trauma may be more vulnerable to the effects of workplace bullying and mobbing but so may individuals who’ve previously worked in healthy, supportive work environments and now find themselves “thrown” by their new surroundings.
  • Companies with a tolerance for difference are less prone to bullying/mobbing behavior.

Why it matters to employers

Stories of workplace bullying are becoming more common and more widely reported in the news. (Consider the recent Miami Dolphins bullying scandal.) It’s a problem whose time has come, making now an ideal time for employers to act.

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This is interesting as it explains why the newcomer seems to be “tested” before acceptance and expected to endure extremely harsh conditions and treatment much like fraternity hazing and initiation to the army, police, teaching, medical profession or any highly ritualised, authoritarian and dogmatic institution. This explains why artists and academics are killed or exiled during totalitarian revolutions as they tend to value independent thinking over mob mentality. The problem is that if people appear to hate and resent you it is easy to develop self-doubt or cognitive dissonance as you wrestle with trying to comprehend why a group may… Read more »