Mobbing in the Workplace: Even the Good Go Bad

Do only bad people bully? Apparently if good people are encouraged to treat others badly, that's exactly what they will do, and often without remorse. A number of memorable experiments from the sixties and seventies have demonstrated just how easily it is for someone in a position of authority to encourage group aggression; decades later, we still have a lot to learn from them. What might they tell us about aggressive behavior in the workplace and other group settings where people are tormented, shunned, and driven away? For starters, just because people are out to get you, it doesn't mean you're paranoid. And it doesn't necessarily mean you've done anything to deserve it. Here's why.

Following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, third grade teacher Jane Elliott was so disturbed by the ease with which racism persists in our society that she set out to test how "difference" is learned. After dividing her students by eye color, she told them that one eye color was superior to another. Those with brown eyes, she proclaimed, were not as smart and hard-working as those with blue eyes. To be sure eye color was noticeable, she had the children with brown eyes wear brown paper collars around their necks so that their "difference" was unmistakable.

Ms. Elliott watched in horror as her students almost immediately began to act abhorrently toward their collared friends and classmates. Their abuse grew particularly aggressive at recess - when she, the authority figure, was no longer present. In other words, once their teacher suggested one group was inferior, the children viewed them as deserving of abuse and their teacher did not even need to be present for their aggression to escalate. The next day, Ms. Elliott reversed the experiment, telling the students she had been wrong, and that blue eyes were inferior to brown. To her surprise, the students who had been considered "inferior" the previous day and learned how painful it was to be mistreated, were no more compassionate than their classmates had been to them. They became every bit as cruel to the new "inferior" group, until their aggression became so great that Ms. Elliott was forced to terminate the experiment.

A few years later, in 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted the infamous "Stanford Prison experiments," where research subjects were assigned roles as prison guards or prisoners, only to discover that the "guards" acted abhorrently to their "prisoners," and that the "prisoners" suffered greatly and retreated into roles of dutiful compliance - going so far as to report, abuse and shun other prisoners who attempted to escape or end the experiment. Like Elliott, Zimbardo also terminated his experiment when he realized the abuse would not stop unless he called a halt to it.

Zimbardo and Elliot's findings were similar to Stanley Milgram's 1963 social psychology experiments on obedience to authority. Milgram had men in white coats tell research subjects to administer a test to "learners" (who were in another room where they could be heard, but not seen). If the learners gave the wrong answer, the teachers were to administer what they (falsely) believed to be electric shocks. The learners were instructed to scream as if in agonizing pain, and if the teacher expressed any hesitation, the men in white coats assured them that they would not be held responsible for any injuries. The teachers continued to inflict what they believed to be excruciatingly painful electric shocks, even when the learners informed the teachers beforehand that they suffered from a heart condition. Sixty-five percent of the teachers escalated the voltage of the "shocks" until they repeatedly administered what they believed to be lethal shocks of 450 volts.

These experiments, which have been replicated in similar and differing forms many times, demonstrate that ordinary kind and humane people can easily become sadistic under certain conditions - conditions routinely found in organizational settings where someone in a position of leadership makes it clear that certain individuals are undesirable, may be mistreated, shunned, and even falsely accused of misconduct and crimes. Importantly, as long as people believe that will not be held accountable for their actions, and the more they see others acting aggressively without sanction, the more likely they will behave aggressively regardless of how empathetic they are as individuals. When applied to the workplace, these findings suggest that the conventional "bully" paradigm, which views interpersonal aggression as the fault of one or two bad apples, falls short. "Mobbing" - collective aggression against an individual - more accurately describes what happens to the workforce when someone in a position of influence or power targets someone for elimination.

Mobbing may commence as interpersonal "bullying" behavior, but through pressure, perks, rumors, and mounting fear, bullying rapidly escalates to collective bloodlust if management wants to eliminate a worker. Regardless of prior positive relationships with the target, the workforce comes to view the target's problems as a threat to their own job security, and often as an opportunity to align with management. Joining the mob may enable workers to secure perks and promotions for cooperating in management's efforts to dispose of a "difficult" employee - the whistleblower, the target of discriminatory or abusive treatment, or anyone who has brought a thorny issue to the attention of management. Mobbing also provides solace that despite evidence to the contrary, the organizational culture is safe. The consensus of the mob assures the workforce that any abuse a worker suffers must be of their own making or it never would have happened.

Mobbing is widely understood in Europe as a form of collective aggression that profoundly impacts a targeted worker's health and productivity, but less known in the U.S. where "bullying" is a more common explanation for interpersonal workplace aggression. Viewing "bullies" as the cause of workplace conflict presumes that the aggression a target endures is due to the psychopathology of a single aggressive individual, while ignoring the devastating impact of collective aggression. Such a view ignores the fact that as bullying turns to mobbing, even good apples go bad, as the experiments of Elliott, Zimbardo and Milgram have demonstrated.

While one or two nasty people may indeed instigate the attacks, once mobbing commences many otherwise decent people can be expected to engage in some of the most damaging acts of aggression. But these aggressors may never be held accountable for their actions and often are rewarded. Like sharpshooters on a firing squad, everybody pulls the trigger, but nobody worries that they have fired the lethal shot once the target has been buried. Given what we know of group behavior and obedience to authority, perhaps it is time to explore the collective nature of aggression in the workplace, rather than the nature of individual bad apples. Doing so might move the dialogue from one of intolerance for individual bullies, toward compassion for the unwitting workers who find themselves up against a mob - and moral accountability, at the very least, for those who participate in mobbing.