When it occurs as emotional abuse in the workplace, such as "ganging up" by co-workers, subordinates or superiors, to force someone out of the workplace through rumor, innuendo, intimidation, humiliation, discrediting, and isolation, it is also referred to as malicious, nonsexual, nonracial / racial, general harassment.
The earliest known usage of formal mobbing techniques began in East Germany in the 1950s and 1960s. East German secret police ( Stasi ) used mobbing extensively, in the specific formally-named Zersetzung, which was strengthened substantially by the Honecker era in 1971.
Development of the concept
Konrad Lorenz, in his book entitled On Aggression (1966), first described mobbing among birds and animals, attributing it to instincts rooted in the Darwinian struggle to survive (see animal mobbing behavior). In his view, humans are subject to similar innate impulses but capable of bringing them under rational control.
In the 1980s, professor and practising psychologist Heinz Leymann applied the term to ganging up in the workplace. Leymann noted that one of the possible side-effects of mobbing is post-traumatic stress disorder and is frequently misdiagnosed. After making this discovery he successfully treated thousands of victims at his clinic in Sweden.
In the workplace
British anti-bullying researchers Andrea Adams and Tim Field have used the expression "workplace bullying" instead of what Leymann called "mobbing" in a workplace context. They identify mobbing as a particular type of bullying that is not as apparent as most, defining it as "an emotional assault. It begins when an individual becomes the target of disrespectful and harmful behavior. Through innuendo, rumors, and public discrediting, a hostile environment is created in which one individual gathers others to willingly, or unwillingly, participate in continuous malevolent actions to force a person out of the workplace."
Adams and Field believe that mobbing is typically found in work environments that have poorly organised production or working methods and incapable or inattentive management and that mobbing victims are usually "exceptional individuals who demonstrated intelligence, competence, creativity, integrity, accomplishment and dedication".
Shallcross, Ramsay and Barker consider workplace "mobbing" to be a generally unfamiliar term in some English speaking countries. Some researchers claim that mobbing is simply another name for bullying. Workplace mobbing can be considered as a "virus" or a "cancer" that spreads throughout the workplace via gossip, rumour and unfounded accusations. It is a deliberate attempt to force a person out of their workplace by humiliation, general harassment, emotional abuse and/or terror. Mobbing can be described as being "ganged up on." Mobbing is executed by a leader (who can be a manager, a co-worker, or a subordinate). The leader then rallies others into a systematic and frequent "mob-like" behaviour toward the victim.
Mobbing as "downward bullying" by superiors is also known as "bossing", and "upward bullying" by colleagues as "staffing", in some European countries, for instance, in German-speaking regions.
Psychological and health effects
Victims of workplace mobbing frequently suffer from: adjustment disorders, somatic symptoms, psychological trauma (e.g., trauma tremors or sudden onset selective mutism), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and major depression.
In mobbing targets with PTSD, Leymann notes that the "mental effects were fully comparable with PTSD from war or prison camp experiences." Some patients may develop alcoholism or other substance abuse disorders. Family relationships routinely suffer. Workplace targets and witnesses may even develop brief psychotic episodes occupational psychosis generally with paranoid symptoms. Leymann estimated that 15% of suicides in Sweden could be directly attributed to workplace mobbing.
Following on from the work of Heinemann, Elliot identifies mobbing as a common phenomenon in the form of group bullying at school. It involves 'ganging up' on someone using tactics of rumor, innuendo, discrediting, isolating, intimidating, and above all, making it look as if the targeted person is responsible (victim blaming).
Kenneth Westhues' study of mobbing in academia found that vulnerability was increased by personal differences such as being a foreigner or of a different sex; by working in fields such as music or literature which have recently come under the sway of less objective and more post-modern scholarship; financial pressure; or having an aggressive superior. Other factors included envy, heresy and campus politics.
Reverse mobbing is an act of intimidation done by one subordinate, or subordinates as a group against the superior; as a result of mobbing against themselves, personal conflicts, or politics, with which the subordinate aims to impair the superior’s hierarchical position by purposeful psychological harassment rather than quitting their job. The behaviours included in mobbing, like attacks on reputation and reliability, targeting professional efficiency, are used effectively in reverse mobbing as well. Subordinate behaviour included in reverse mobbing depends on factors like political trickery, changing job position, bilateral relations.
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- Kenneth Westhues Mobbing
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Westhues K The Envy of Excellence: Administrative Mobbing of High-Achieving Professors Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press.]
Westhues K "At the Mercy of the Mob" OHS Canada, Canada's Occupational Health & Safety Magazine (18:8), pp. 30–36.
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- Francesco Blasi & Claudio Petrella (eds): 2005 "Il lavoro perverso. Il mobbing come paradigma di una psicopatologia del lavoro" Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici, Napoli, download http://www.iisf.it/pubblicazioni/lav_perv.htm.