Sunday, November 13, 2016

Kindness Again

"Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough." --Franklin D. Roosevelt

What a week.

It had quite a bit more emotional turmoil than usual, and for my part, I decided I needed to take a step back from it all and just... breathe. And knit. And talk to my cats. And do some yard-work. And read.

Today is World Kindness Day. I really hope at least a few people can get on board with that. Because we really do need a lot more of it in the world right now.

Ironically, one of the things I've been reading lately has everything to do with the phenomenon of kindness--specifically, an act of unkindness known as "mobbing."

"Mobbing" is often considered synonymous with "bullying," but there are some key differences. In particular, according to, "bullying" is "typically perpetrated by one person although others in a workplace may join in." 

Mobbing, on the other hand, "involves a group of people whose size is constrained by the social setting in which it is formed, such as a workplace. It might seem to the target as if many people are involved but in reality the group might be small. The group members directly interact with a target in an adversarial way that undermines or harms them in measurable, definable ways."   

Although mobbing involves a group, there is usually a "ringleader"--someone who is essentially instigating the behavior and/or recruiting and then egging others on. They may do so directly and aggressively, or they may practice what psychologists call "relational aggression"--that is, they attempt to harm the "target" or victim by damaging or attempting to manipulate the person's relationships with others.

Most people are familiar with "relational aggression" in the context of adolescence. Because females are somewhat more likely to practice relational aggression than males, it's often thought of as the "mean girls" phenomenon. 

As Ditta M. Oliker points out in "Bullying in the Female World: The Hidden Aggression Behind the Innocent Smile" (Psychology Today, Sept. 3, 2011), 
The words now associated with female aggressive behavior include: excluding, ignoring, teasing, gossiping, secrets, backstabbing, rumor spreading and hostile body language (i.e., eye-rolling and smirking).  Most damaging is turning the victim into a social "undesirable".  The behavior and associated anger is hidden, often wrapped in a package seen as somewhat harmless...  The covert nature of the aggression leaves the victim with no forum to refute the accusations and, in fact, attempts to defend oneself leads to an escalation of the aggression.
I first blogged about mobbing about six years ago, thinking about its connection to what's known as "group polarization."

More recently, I read Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry's Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Bullying and Aggression (2013). 

As Duffy and Sperry point out, bullying and relational aggression become "mobbing" when the management of an organization--specifically a workplace--not only allows the behavior to continue, but either participates in it directly or covertly sanctions it.

Because the ... wrinkle... in current HR policy and practice is, mobbing and workplace bullying are not illegal.  

Wrong, yes, absolutely, but not illegal. Mobbing cannot be considered harassment or discrimination, unless a victim can prove that s/he is being targeted because of their "protected status." 

In effect, a victim is put into a position of actually wishing that someone would say something sexist or racist, so that s/he could take action against the behavior. 

That's a bad place to be, emotionally and psychologically.

In addition, although many would say, "Oh well, it's just work, why do you care?", as Duffy and Sperry point out, work is a major component of our lives.  It's often a source of self-esteem and self-definition--to say nothing of a resource for friendship and social support or contact.

On this point, Duffy and Sperry cite the claims of Janice Harper, an anthropologist who writes about mobbing. Harper was "accused by colleagues and students at the University of Tennessee of trying to get information about uranium so she could build a hydrogen bomb"--an accusation that led to her being subject to and ultimately exonerated by an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security. 

Harper states, "Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that if you are being mobbed that those closest to you might betray or hurt you. What I am telling you is that in almost every case I guarantee they will...". As Duffy and Sperry conclude, "In a society where the line between work and personal relationships is fuzzy and blurred, the loss of work relationships during a mobbing is devastating."

Ironically, the victims of mobbing or workplace bullying in general are almost never accused of incompetence. Paradoxically, in the midst of outrageous claims (like "she's trying to build a hydrogen bomb"), no one ever says that the person is, you know... bad at their job.

That's because, sadly, the targets are usually people who are more than competent employees. They're often extremely good at their job, actually, and this may in fact be one of the reasons why they were targeted for bullying or mobbing in the first place.

As The Workplace Bullying Institute points out, targets of workplace bullying are often more competent than those who attempt to bully them. They are typically "independent" and "more technically skilled" than the bullies, "ethical and honest" and generally "non-confrontive."

One warning sign of a possible instance of workplace bullying is ongoing gossip that a co-worker is emotionally unstable or overly reactive. In many such instances, the facts often suggest that the person has been constantly goaded and/or mobbed until s/he suddenly "snaps" and responds aggressively.

When this happens, the victim is immediately chastised for inappropriate aggression--ironically, s/he is sometimes accused of "bullying" others. 

However, as psychologists routinely point out, conflicts and/or the verbal outbursts that may accompany them-- limited, context-specific, non-physical, non-abusive, largely infrequent displays of temper-- are actually not uncommon or inappropriate in a healthy workplace.

So the very fact that someone's brief display of anger is immediately highlighted as "abnormal" is, in many ways, a red flag that may indicate an unhealthy work environment. As Duffy and Sperry note, "Such labeling of victims as 'disturbed' or 'unstable' after they have been egregiously provoked and then responded with anger or another emotion is classic in workplace mobbings."

Why might co-workers mob or bully someone? As Oliker points out, "Motivation ...  usually includes: a desire for power, for control, for achieving greater social status and popularity, jealousy, fear and derailing competition."  

According to Duffy and Sperry, one of the earliest--and most easily remedied--signs of mobbing is what they refer to as "unethical communication." In the 1980's, Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann "emphasized the significance of unethical communication in the development and acceleration of workplace mobbing"--he argued that it "both ignit[ed] workplace mobbing and ... power[ed] it once it got started." 

Duffy and Sperry offer a long list of behaviors that fall under the category of "unethical communication," specifically, "gossip, lies, rumors, innuendo, ridicule, belittlement, disparagement, humiliation, false information, dissemination of such information, failure to correct false information, leaks of personal and confidential information... isolating a worker, ignoring an employee, giving an employee the 'cold shoulder'."

You get the picture.

General, run-of-the-mill unkindness is ultimately what sparks mobbing and workplace bullying. And it's on the rise: recent estimates suggest that approximately 30% of all workers have experienced some form of bullying in the workplace.

The good news is, it's probably not that hard to stop participating in unethical communication or to recognize it when we hear it. 

Once we become aware of what it is and how toxic it can be, we can make a concerted effort to stop it (if possible) or, at the very least, refuse to participate it. And if we occupy managerial positions or positions of authority in the workplace, we have an ethical duty to intervene and stop it.

If and when we do, we will be one step closer to making kindness an everyday occurrence.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."