Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 42;   October 14, 2020: Power Mobbing at Work

Power Mobbing at Work


Mobbing is a form of group bullying of an individual — the target. Power mobbing occurs when a politically powerful person orchestrates the mobbing. It's a form of bullying that's especially harmful to the target and the organization.
Crows mobbing a red-tailed hawk

Crows mobbing a red-tailed hawk. Much mobbing in animals is of the peer-on-peer variety. Image (cc) Dori.

Workplace bullying is any aggressive behavior, associated with work, and primarily intended to cause physical or psychological harm to a target. Workplace mobbing is bullying by a group directed at an individual target. In the professional workplace, the abuse is usually psychological, but it can be physical in any workplace. Typically, one person leads the mob.

Factors driving the mob's leader can be numerous. Examples are professional jealousy, social jealousy, power maintenance, or even personality disorders. Similar factors can drive mob members, but mob members might also fear being targeted themselves if they don't support the mob or the mob's leader.

We usually regard the mob leader as the bully, and the rest of the group as members of the mob. And typically, leader, mob, and target all have similar organizational rank. If they aren't all peers, they're close to being peers.

When mobbing happens, its occurrence is evident to everyone. At the urging and direction of the leader, the mob isolates the target professionally and socially. Targets might exhibit severe emotional distress. The target's job performance suffers. If the mobbing is in retaliation for some real or perceived offense, all concerned are usually aware of the issue.

Consider the example of Aaron:

Aaron (who will become the target in this scenario) has declined to participate in a group's intentional and conspiratorial deviation from established and required procedures. Fearing the possible consequences if Aaron reports the infraction, the leader and several mob members meet to discuss their options. They decide to conspire to destroy Aaron's credibility in advance of any action by him. They reason that if he does later decide to report the infraction, he'll seem to be a disgruntled, socially isolated individual who is making false charges because he is a social failure.

So that's mobbing as it's generally practiced — peer-on-peer mobbing. It's usually confined to a peer group. And the mob's leader is known and clearly identified. Power mobbing is something else.

Peer-on-peer mobs have leaders; power mobs have orchestrators

In power In power mobbing, the organization
itself is the bully, in the sense
that it provides the leadership
function for the mob
mobbing, the organization itself is the bully, in the sense that it provides the leadership. The identity of the power mob's leader might not be obvious in day-to-day interactions — rather like the role of the orchestrator of a musical piece. The leadership role of a power mob is thus less evident to the target and the mob, and more subtle and variable. The power mob orchestrator bases his or her leadership position on the formal power granted by the organization. That power becomes a tool for controlling the mob.

Just as the identity of the power mob orchestrator might be unclear, the very existence and membership of the mob itself might also be unclear. Rather than regarding themselves as members of a mob, mob members regard themselves as merely doing their jobs, or complying with what is requested of them. They're aware that the target is regarded as having transgressed, because the orchestrator has taken steps to communicate his or her displeasure. But the mob members aren't explicitly directed to isolate the target. Still, mob members are aware that safety lies in distancing themselves from the target, in openly criticizing the target's work, and in declining to cooperate in any way with the target.

By indirect means, the orchestrator of a power mob achieves the same effects as the leader of a peer-on-peer mob, while maintaining the illusion for all that no bullying is taking place.

Power mobbing actions are indistinguishable from management actions

Bullying by the leader of an organization is always deplorable. It is an abuse of power and it is unethical. It is a threat to morale and to the good order of the organization. It compromises the organization's ability to carry out its mission.

With few exceptions, managers and leaders understand this. They know that if they carry out a mobbing agenda in the open, charges might eventually lead to career stagnation or worse — demotion or dismissal. To mitigate that risk, power mob orchestrators undertake power mobbing covertly. They arrange for every act and policy associated with formation, direction, or maintenance of the mob to appear to be a responsible, if unconventional, action of management.

For example, to communicate to the mob their displeasure with the target, the power mob orchestrator uses indirect means. Instead of simply omitting the target from a meeting invitation, the power mob orchestrator schedules the meeting for a time and place that precludes the target's attendance. Instead of omitting the target's presentation from a meeting agenda, the power mob orchestrator schedules the target at the end of the agenda, knowing that many attendees will have departed by then. Options like these are uncountably numerous. The consistency of these actions communicates to the mob the clear message that the power mob orchestrator is dissatisfied with the target.

Power mobbing has multiple goals

Peer-on-peer mobbing tends to have goals related to harming the target physically or psychologically. In that respect, power mobbing is similar to peer-on-peer mobbing. In both forms of mobbing we might find additional goals: personal power aggrandizement, retrospective or prospective revenge, jealousy, and more. However, in power mobbing, goals other than harming the target tend to be more important to the orchestrator than they are to the leader in peer-on-peer mobbing. In power mobbing, inflicting harm on the target is more likely to be a means to the orchestrator's end, than it is an end in itself. For example, consider the case of Erin:

Erin was a project manager whose project was at risk of a severe budget overrun due to the sponsor's repeated changes in requirements. Darth, the project sponsor, directed her to shade her status report in a favorable direction. That is, Darth directed Erin to misreport her project's status. Erin complied. But she also reported Darth's request to the Project Management Office, seeking advice. She received advice in the form of "we'll take it from here," and she was transferred to another project. The truth was never reported openly.

But the project to which Erin was transferred was also one of Darth's. Erin's new project was in even more serious trouble than the prior one, a fact at the time known only to Darth. The trouble was not evident until six months had passed, when, with assistance and confirmation from several project team members, Darth blamed Erin for both project failures. That enabled Darth himself to escape accountability.

In this example, Darth coordinated a mob against Erin, and although he did harm her and her career, he also benefited himself by shifting responsibility for project failures from himself to her. Which goal was primary? Difficult to say.

In power mobbing, the benefits to the mob's orchestrator tend to be as important as is harm to the target. Indeed, harming the target is typically the means of obtaining the benefits the orchestrator desires. Benefits appear in the form of avoidance of responsibility for failure, or greater control of the behavior (if not the thoughts) of the mob's members. Other benefits can be easier removal of noncompliant subordinates, and enhancement of the political power of the power mob's orchestrator.

The target must seem to have failed

Whatever steps the orchestrator takes to harm the target using the mob, it's essential that those steps seem to be justified in terms of organizational priorities. If they are not so justified, the orchestrator might be seen as bullying, which could compromise organizational performance or lead to an investigation of the orchestrator.

Specifically, the steps taken, including changes in the target's assignments or responsibilities, must seem reasonable in terms of disciplinary action or protection of organizational assets including intellectual property. Excluding the target from any activity that would normally have included the target is risky for the orchestrator unless it can be justified as a responsible action.

The target almost certainly will experience emotional distress, and that could cause her or him to seek support among peers. If the orchestrator has planned carefully, these searches for support will fail, because the target's own actions will seem to have left the orchestrator little choice. Of course, the orchestrator always has a range of choices, but typically, mobbing the target will have been the choice that offers the greatest benefits to the orchestrator. For orchestrators, the fundamental principle guiding decisions is maximum personal benefit.

This approach can be challenging for the orchestrator when the target is a top performer, or even merely competent. The difficulty lies on demonstrating the incompetence of a competent performer. With sufficient relish for ruthlessness, this challenge is one that can be met, because the power mob orchestrator has options that the peer-on-peer mob leader does not. Specifically, the orchestrator controls resources, staff assignments, and most important of all, information. Orchestrators can use this control, both directly and indirectly, to deprive their targets of anything their targets need, just at the critical moment. Or orchestrators can assign their targets responsibilities that appear to be reasonable, but which are essentially impossible to carry out successfully.

Last words

Of all forms of workplace bullying, power mobbing is among the more difficult for targets to withstand or challenge. Believing in yourself is extraordinarily difficult when people you regarded as friends or colleagues suddenly won't have lunch with you, or return your email messages, or cooperate with you on even the simplest things. And challenging the orchestrator of the power mob using the organizational grievance procedure — or in extreme cases, a legal process — is nearly impossible when there is so little direct evidence that the orchestrator contributed in any way to the abuse. As a target of power mobbing, there is rarely any alternative to moving on.

For supervisors of orchestrators, the news isn't much better. I know of no convenient or elegant methods of detecting power mobbing. A useful approach might involve detecting a pattern of the use of power mobbing tactics. Detection would usually entail many so-called "skip-level" interviews or mob members and targets. Sadly, this might require standing by while the orchestrator engages in several cycles of abuse.

It's clear that power mobbing harms targets. The harm to the organization is less clear but no less real. Go to top Top  Next issue: Projection Deception  Next Issue

101 Tips for Targets of Workplace BulliesIs a workplace bully targeting you? Do you know what to do to end the bullying? Workplace bullying is so widespread that a 2014 survey indicated that 27% of American workers have experienced bullying firsthand, that 21% have witnessed it, and that 72% are aware that bullying happens. Yet, there are few laws to protect workers from bullies, and bullying is not a crime in most jurisdictions. 101 Tips for Targets of Workplace Bullies is filled with the insights targets of bullying need to find a way to survive, and then to finally end the bullying. Also available at Apple's iTunes store! Just . Order Now!

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