Beyond Bullying

Peace building at work, school, and home

When Co-Workers Attack: Lessons from Ferguson

We can learn a lot about the workplace by what we saw in Ferguson

There’s a lot to be learned from the Ferguson mob, and by mob I don’t mean the protestors. Watching the local police confront the protestors dressed up like soldiers and armed as if they were invading Iraq, one thing was clear—they were prepared to do anything and everything to demonstrate and exert their power over the citizenry. If any among them had reservations, they were quickly quashed by the orders from their Chief of Police, Thomas Jackson, who made it clear that aggression and a show of force were expected of each and every officer; that the protestors were to be perceived as threatening regardless of their intent; that the actions of one of their own (the shooting of Michael Brown) would be protected rather than investigated and addressed; and that the death of Mr. Brown would be treated as his own fault.

Fortunately, someone in greater power—the Governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon—intervened to stop the assault. He then appointed new police leadership and within hours, a conflict that could have turned catastrophic, quickly turned peaceful and constructive. So what does this have to do with work?

Well for one thing, those officers were at work, and they were doing as they’d been told. They had been told their aggression was expected and would potentially be rewarded. They had been told they were acting to protect the peace, and as such, they were doing something good. And they had been primed to view the targets of their aggression as threats to their own safety.

This is exactly what happens in workplace mobbing, when leadership signals to the workforce that a worker has caused his or her own abuse, and that worker must be eliminated. And while a worker may never face a militarized show of force on par with what was globally televised from Ferguson, Missouri, a worker targeted by leadership does face the same group psychology that leads their coworkers to join forces with leadership and become increasingly aggressive.

Workplace mobbing only happens with the consent and encouragement of leadership. Let’s say that again—workplace mobbing only happens with the consent and encouragement of leadership. Either leadership directly targets someone for elimination and encourages the workforce to view them negatively and act aggressively against them, or leadership is influenced by one or more workers to believe that the worker is a problem, and thus gives the word to get rid of them by any means necessary. Unfortunately, in all cases of workplace mobbing, the means is unnecessary. When the forces of power turn against someone, they always exceed any necessary force. And they always succeed, unless someone in greater power intervenes.

If there is good reason to be rid of an employee, they are simply fired or the conflict effectively addressed. But if there is no good reason or the worker is protected by a contract, union or tenure, then mobbing will ensue to either get them to quit or to justify an otherwise unjust termination. But either way, the only way the workforce can get away with attacking their coworker and engaging in the discriminatory, inhumane and at times unlawful acts that comprise mobbing, is by permission from leadership. And the only way that mobbing will stop is if leadership steps in and puts a stop to it. It’s that simple. Workers will attack their own if their leaders let them, and they will stop attacking their own if their leaders tell them to knock it off.

That is why once mobbing is underway, the target becomes increasingly polarized and confused and frustrated and desperate to make the aggression stop. The target will appeal to anyone and everyone to help them, but their appeals will never be heeded. By the time mobbing is well underway, leadership has made it clear they want the aggression to increase and intensify until the target is gone. Internal investigations will do nothing to stop it, logic and facts will go nowhere. Just as Michael Brown’s alleged theft of cigars is now being used to suggest he had it coming (imagine if Lindsay Lohan had been shot to death for shoplifting a $2,500 necklace?), the aggression of the workforce will always be painted as justified and necessary no matter how extreme it becomes. Indeed, the more extreme it becomes, the more it will be justified.

It is never justified and it is never necessary. Whenever a worker is truly a threat, they are removed from the workforce. If a worker is being mobbed, whether they did good work or bad work, the bottom line is, the response to the worker will be far out of proportion to any wrongdoing the worker may have committed. And that disproportionate show of force can lead to tragedy.

By responding to a workplace conflict with a show of collective force far beyond what is necessary and thereby threatening the worker’s survival, the potential for the targeted worker to respond with violence is intensified. I have long argued that the number one way to stop workplace shootings is by preventing or stopping mobbing—particularly when the mobbing target is a male gun-owner with little or no social support. Workplace violence is never, ever justified, but for those who are prone to violence, love their guns, and have no family, mobbing never, ever enhances anyone’s protection.

Had the police not been stopped in Ferguson, it is certain that violence in the community would have intensified as peaceful protestors became enraged—and thus felt justified in fighting back in whatever way they could, however wrong-headed and destructive such a reaction may have been. And the violent actions of the police would have also intensified because they had been psychologically primed to attack and to perceive their violence as protective.

There’s a vast difference between the violence of Ferguson and the violence of a workplace mobbing, but the psychological processes are the same, and they are both examples of a continuum of violence which ranges from abusive social behaviors on the one end, to physical violence and murder on the other.

To stop workplace abuse, silly campaigns to stomp out bullies or create “zero-tolerance zones” will never do anything at all to address the problem. The only way to stop the problem is for leadership to act ethically, humanely, and wisely, as Captain Ron Johnson did in Ferguson. By taking power, removing the gas masks, and acknowledging the death of Michael Brown as a tragedy, rather than justifying it as necessary, he made peace possible. It won’t restore the life of Michael Brown or heal his family’s grief, but it has turned the tides from collective and unrestrained power, to collective compassion and reconciliation. And that is the mark of true power and leadership, a power far greater than all those guns and gasses. Let all leaders learn a lesson from the leadership in Ferguson, Missouri.

Photo credit: AP News

 

Janice Harper, Ph.D., is a cultural anthropologist specializing in conflict and organizational cultures.

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