Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Three Faces of Bullying

Workplace bullying, children bullying, and mobbing are not the same.

Bullying in school and workplace settings is a serious problem that demoralizes, dehumanizes and destroys people. But while efforts to raise awareness of bullying and its impacts are vital, all too often the solutions that are proposed are counterproductive because they gloss over the important distinctions among different forms of interpersonal aggression. Three significant forms of aggression that merit such differentiation are bullying among children, workplace bullying, and workplace mobbing.

One of the fundamental weaknesses in much of the discussion on bullying has been the failure to adequately distinguish between bullying among children and workplace bullying. This distinction is critical to informed discussion and effective policy because the two forms of interpersonal aggression reflect vastly different power relations. In bullying in schools, the instigators of the aggression are children, and the enforcers of policy are adults who are not under the authority of the children whose behaviors they control.

As such, when bullying among children is reported to an adult, that adult is unlikely to face retaliation for doing something about it. Even though a child who reports bullying may find the bullying becomes more severe in retaliation for “tattling,” a responsible adult can still intervene to stop the aggression, knowing they will not likely be punished for doing so. Intervening will not cost teachers, administrators and counselors their jobs; their perceptions of the interpersonal aggression will thus be more objective than if they were observing or responding to bullying among their colleagues. And if and when they do intervene, as adults they will have greater influence over the children’s behavior, than if they tried to do something about bullying in their workplace.

In contrast to bullying among children, in workplace bullying, the instigators are very often people in positions of organizational leadership, or who have the organizational support of someone in a position of leadership. Reporting a bully in the workplace thus puts the worker at risk of being targeted by management for retaliation and ever more aggression. More importantly, when bullying in the workplace is instigated or condoned by someone in a position of organizational leadership, efforts to report or stop it can quickly escalate from bullying to mobbing.

It is important to understand the psychological and social factors that differentiate bullying from mobbing. Bullying is a form of interpersonal aggression in which one person, who may or may not be in a position of influence or power, abuses one or a few individuals. Mobbing involves a group of people, acting under the influence of someone in a position of organizational leadership, who become increasingly aggressive and increase in number until the targeted worker is removed from the group or completely disempowered. Importantly, once mobbing commences, the instigator almost always retreats, confident that the aggression of the group will be sufficiently destructive, while removing him or herself from responsibility for the aggression.

Mobbing is not the same as being disliked by a lot of people. Mobbing starts when someone in a position of organizational leadership communicates to the workforce that they want a particular worker gone. When this happens, the workforce will be encouraged to report the unwanted worker for any infraction, real or rumored, and they quickly learn that any adversarial action taken against the worker is acceptable. They will also quickly mobilize to protect their own interests, align with management, and recast the worker as a trouble maker who must be removed from the workplace—but most will do so under the genuine perception that it is the targeted worker who is the problem, and not the instigating aggressor.

Central to mobbing is managing and establishing a “consensus” about a worker’s identity and value. In a workplace setting, the consensus will almost always evolve to conform to the position of management that a particular “difficult employee” is the problem, and that worker must go, regardless of the actions of management, no matter how unfair or in some cases, illegal. Group aggression thus serves to facilitate and reinforce a shared negative perception of the targeted worker, regardless of the worker’s prior reputation or value to the workforce.

As mobbing develops and gossip circulates about the worker, negative labels and damaging accusations will ensue, eventually leading to formal charges of some form of misconduct filed against the worker. Secretive and specious investigations will rapidly frighten, anger and exhaust the worker while tension, fear and compliance are heightened among the workforce.

Ultimately, as gossip and fear escalate, the mobbing target will be isolated. At this point, it becomes futile for the worker to point to “the bully” as the problem because the group of aggressors will have expanded to include multiple levels of management and large numbers of coworkers—people who are often peaceful, if not passive, in other contexts. But having been encouraged to avoid and resent the worker, to gossip about them and make adverse reports against them, otherwise kind and compassionate workers can quickly become nasty, bullying aggressors. And when they do so, they do not view themselves as aggressive, but as defending against the “irrational” acts and allegations of the targeted worker. Through cognitive dissonance, mobbing participants come to view their own bad behavior as justified and necessary, because to consider themselves as “bullying” a coworker is usually contrary to their own values and sense of self identity.

Because people behave very differently in groups than they do as individuals, remedies to end these different forms of aggression vary. Unlike bullying, which can be effectively mediated in a number of ways, and only sometimes requires the elimination of the aggressor, mobbing is much more difficult to stop. Until and unless management intervenes to stop mobbing, once commenced it will intensify in size and severity until the targeted worker has been eliminated. And since mobbing involves collective aggression against a worker, its impact is far more severe than bullying because the worker rapidly loses social support as one by one the workforce avoids, slanders and accuses them of one thing after another, and management closes ranks—thereby eliminating any help for a constructive resolution.

Despite these important distinctions, the process of mobbing and the nature of group aggression have been poorly explored and rarely discussed in the anti-bullying literature, which tends to focus on the psychology of individuals. Moreover, the paucity of information on mobbing in comparison to that of bullying is striking. One reason mobbing is so damaging and destructive is that very few people know what it is. They do not know how to recognize it, and thereby avoid it at the early stages. By the time most people realize they are being mobbed, it is too late to stop it without leaving the group altogether. And by the time most people have become participants in a mob, they are unable to recognize their own aggressive behavior for what it is because they do not understand the nature of mobbing and how it has shaped their perceptions of the target, or why the target is behaving with such heightened emotion and instability.

Interpersonal aggression, exclusion, shunning and cruelty have no place in any organizational setting, and until the anti-bullying movement begins to explore the distinctions between bullying and mobbing, individual interpersonal aggression and group aggression, and schoolyard bullying and workplace bullying, the power relations that make “bullying” possible will remain hiding in the shadows, enabling anyone, no matter how committed to cooperation, compassion and kindness, to bully or be bullied right out the door. A first step toward closing that door will be to disentangle our terms and concede that different forms of aggression require different solutions.