Alarm calls are used by social animals to communicate the presence of danger. These messages can signal the need for simple or complex social behaviors, including mobbing, which is the group targeting of an individual. Mobbing has a strong evolutionary basis in both humans and other animals. When combined with a modern workplace and a multigenerational workforce, mobbing can result in economic, psychological and medical consequences. Good managers need to eliminate workplace mobbing, ensuring it is unacceptable within the corporate culture.
What is workplace mobbing?
Mobbing, or psychological harassment, is a destructive way of reacting to a situation or behaving towards a person. It is not simply the result of someone having a bad day and being a jerk. It is a constant, persistent behavior permitted by the manager 1. Often, it involves groups of people targeting a coworker with the goal to force them out of the workplace, or to get the person to conform to an unspoken agenda 2.
In some ways, mobbing is similar to ‘cancel culture,’ which aims to ostracize people for holding a particular belief or for a behavior they exhibit. Cancel culture is often attributed to the youngest generation, even though one of the strongest recent examples of a leader using workplace mobbing to get his way is a septuagenarian President of the United States – a leader who attempts to control the statements of those around him by explicitly ostracizing anyone who does not comply.
What is the evolutionary basis of mobbing?
Mobbing was described by Konrad Lorenz as a set of anti-predator behaviors among birds and other animals in which the prey animals cooperatively attacks and harasses the predator 3. In many prey species there is a clear distinction between an urgency alarm call, which alerts other members of the species to a predator to allow them to escape; and a functional alarm call, which signals a particular action. In the case of the mobbing call, animals signal the members of their species to harass the predator in order to protect their offspring. This serves a clear evolutionary advantage over simply fleeing to safety, as escape would save the adults but sacrifice the next generation. Mobbing and other coordinated behaviors also serve to increase the chances of survival and reproduction of all members of the species. In humans, sophisticated communication and language give the ability to coordinate an attack and serve as a means for a relatively weak animal to dominate the planet 4.
As pack hunters, human beings may be genetically predisposed to follow mob calls and other signals for coordinated action. Primatologist Christophe Boesch created a model where food was distributed in a manner proportional to an individual chimpanzee’s contribution to the hunt. This meat-sharing behavior was not related to the social hierarchy of the group 5.
Therefore, there is a clear suggestion that humans in a resource gathering group (or workplace) may be inclined to collectively punish members of a group who are judged as contributing less than their fair share. And mobbing, or group harassment, may be an evolutionarily selected behavior to do just that.
What are the communication and behavioral differences among generations?
The workforce today consists of four predominant generations: The Baby Boom generation (‘Boomers’) born 1946-1964, Generation X (‘GenX’) born 1965-1980, Generation Y (‘GenY’ or ‘Millennials’) born 1981-1996 and Generation Z (‘GenZ’) born 1997-20126.
The effects of the time during which they were raised play a large role in communication preferences and social behaviors of the respective groups.
Boomers were raised to respect authority and the chain of command, and grew up in an era of prosperity, optimism and the sense that they were a special generation. They generally believe that there is a price to pay (in terms of time, hard work and weaker family connections) in exchange for success 7.
GenX grew up in a period of financial and societal insecurity and witnessed firsthand the decline of American global power and influence. They seek a work-life balance and are more independent than Boomers. While not as loyal to their employers as Boomers, they are very loyal to friends and family. With strong technical skills, they value continuous learning as well as productivity and accomplishments at work – not just time spent 7.
Millennials were generally children or adolescents when the 9/11 terrorist attack occurred and differ from GenZ in that most GenZ individuals have no memory of that event – and have always lived in a post 9/11 world6. It is this defining historical event that provides the distinction between GenZ and Millennials, and it has shaped the way they see the role of government, the role of the American military in other countries and the effects of globalism on other nations. Millennials were also shaped by the election of the first Black US President and are the most racially and ethnically diverse adult generation. They entered the workforce during a recession and a time of rapid technological change in both social and workplace arenas. These events and changes in culture impact their relationships to each other and to other generations.
The communication and behavioral differences among the generations contributes to misunderstandings that may increase workplace mobbing. We know these misunderstandings are prevalent as phrases like ‘ok, Boomer’ have become common as an insult. Both these misunderstandings in behavior and the corresponding insulting communications are perceived as dangers – behaviors that endanger what they perceive as their livelihood. These serve as alarm calls and can create intrinsic mobbing behavior.
Misunderstandings in behavior often stem from deep convictions and values that may appear to be at odds with each other. For example, Boomers value hours spent at work and personal sacrifice (including family) for work. Both GenX and GenY value productivity over time spent on task and value a work-life balance 7. This difference in values could lead Boomers to see their younger colleagues as lazy. Both GenX and GenY value regular and immediate feedback. Boomers are more likely to view feedback as criticism. Boomers may also be tempted to dislike feedback their younger colleagues are providing. Boomers may see loyalty to the company as more important and GenX and GenY may see ‘doing the right thing’ as more important.
Other differences between the generations that may lead to conflict or miscommunication include beliefs about retirement, expected longevity and respect for accomplishments vs. authority and credentials 8.
Whether caused by differences in communication styles and behaviors, the end result is clear. A survey of American workers has already found generational bullying on the rise. GenX is the most vulnerable (50%) with GenY (27%) and Boomers (23%) the least bullied 9.
What are the costs of workplace mobbing?
The cost of workplace mobbing is clear and high. Analyses of a dozen studies found that more than 11% of workers report being victims of workplace mobbing 10. And those encounters resulted in increased absenteeism in both the short- and long-term. It also leads to higher overall unemployment as a result of employees leaving the workforce 10.
As much as 19% of employee turnover is a result of workplace mobbing 1. Among Boomers especially, dissatisfaction (in part as a result of workplace mobbing) in the workplace is extremely likely to lead to early retirement.
What are the effects on wellbeing?
In addition to the economic costs to the employer, employees suffer both medical and psychological consequences of workplace mobbing. Aside from the obvious psychological consequences of depression and anxiety (which can continue for up to two years after the mobbing stops), less obvious consequences include sleep disorders, impotence and even suicide. These psychological consequences also include alcohol and drug abuse, which can lead to medical effects 10.
Medical effects have been identified that include neck and skeletal pain, fibromyalgia and heart disease. In fact, in the case of cardiovascular disease, there is a 230% increase 10.
When employees choose to suffer through these attacks and ‘stick it out,’ additional negative effects on relationships and weight emerge. The advice many of these employees receive from HR professionals and counselors is ‘it’s just a job and it’s not worth it’ 1.
How to assess your workplace and prevent mobbing?
Given the business and personal costs of workplace mobbing, how can you mitigate those costs? First of all, supervisors should encourage employees to seek advice from their supervisors if the harassing behavior occurs more than 3-5 times. If an employee approaches you about mobbing, you should take it seriously and report it to HR. Maintain confidentiality of the employee (who may also be protected by whistleblower statutes) and assure the reporter that there will be no retaliation 1. Management should ensure they are not complicit in ignoring the behavior, blaming the victim or punishing the victim 10.
Studies have found that workplaces with dictatorial leadership, lack of procedural justice, lack of humanity and an attitude of employee expendability had higher rates of workplace mobbing 11. Bad corporate cultures can cause general worker dissatisfaction, which will lead to alarm calls (manifested as mobbing). To increase satisfaction and decrease mobbing, ensure supervisors and other leaders are more inclusive. Ensure policies and procedures are clear, equitable and followed. Value employees and be sure there is a clear expectation of collegial behavior 2. The consequences of not doing so will be increased costs to your business paid in increased sick time and employee turnover. Not to mention the very real human costs.
Dr. Brian Cronk
Dr. Brian Cronk is the inaugural Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at SUNY Buffalo State where he has been charged with combining the School of Arts and Humanities with the School of Natural and Social Sciences. Prior to joining SUNY Buffalo State, he served as a Board of Governors Distinguished Professor at Missouri Western State University. He is the author of a best-selling textbook on using IBM's SPSS statistical analysis software for data analysis and interpretation.
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