September 25, 2009

Kenneth Westhues: Correction of Mobbing Episodes in Higher Education

The insight in Schneider’s analysis of the “ineducability of administrators,” their common reluctance to rescue mobbing targets or even to grasp the concept, derives from his use of Max Weber’s favoured method of social research, verstehen, his stepping into administrators’ shoes and looking at things from their point of view. Schneider’s similar insight into the peril faculty associations put themselves in if they support the target has the same origin: understanding from the inside the political constraints on the association leadership.

Schneider is right that mobbing is a “loaded characterization” and mobber a “stigmatizing term.” By definition, the mere application of the term mobbing to a sequence of events in a university (or any other organization) is going to be contested by the instigators and the main participants, since it implies that reason and evidence do not support what they are doing, that in mobilizing for a colleague’s humiliation and eventual elimination, they have been “carried away” by collective passion into wreaking unwarranted harm on their scapegoat (another loaded term), as well as on the values underlying academic life.

This problem in the scientific study of mobbing is so fundamental one is tempted to switch to some other specialty. Why make trouble for yourself? All the social scientist has to say is, “By standard measures, it looks to me that so-and-so has been mobbed.” The beleaguered target may say thanks, but the great majority of those involved will do all in their power to keep this diagnosis off the table, and if they feel obliged to respond, they may well ratchet up their attack on the target, or even broaden it to include the scholar who has called it mobbing.

To whom, then, can one look for acknowledgement that a mobbing has indeed occurred, and for action toward turning back the mob and rescuing its target? Who will take the risk of disagreeing with an angry crowd?

There is no formulaic answer. A mob is sometimes stopped by a single person – a dean, a professor, maybe a secretary – with strength of character enough to stand up and say, “Cut it out. Lay off. There will be no ganging up in this workplace.” Far more mobbings than ever make the news are nipped in the bud by one man or woman who has guts. A famous example occurred long ago in the Middle East. A brave, charismatic rescuer shamed mobbers into slinking away by saying, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” That rescuer, of course, was himself mobbed sometime later, fatally.

To the question of how to correct a mobbing, a further answer is that if the mobbing has reached an advanced stage, the odds of full correction are close to nil. Leymann could not cite a single case from all his years of research, in which the mobbing target was given an apology and fully reintegrated into the workgroup. Once you’ve been collectively expelled, you can never quite go home again. The most one can hope for is mitigation of the target’s losses, in terms of reputation, respect, position, income, health, friendships, family. The realistic question is how to achieve as much mitigation as possible – the difference, for instance, between departing with a large buyout or with nothing but life and the chance to start over somewhere else.

Regardless of how much correction is won, the correcting agent is generally from outside the organization in which the conflict has occurred. Mobbing comes into clearest focus at a certain distance. Outsiders’ vision is less clouded by mobbers’ passion. Once informed of the evidence, outsiders can more easily see what has gone on and label it accurately. Further, outsiders are less vulnerable to the mobbers’ wrath. They face fewer penalties than insiders do for framing the events (to use Schneider’s term) in a way that transfers some blame from the target to the righteous enforcers of virtue...



Anonymous said...

What Prof Westhues fails to realize is that outside authorities are often paid off by the mobbing organization to reach findings that fit with the organization's interests. In short, certain judges are in the pockets of certain academic institutions.

Anonymous said...

Yes in my experience the outside investigator was paid off. There is someone in my uni with some 'guts' .... but enough... we shall see.

Aphra Behn