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When Workplace Conflict Becomes Abusive

By Dr. Robyn Short, CEO of Workplace Peace Institute

Workplace conflict is often understood as any conflict that prevents the flow of work. From that perspective, conflict in the workplace is normal, and, when managed productively, can even have positive benefits such as improved problem-solving, increased understanding among team members, improved team performance, and increased motivation, etc.

However, conflict that is managed poorly, or not managed at all, can become systemic and transform into a form of abuse known as “mobbing.” This is a form of conflict that has become so pervasive that colleagues and/or supervisors assault the dignity, competence, character, and integrity of a person in a repetitive manner over a period of time. This person is often subjected to false accusations designed to humiliate and degrade the person. Mobbing differs from bullying in that mobbing denotes a “ganging up” on a person by someone who has the power and influence to rally others into a systemic form of harassment; whereas bullying is harassment on a one-on-one basis. In mobbing, management is either involved directly or indirectly by failing to stop it. Because management is either directly or indirectly involved, the ability to achieve recourse is very difficult.

Noa Zanolli, Ph.D., Swiss social anthropologist, teacher, and mediator, explains that mobbing is a form of violence and can have a devastating impact on the person being targeted. Dr. Zanolli explains, “Mobbing and bullying affect primarily a person's emotional well-being and physical health. Depending on the severity, frequency, and duration of the occurrences and how resilient an individual may be, persons may suffer from a whole range of psychological and physical symptoms: from occasional sleep difficulties to nervous breakdowns, from irritability to depression, from difficulties to concentrate, to panic- or even to heart attacks.” Mobbing often leads to the departure (either voluntary or involuntary) of the person being targeted, and, more often than not, the victim is blamed. People who have been victims of mobbing report experiencing symptoms associated with PTSD — some people are even diagnosed as such.

Of course, it is not just the victim who suffers. The organization suffers as well through loss productivity, loss of morale throughout the organization, and rampant mistrust.

Preventing Workplace Mobbing

The key to preventing workplace mobbing is twofold: 1) cultivate a culture of empowerment; 2) nip bullying behavior in the bud before it has the opportunity to metastasize throughout the organization. In other words, don’t allow the actions of one person to grow into a mob.

Empower Employees

Most people do not come into the workplace with effective dispute resolution skills. The only training in conflict most people receive is what was modeled for them in the home. The lack of conflict resolution or conflict management skills costs companies approximately $359 billion in paid hours (based on an average hourly earnings of $17.95), or the equivalent of 385 million working days each year. Empowering employees — from frontline workers to the C-suite — with the training necessary to management conflict will not only minimize destructive workplace conflict and reduce risks of bullying and mobbing, it will also have a positive impact on the bottom line.

Nip Bully Behavior in the Bud

Mobbing begins with bullying. To stop mobbing in the workplace, it is critical to recognize the signs of bullying, and put a stop to the behavior immediately. Restorative practices can be a helpful way of addressing bullying if the person who is responsible for the bullying behavior is willing to take responsibility. Otherwise, stopping the behavior may require more permanent measures such as termination. The key is to recognize it, and nip it in the bud immediately before it takes on the “lord of the flies” nature of a mob.

Organizational leadership has a responsibility to ensure the safety of employees — this includes their physical and emotional safety. Ensuring all employees are empowered with the skills necessary to manage conflict effectively is essential to creating organizations that are healthy, safe, and profitable.

Learn more about conflict management training opportunities here.


An international speaker, peace-building trainer and mediator with expertise in restorative justice and transformative mediation models, Dr. Robyn Short works with individuals, corporations, and nonprofit organizations in discovering the root causes of their conflicts, so they may transform their relationships and create new and productive paths forward individually and as teams. In addition to her mediation and conflict training practice through Workplace Peace Institute, Dr. Short is an adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University in the Master of Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution program, the Master of Leadership and Negotiation at Bay Path University, and Lipscomb University's Master in Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution. She has guest lectured at Pepperdine University and Creighton University. Dr. Short has authored four books on peace building.


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