Mobbability: Understanding How a Vulnerable Academia Can Be Healthier

Mobbability: Understanding How a Vulnerable Academia Can Be Healthier

Naomi Jeffery Petersen (Central Washington University, USA) and Rebecca L. Pearson (Central Washington University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-9485-7.ch005


This chapter discusses mobbing as a predictable institutional disorder with significant community effect. Academic departments are particularly vulnerable as contexts where conflicting motivations and tacit power differentials may allow undetectable and infectious incivility, and while there are research tools to measure experience, there are few effective practical campus-based strategies to monitor these issues. The authors explore mobbing through the lenses of epidemiology, public health, and organizational psychology. As part of this exploration the terms “mobbable” and “mobbability” are proposed, connoting the degree of incivility tolerated in the workplace climate, people's and institution's vulnerabilities, and the potential for improved capacity surrounding mobbing prevention. Outlining a story of academic mobbing, the chapter highlights contributing factors at both personal and organizational levels. The authors close with practical suggestions for recognizing symptoms and opportunities.
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Situating and Defining Mobbability

Most professionals, whether within academia or outside it, would be unsurprised that individual incivility and aggression thrive in certain work settings; however, we might hesitate to consider and discuss the possibility of more organized mistreatment. People who have experienced this more insidious abuse, though, know it exists and understand its serious nature.

Fortunately, for those wishing to improve our own and others’ working lives, mobbing is becoming more familiar as a concept. Khoo (2010) identified five phases through which a mobbing usually progresses: 1) a critical incident (conflict phase), 2) the mobbing and stigmatizing itself, then 3) personnel management, 4) incorrect diagnosis, and, finally, 5) expelling of the target (p. 63). However, its nuances require at least one more term to help discuss those persons and workplaces who may be inherently vulnerable.

In the absence of such language, the authors of this chapter propose the term mobbable to refer to both targets and those who engage in mobbing as being fundamentally susceptible, respectively, to experiencing or perpetuating this condition. The authors have not seen the word other than in its use as a proper name for the Facebook-based social media app with no academic definition. Mobbability is defined here as two possible states of being: A workplace’s mobbability is seen in its cultivation of either a mobbing-friendly or an anti-mobbing organizational climate.

This chapter is written by two authors who share a common perspective, but approach the problem with different views of mobbing’s victimhood. An epidemiologist may be seen as treating the environment itself as the patient, and this is the first author’s view. Investigating and curtailing a mobbing outbreak, then, might entail teasing out particular aspects of the mobbed environment as symptoms to address. Such symptoms may include noticeable irritation or silence in meetings, apathy surrounding campus projects, or other signs that the campus is unwell due to an attack of severe but shrouded incivility. Soon after salient symptoms are identified, attention might be turned to the predicted sequelae in this multi-faceted patient: growing or lingering distrust of colleagues or administrators, lack of engagement in new, positive initiatives, and acknowledged inabilities to discuss desired or needed change on campus, no matter the focus or reasoning for such change.

The second author sees campuses themselves as hosts, with the agent being incivility, and the environment (in which both the agent and host exist) being academia as a whole. In this view, the campus that has contracted a mobbing virus, or that may do so, has characteristics that have made it vulnerable. Addressing those characteristics becomes the priority. The characteristics contributing risk prompt this chapter’s focus: the social ecology of mobbing on campus.

This chapter is grounded in commitment to health and wellbeing, and a belief that mobbing is a threat on personal and corporate levels. The authors suggest the possibility of, and ways to create, a safe work environment fostering beneficial effects for individuals and consequently greater productivity and creativity to achieve institutional missions. They believe that mobbing can be predicted and prevented, which is an optimistic response to a disheartening reality: that mobbing may be an anticipated part of academic life, facilitated at the institutional level, whether or not those causing it are consciously aware of what they are fostering or their responsibility.

One of the authors comes from public health, focusing her work on the external factors outside of people’s direct control. An important aspect of that work is teaching individuals what they must know in order to take control of their own health outcomes. The other author comes from teacher education, working intensively with individuals to understand, and plan to make, their professional lives as teachers. Both are university professors actively engaged in scholarship and service at the university level and have experienced varying degrees of mobbing that have heightened their awareness of its effects. Together they bring theory and research about public health, education, psychology, and leadership to their study of mobbing. Their outlooks converge with the lens of social ecology as developed by Bronfrenbrenner (as cited in Eriksson, Ghazinour, & Hammarström, 2018; Stokolz, 1996; Wold & Mittelmark, 2018), and Durkheim’s assumption that social facts explain individual experience (Morrison, 2006).

As an avoidable condition, mobbing requires preventive action at many levels. The chapter emphasizes the authors’ prevention-oriented views of mobbing as relevant to an epidemiological consideration, more specifically from a social epidemiological perspective, which “focuses particularly on the effects of socio-structural factors on states of health” (Honjo, 2004, p. 193). The authors believe that the story they tell will, regrettably, strike many readers as familiar or at least unsurprising, but they also believe that the insights they share will reassure all readers that mobbing does not have to be an inescapable part of university life.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Zero-Empathy: An employee with extreme indifference to the experience of others.

Sentinel Event: Signals the need for immediate investigation and response.

Target: Individual or group victimized by coordinated negative campaign to strategically discredit, stigmatize, and ostracize. Akin to the concept of host in the epidemiological triad.

Epidemiological Triad: The intersection of agent, host, and environment to produce unhealthy environmental conditions (e.g., epidemics of contagious disease).

Civility: Patterns of behavior resulting in positive relationships ranging from peaceful coexistence to productive collaboration. Usually associated with formal manners and restraint of impulsive and destructive words or actions.

Mobbability: The degree of incivility tolerated in the workplace climate rendering units and individuals vulnerable to strategic campaigns to discredit, stigmatize, and ostracize.

Comorbidity: Coexisting conditions in intersecting components contributing to ill health.

Academia: Higher education as a workplace employing faculty to produce scholarship, teaching, and service to the immediate institution as well as to professional fields.

Social Ecology: A model for conceptualizing social issues as part of an interdependent system.

Climate for Civility: Employee perceptions of norms supporting respectful treatment among workgroup members.

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