August 7, 2014 by Val Walker
As popular as the topic of bullying has been over the past few years, I believe shunning, and other forms of mobbing, are ostracizing behaviors that have been overlooked and underexplored. Shunning is typically a more subtle form of bullying that often passes under the radar at workplaces.
Why get caught bullying when all you need to do is roll your eyes? You don’t look like you’re harassing someone when you faintly indicate your dislike with short, exasperated breaths at staff meetings after your target has ventured to speak. Or just ignore or dismiss your target with a sarcastic shrug and false smile. Niceness can have a bite, and nice people in groups can turn into monsters when they are afraid or threatened. No one needs to act like a bully to get the job done. Unpopular or unliked people with excellent performance evaluations can even get fired. Shunning has developed into a sophisticated art, and fits many workplace playbooks to throw someone under the bus, or further, push someone out.
Though years ago we rarely found guidance for protecting ourselves and healing from these cruel practices, shunning at the workplace, and other behaviors known as mobbing (group bullying against an individual), is a topic increasingly being discussed over the past three years. One particular author, Janice Harper, Ph.D., a cultural anthropologist specializing in conflict and organizational cultures, has become inspirational for me and my previously shunned colleagues. Her articles appear in Huffington Post and Psychology Today, and she has a new book out, Mobbed! A Survival Guide to Adult Bullying and Mobbing.
Janice Harper survived years of shunning as a professor, and writes compelling stories about how she was targeted and pushed out of her job. She eventually found a lawyer, and after years of research and hard work, she managed to stand up to the sly, under-the-radar bullying practices of the university.
I’ve recently moved to the Boston area, going to meet-ups and networking events, and often hear stories of ostracizing behaviors at the workplace. It strikes me how hungry people are for healing from these common, pervasive forms of mistreatment. It seems to happen everywhere to most of us. Many of us have survived previous experiences that still haunt us, still sting us, not from being outright bullied or harassed per se, but having been damaged by tiny digs and gestures that passed under the radar as (sort of) acceptable workplace behaviors. In a thousand little cuts it all adds up, and we still carry the scars.
I believe it is important to learn about this very common workplace problem of shunning. Reading Janice Harper’s personal experiences as well as her research has validated what has been painfully true for me, and helped me heal from previous workplace situations. Many of my colleagues have joined in healing conversations with me about identifying shunning, protecting ourselves from it, creating strategies to deal with it, or moving on to other jobs if possible. We comfort each other by examining what happened to us, and finding ways to manage our current situations, even though we accept that these behaviors, unfortunately, are so common that we cannot ever completely escape them.
But nothing is more comforting for bullied, ostracized, or shunned people than sharing our stories, and stating out loud what is secretly and cunningly going on “underground” on the job. We can’t ignore it, or tune it out, just because it should not be happening. We are more empowered when we name it and wisely face it, with the support of others who understand.
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