Retrospective on the Workplace Bullying Conference, Montreal, 2008


Workplace Mobbing in Academe


K. Westhues Homepage



Rachel Morrison, University of Waterloo

The moment I was handed my neatly laminated name tag, I knew I had entered a new world. Moments earlier I had been sitting outside the main foyer, nervously going over my notes on the esteemed scholars who would be presenting at the 6th International Conference on Workplace Bullying. I had rehearsed my introduction-to-important-academics speech (which I never actually used) and neatly written my e-mail address on the backs of Professor Westhues’ cards.

My preparations, however thorough, did not prepare me for the exhausting and exhilarating three days ahead, during which I became acquainted with the unspoken language of academic conferences and the challenges and joys of sharing research. Presentations sucked me into a maelstrom of information and findings. The conference proved to be a successful meeting of great minds and great work. I left with a deeper understanding not only of workplace bullying and mobbing but also of the complexities of academic study.

Receiving my name tag was the first step in learning the unspoken language and rules of play of academic conferences. I had never attended such a gathering before. The customs were new to my wide undergraduate eyes. Mingling, I quickly learned, was as critical to the event as the large vats of Van Houtte coffee. The formation of small conversational clusters began moments after the doors opened and coffee was served. People spoke casually but with excitement at sharing their research in a room full of so many like-minded people. I had wondered earlier how, if at all, the contrasting views and conflicting egos of all these academics would meld. The ambience of this meeting was one of civility and respect. Although individuals spoke different languages, literally and metaphorically, they convened and shared in the common culture of social scientific research.

The opening ceremony commenced with emotional and heartfelt words in French by conference director Angelo Soares. Interestingly, the most lasting impression was made not by what he said but by what was heard, or rather not heard, by the audience. The translation headsets had not been passed out beforehand. As a result, Soares' welcome made little or no sense to the mostly English-speaking particpants. After the ceremony, many individuals spoke up passionately about the error, and they expressed strong reactions over the next three days. The headsets, I came to realize, represented the desire to understand, to learn, and to communicate despite language barriers. The mistake was unfortunate, but the reaction affirmed the aim of the conference. Thereafter the audience was armed with precious $400 headsets (even better than the nametags) and the conference progressed towards its goal of genuine communication.

For three days, presenters from different disciplines shared their work pertaining to workplace bullying and mobbing. Many engaged audience members enough that the latter shared their own research results. The language of bullying research is evolving. Understandably, it sometimes lacks coherence. The terms mobbing, bullying, harassment, abrasive leadership, dysfunctional supervision, and victimization were used in a number of presentations almost interchangeably. Are bullying and mobbing the same thing, or are they distinct phenomena on a continuum of work-related conflict? In my view, the latter is closer to the truth.

Papers presented valid and empirically substantiated arguments, but on the whole, it appears that researchers are working in different theoretical dialects. As time passes, it will be interesting to see whether comprehensive definitions arise and whether researchers divide into distinct camps of thought. No one, even with a headset, can say for sure at this point.

A number of presentations stood out for me as especially thought-provoking. One was Laura Crawshaw's presentation, “Rehabilitating Abrasive Leaders Through Executive Coaching and Organizational Intervention”. As a psychotherapist who specializes in coaching abrasive leaders (defined as superiors who bully subordinates), Crawshaw focused on the person behind the bully label. Setting aside the bias towards studying the target and demonizing the aggressor, she spoke of her experiences coaching abrasive leaders and the organizational resistance to interfering with “bullies.” In numerous interviews, Crawshaw discovered that few alleged bullies are aware of the impact of their behaviours. Unlike the psychopathic stereotype, many of her clients showed no intent to harm others. Rather, they were motivated by a desire to get the job done. By exploring the complexities of the bully label and by focusing on understanding and rehabilitation of the bully, Crawshaw’s presentation was refreshing and intelligent.

The perception of bullying behaviours is far from objective, never simple or easy. Denise Salin, from the Swedish School of Economics in Helsinki, Finland, presented interesting findings on the role of perception in reports of bullying, in her presentation, “Bullying or Not? The Significance of Third Parties’ Conceptualisations of Negative Behaviour.” The researchers distributed identical descriptions of potential bullying scenarios, manipulating only the gender of the targets and perpetrators. In the scenario of female target and male perpetrator, male and female research subjects displayed a significant difference in perception of bullying: 66 percent of females called it bullying as compared to just 42% of males. Gender differences in reasons and consequences of the bullying were also observed. Salin’s presentation was both engaging and enlightening. It demonstrated the complexities behind the very perception of bullying. In this relatively new area of research, it is worth noting the ambiguity of perception alongside the language and definitions.

The various presentations and posters at the 6th International Conference on Workplace Bullying were informative and compelling. Despite speaking somewhat different dialects in the broad language of research on bullying and mobbing, the presenters shared reciprocally and respectfully. While this field of study is comparatively young, with such a strong community of dedicated and passionate researchers, it is bound to expand in the years to come. I will be holding onto my laminated name tag as a memento of a foundational event.