Noa Davenport

on Wednesday, 27 June 2012. Posted in Leadership Interviews

Noa Davenport
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Iowa State University
Noa Davenport

Dr Noa Davenport is Swiss and has been living in Iowa since 1986. She is an elementary school teacher and a cultural anthropologist by training. For many years she has held positions in the Swiss Government and with the Swiss Red Cross in the context of international development and cooperation.  

From 1989-1993 she was the Director of Education and Research at the Iowa Peace Institute. She conducted numerous workshops and seminars for Iowa teachers and the general public about conflict resolution, global education, cross-cultural communication, and diversity.       

Since 1993 Noa Davenport has been an independent consultant and trainer, in the U.S. and abroad. Her focus remained conflict resolution. She is also a trained mediator and mainly volunteers her services at the Center for Creative Justice in Ames.  

Dr. Davenport also holds a position as an adjunct assistant professor at Iowa State University and is a member of the faculty of William Penn University, College for Working Adults.  

Noa Davenport presents and writes frequently. One of her more recent publications, co-authored with Ruth Schwartz and Gail Elliott, Mobbing, Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace, has received wide acclaim and is considered one of the best publications, internationally, that addresses a general public to inform about the devastating consequences and implications of mobbing and bullying at the workplace.

Interview with Noa Davenport    

How do you define mobbing?

The word "mobbing" denotes a behavior by coworkers, superiors or subordinates, who attack a colleague's dignity, integrity, and competence, repeatedly, over a number of weeks, months, or even years. A person is being subjected to emotional abuse, subtly or bluntly, often falsely accused of wrongdoing, and is persistently humiliated. The person feels ganged up upon as coworkers or even management denounce the targeted person. That is what ultimately leads to expulsion from the workplace through termination or resignation.  

In the U.S. , and other English speaking countries, the term bullying is often used to denote what I prefer to call mobbing. Both terms overlap, and both denote emotional abuse and a form of psychological violence. However, bullying focuses on one person rather than what is, more often than not, a group behavior, particularly when management becomes involved.

Can you explain how mobbing came to be identified historically?

Dr. Heinz Leymann, a psychologist and medical scientist, pioneered the research about this workplace issue in Sweden in the early 80s. He identified the behavior as mobbing and described it as "psychological terror" involving "hostile and unethical communication directed in a systematic way by one or a few individuals mainly towards one individual."

Leymann identified some 45 typical mobbing behaviors such as withholding information, isolation, badmouthing, constant criticism, circulation of unfounded rumors, ridicule, yelling, etc. The affected person is in physical or mental distress, has developed an illness, and experiences social misery.    

Why did you co-write "Mobbing Emotional Abuse in the Workplace."

I come from the conflict resolution field. Often, during trainings, participants would tell me stories about seemingly intractable workplace conflicts that I had no answer for. They had tried everything that one would expect: talk things out, figure out solutions, working harder, changing attitudes, yet, things got worse. Only when I discovered Dr. Leymann's work in Switzerland - his two books written in German were widely circulated in Switzerland and Germany in the early 90ties - did I realize what these stories were all about. Having experienced a mild mobbing-like situation myself, I became more sensitive to what other people told me. Because the notion was virtually unknown and there was no name for it, my colleagues and I decided to write a book about this workplace phenomenon. Our hopes that it would help many people to understand what they were going through and encourage them to take appropriate action have been surpassed.

How prevalent is mobbing on a global scale?

The figures vary substantially. Researchers in many different countries use different criteria to come up with figures. Yet, using Leymann's criteria (over six months and several times a week being subjected to emotional abuse) anywhere between 5-10% of the workforce is probably correct. If uncivil behavior is used, aggressive acts within the last 12 months, then research in the US comes up with up to 70%.

Is mobbing gender based?

No. Men mob women, women mob men. The prevalence depends on whether a workplace has more men or more women and how the hierarchical structures are gendered. Yet, I would say that women are more prone to simply endure mobbing, resist less, and thus seem more impacted by it. The consequences for women or for men can be, however, no less severe.

Where does office politics or gossiping fit into the 5 phases in the mobbing process as identified by Leymann's Typology?

It can fit into all phases, yet it is quite likely that it starts in the first and sets the process in motion. The first phase is usually an unresolved, festering conflict. This triggers aggressive acts and hostile communications in a second phase. In a third phase, management may become involved, i.e. the level of interactions increases, and often, at that point, the target is being slandered or, in the worst case scenario and in the fourth phase, may be branded as mentally ill. This can then lead to the final chapter: expulsion. All that may very well be a tragic outcome of deliberate office politics, but it may also be thoughtlessness and a terrible lack of empathy.  

How does mobbing impact an individual?

The effect on the targets have been psychologically so devastating that some have contemplated and actually committed suicide.  

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. We therefore maintain that mobbing is a workplace safety and health issue.  

And it is not only a person's health and sense of well-being that is seriously affected. Their families and their organizations are gravely impacted as well. Relationships suffer, and company productivity is impacted as energies revolve around the mobbing and divert attention from important and significant tasks at hand. Ironically, the victims are portrayed as the ones at fault, as the ones who brought about their own downfalls.

If mobbing is perpetrated indirectly and the motives can only be imputed, how can individuals take action against those who are mobbing them?

It is primordial for targets to document all the behaviors they observe and they believe are aggressive acts, communications or behaviors that endanger, terrorize, isolate or humiliate the target. The best and direct approach is then to confront the mobbers, even with the help of human resources, demand responses, changes, transfers, etc. If all this does not help, then the target surely has to ask herself/himself: Do I want to continue working here? Would it not be indispensable to find a different and more nurtering workplace?  

What has been one of the worst experiences of mobbing that you have come across in your research?

A situation where a person in a large city administration has received death threats and is now under police protection. The mobbing has taken a terrible health toll on her. Yet, she is holding on in spite of this because she wants this to be exposed. She is seeking support from the media and the legal community.

Can you describe a mobbing experience where the victim was successful in putting a stop to the mobbing and the perpetrators were disciplined?

I personally don't know of a situation where the perpetrators were disciplined.  However, one person in Oregon , USA , was able to introduce, with the help of her union, an anti-mobbing policy in the State Department of Environmental Quality after she was mobbed there.

How can victims cope with mobbing?  What action do you advice individuals to undertake if they encounter mobbing?

I have received hundreds of letters or phone calls after our book was published and many people asked for advice. Every situation is a bit different and our book only gives generic advise.

I usually say: first you have to take care of yourself. Your mental and physical health are primordial. Do all you are in control of to stay healthy. Then document what you observe and experience. As I mentioned before, try to work it out, good conflict resolution skills may help - but not always. Sometimes the point of no return has been reached. Then ask yourself: Do I want to fight it out? Do I need to leave to maintain my sanity, as unfair as this all seems?

How can family and friends lend support to the person being mobbed?

This is absolutely crucial. The self-esteem and sense of self worth is absolutely shattered in a mobbing. In addition, the target feels weakened physically. So support, distraction, love, and presence are primordial from loved ones. Saddly, our research has demonstrated that often mobbing at work are followed by divorce. A partner simply could not take it any more, i.e. was unable to provide support over a long period of time, and/or the mobbed person could not be a good spouse or partner anymore, because their energies were absorbed elsewhere.

What advice would you give to executives who are interested in formulating an anti-mobbing policy in the workplace?

Leadership, setting a good example is primordial. A policy is great and a good start. Training needs to accompany a policy and enforcement of the policy is indispensable.

What legislation exists in America to protect people from mobbing? Which country's legislation is the most advanced in this area?

There is no legislation in America . However, legislators in five U.S. states are considering or actually working on legislation. France , and the state of Quebec in Canada have good wording, and the European Union and in Sweden , Mobbing or Victimization at Work, is seen as safety and health issue.

Do you see terrorism and the war against Iraq as contributing to a global culture that supports mobbing?

This is a valid question which would require a complex answer. For now, the word mobbing is strictly used in the workplace context. However, I personally believe that the same psychological dynamics are at work in a workplace humiliation and expulsion process as may be the case on a larger, geo-political scale. Many factors play into these dynamics: A complex societal/cultural/religious/political context, the type of leadership, human nature, deep fears, survival instincts, power and control, and a general culture that accepts violence (even for a believed in greater good) at the expense of peaceful, i.e. patient and negotiated conflict resolution.

Mobbing, Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace, by Noa Davenport, Ph.D., Ruth Distler Schwartz and Gail Pursell Elliott, Civil Society Publishing, 2002,  can be ordered through www.amazon.com. See also:  www.mobbing-usa.com.