Hierarchial Dysfunction and Mobbing in the Academy

Potential shifts in the power structure can trigger episodes of severe workplace hostility…

The first step to finding solutions to a problem is recognizing the problem.

When it comes to identifying the root cause of dysfunction in the academic workplace, Dr. Jeanine Stewart , professor of psychology at Washington and Lee University VA, proposed that the design of the academic workplace fosters counterproductive behaviors, including a newly named form of harassment called “mobbing.”

She presented “Dysfunctional by Design: Mobbing and Harassment in the Academic Workplace” at the Oxford Round Table Women’s Leadership conference at Oxford, England in August.

A psychobiologist by training, Stewart has been at Washington and Lee University for 14 years, recently serving as associate and then interim dean before returning to academics. While dean, she became fascinated with the inner workings of administration. At that time, her organization was dysfunctional, with a high rate of turnover at the presidential, dean and associate dean levels. During that period, people started reporting to her that they were having problems with their bosses.

 The problems were in many different areas, but most were centered around counterproductive workplace behaviors, which created systemic dysfunction. Intrigued, Stewart began to explore the structure and design of academics and how they might contribute to dysfunction.

 Structural problems

In an industry where 200 or more faculty might report to a single dean, informal pecking orders can crop up. Stewart calls these virtual power structures “soft hierarchies,” in contrast to “hard hierarchies,” the formal, position-based report-ing lines you see on an organizational chart.

While hard hierarchies are structured, clean and stable over time, soft hierarchies are based on political power within an organization and are vulnerable to change. Turnover brings rises and falls.

People who you wouldn’t expect are at the top of the soft structures. “It all depends on who you know,” said Stewart. Soft hierarchies exert undue influence over decision-makers, and senior administrators who are higher up in the hard hierarchies have problems if they can’t get the backing of the people at the top of the soft hierarchies. Lawrence Summers, the Harvard president who was forced to resign, is an example of soft hierarchies bringing down an administrator.

Because leaders in academia aren’t very well-trained as managers and don’t tend to stay in their positions for long, they aren’t always adept at keeping the soft hierarchies in check. In fact, they may be influenced by the soft hierarchies themselves. Conflict between the hard and soft hierarchies can result in organizational dysfunction, and reorganizations of the soft hierarchy.

All of this can affect the environment for women and minorities in academia. When power is in flux, people become desperate to come out on top—often at the expense of others, especially those whose status makes them vulnerable. In an environment that’s difficult to supervise like academia, it’s particularly risky. And when a workplace becomes dysfunctional and interactions turn unhealthy, it makes it all the more difficult to diversify. It’s hard enough to stand out, and entering a hostile or unwelcoming work environment makes it even more challenging.

The inherent ambiguity of the academic workplace is where all of the problems originate, said Stewart, noting that it takes a strong leader to deal with the ambiguities. Flawed organizational design also contributes to problems.

 Status and privilege

In a work culture that tolerates harassment, people will resort to desperate measures to preserve their status, said Stewart, often by exploiting others’ real or perceived weaknesses. Ineffective professionals who are at risk for losing their hard hierarchical positions may undermine less powerful co-workers to intentionally disrupt the soft hierarchy, and the person’s place within it.

Women and minorities are particularly vulnerable during times of transition. When it’s a hard hierarchy shift, higher-ups in the soft hierarchy can maintain their positions by associating with those in hard power; but lower-status members will try to hold or advance their status by targeting and harassing those whose soft status can be weakened.

In a soft shift, it’s a free-for-all. People value their status in the soft hierarchy so strongly that they will go to great lengths to maintain that status. They’ll often pick a target to harass—one who they perceive as weak. Often, perceptions of weakness stem from factors conferred by gender, class or race.

 Harassers are particularly aggressive when their status stems from being a member of a dominant social groups — such as being male, white or heterosexual in America. “People who lose something they haven’t earned are especially desperate to get it back,” said Stewart. “If you haven’t earned it, how are you going to get it back?”

Women who have high status within the soft hierarchy are at particular risk for victimization, said Stewart, especially when her colleagues or even her supervisor recognize that she is competent enough to advance within the organization in either the hard or soft ranks. These potential shifts in the power structure can trigger episodes of severe workplace hostility toward members of marginalized groups who seek to advance.

Chaotic periods are also problematic for members of marginalized groups, said Stewart, because that’s when they’re invited to lead—but they’re sacrificial lambs. During a quick turnover, women and women and men of color are given the chance because things are so messed up, people in charge figure they might as well try anything.

Dysfunction brings out the worst in people. “Very smart and well-meaning people end up in difficult situations,” Stewart told WIHE. “People end up falling into a trap and acting inauthentically.”


Stewart addressed the term “mobbing,” a type of bullying and harassment. Although used widely in Europe and Australia, it’s not as common here. Heinz Leymann (1990) coined it, to refer to “hostile and unethical communication which is directed in a systematic way by one or a number of persons mainly towards an individual.” Examples of mobbing include behaviors such as social isolation, public and private humiliation and ridicule, rumor mongering and threatened violence. It’s considered mobbing if it takes place at least once a week for months.

While most workers in the U.S. are familiar with status-based harassment that targets members of certain groups protected by federal law, few are aware that mobbing is an issue. Studies show that generalized workplace abuse occurs four times as much in the U.S. as does sexual harassment (Namie and Namie, 2003), and that one in seven sui-cides in Sweden were related to workplace mobbing (Leymann, cited in Bjorkvist et al. 1994).

 In the U.S., institutions tend to tolerate harassment as long as there are no legal problems. Interestingly, while illegal harassment can be reported after only a single incident, mobbing consists of repeated incidents over a long duration, and has the potential to be far more damaging.

Then there’s the distinction between uncollegial versus illegal behavior. Administrators, said Stewart, are often concerned with staying just this side of legal—instead of deciding how they want their workplaces to exist.

Denice Denton, the University of California-Santa Cruz chancellor who committed suicide in June, was a victim of mobbing. Students harassed her, in one case surrounding her car and even sitting on it, while she was inside. Her home was targeted and she received death threats, to the point where she was terrified. It was a form of “upward mobbing,” in which people of lower status turn on someone of higher rank than them. Disturbingly, said Stewart, there was no immediate move from California’s Board of Regents to support Denton and convince students to behave in a civil manner.

By giving voice to the problem of mobbing, Stewart hopes to raise awareness of the issue. “There is very little research done on this set of concepts in an academic setting,” she told WIHE. “Research leads to developing strategies. We need to collect data, calling for awareness, research and subsequent action.”

After hearing her present her work and reading her paper, many women have approached her telling her they had “Aha!” realization moments, she said. “It resonates with a lot of people. It’s giving voice to a term.”

Along with many others, we asked her for solutions. She’s hesitant to give a prescription, she said, until she can work with the concepts to collect more information.

In the meantime, one audience member had a suggestion: Have the human resources department create a class on it. Awareness brings action.

Reach Jeanine Stewart at

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