Workplace Mobbing

What Leaders Can Learn About “In-Group” Dynamics to Prevent Workplace Mobbing

By Delia Grenville, a senior executive leader with more than 25 years of experience in high-tech roles. She is also a TEDx speaker, moderator of the online community, author of Rants + Ramblings On Life and Wellness: A book of general wisdom on topics that make you think outside the box, and host of the To Live List™ podcast. 

In the popular FX show The Bear, a young, talented, and formally trained chef named Sydney joins a legendary Chicago restaurant. Eager to please and to advance, the new sous chef is focused on her opportunity to work for a renowned chef, Carmy, who has three Michelin stars.

After returning to Chicago to rescue his family’s flailing business, Carmy hires Sydney on the spot without any warning to the established kitchen staff, who consider each other family. 

Surprised by her arrival and annoyed by her ‘solution-at-the-ready’ professionalism, the rest of the kitchen staff exhibit typical in-group versus out-group behaviors that can fester in work cultures and lead to workplace mobbing. (Learn more about workplace mobbing on the Just Work podcast where I discuss it with Kim and Wesley.)

 In-group versus out-group


Most of us have experienced being in both the in-group and the out-group at one point in our lives. In-groupers have a sense of belonging and identity tied to the group, especially if we judge our group to be different from other groups, according to the American Psychology Association.

In the movie Mean Girls, the Plastics are the in-group and everyone else is part of their out-group. Although the movie parodies the in-group versus out-group dynamics, it also skillfully highlights the negative effects of these behaviors.

Poor management of in- versus out-group dynamics is a key component in creating situations that can eventually evolve into workplace mobbing.

How is workplace mobbing different from bullying?


@shelbarlow Reply to @kaylawayla888 and these are just a few examples … i could go on! #mobbing #toxicworkplace ♬ original sound – shelbarlow

Both bullying and mobbing are harmful behaviors in the workplace, but each has distinct characteristics.

  • Bullying: An individual singles out and harasses one or more persons. It’s almost always hierarchical, meaning that the target(s) has less positional power. The dynamics can range from overt aggression to subtle manipulation. However, the target can move to another part of the organization and the incident can be contained.
  • Mobbing: A group of people works together directly or indirectly to remove the targeted individual. Mobbing is rooted in groupthink and group aggression with underlying elements of fear, competition, and envy. Unlike bullying, mobbing is not hierarchical. The target is usually labeled the troublemaker and is isolated within the organization.

If someone’s targeted, why don’t they speak up?

Workplace mobbing

Work can be a psychosocial tug-of-war where two things are happening at once, especially from the in- versus out-group perspective.

Although we’d prefer to work with people we like (people in our in-group), we can’t avoid people we don’t like (people in our out-group) and still deliver successful results. We deal with this tug-of-war regularly.

In fact, we might have several reasons not to speak candidly when in- versus out-group dynamics evolve into group aggression, and we are the target of workplace mobbing:

  • Emotional impact: Mobbing, or in- versus out-group dynamics on steroids, causes extreme anxiety and stress, leading victims to withdraw and avoid addressing the issue directly.
  • Feeling powerless: We might feel powerless and unable to confront the situation.
  • Gaslighting: The people in the mob often use gaslighting to attack targets into believing the problem is their own fault or the mobbing is not that severe.
  • Normalization of behavior: In toxic work environments, mobbing might be normalized, leading us to believe nothing can or will change.
  • Stigma and shame: We might feel ashamed or embarrassed about being in this situation.
How to Deal with Shame, Bullying, and Mobbing >>

What can we do about workplace mobbing?

Industrial-organizational psychologists recognize that neither in-group/out-group dynamics, nor mobbing, are going anywhere. Researchers tend to believe that the only way mobbing can be overcome is if the target moves onto another organization.

Psychologists and researchers maintain that a target does not fully recover from the effects of mobbing, and mobbing cannot be stopped in a way that is healthy for the organization and the target. But, I believe, we can challenge these beliefs by becoming aware of “early-onset” mobbing behaviors.

Leaders should be alert for mobbing in their organizations by looking for three indicators:

  1. High performers are usually the target of mobbing, so leaders should watch for in-group/out-group behavior that excludes and attempts to alienate high performers.
  2. The mob will attempt to push high-performing peers out the door and then huddle together to keep the door closed.
  3. Worse yet, an organization’s people systems and practices might seal the door shut. Workplace mobs often use HR or leaders to sabotage or undermine the target.

All of these behaviors may be happening at once and may not be noticed at their onset. When these behaviors conspire and go unnoticed, a team or organization is in trouble.

How to Make Work Less Like Junior High >>

Hope for the future around workplace mobbing

I’ve observed some positive workplace changes that could reduce the likelihood of in-group behavior fostering mobbing in the future:

  • We know more about group dynamics than ever before. We have almost a century’s worth of industrial organizational psychology under our belts, and our knowledge has been developed in tandem with increased technology and globalization. We now have a more robust repository of patterns and situations to learn from.
  • Tactical behaviors that enable mobbing and group aggression are being discouraged in the workplace. The behaviors are not good for the company, culture, team, or bottom line.
  • Younger generations will not stand for workplace abusive behaviors. As a member of Gen X, I grew up in a world where being a target of bullying was often viewed as a rite of passage and tolerating unhealthy in- versus out-group dynamics was normalized. But Gen Zs and younger millennials know bullying and poor group dynamics are not acceptable in any form or place.

You can use Radical Candor’s free learning guides to help you take the temperature of in- versus out-group dynamics. Many of us may revert to practices from former in- or out-group dynamics instead of taking the time to understand how we feel in our current group.

To start, I recommend watching The Bear and Mean Girls with a new lens of in- versus out-group dynamics and mobbing. Take notes and observe how teams or individuals challenge directly and care personally. Start from there and see where things go.

Read more about workplace mobbing by Delia Grenville.

Uncovering “Mobbing” in the Workplace Part 1 >>

Uncovering “Mobbing” in the Workplace Part 2 >>

About Delia Grenville

I am a creative person with an engineering background. I am a technologist and a certified Integral Coach. I’ve learned that our best storytelling happens when we understand our layers. I am a senior executive leader with more than 25 years of experience in high-tech roles. Outside of the corporate world, I am a TEDx speaker, moderator of the online community, proud published author of the book Rants + Ramblings On Life and Wellness: A book of general wisdom on topics that make you think outside the box, and host of the To Live List™ podcast. 


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