When we hear stories of workplace bullying, we often hear of evil deeds by power hungry and vindictive managers to their employees. It is rare to hear tales of the reverse, often referred to as upwards bullying.

Within academic research, upwards bullying has been a topic of interest for approximately 25 years and the targeting by lower ranked employees to managers has a prevalence rate of between 10-20%.

While the rate is much lower than top down bullying, if we truly wish to create safe workplaces, we need to ensure we are extending our safety net to encompass those at the top along with all other employees. To do this, we need to increase our workplace understanding of top down bullying to ensure we are preventing harm.

Power Is Not Just Positional

Power is a fundamental element of bullying and managers technically have it by position; but positional power is not where bullying starts and stops.

In research papers, it is not uncommon that power forms part of the definition of bullying. The research often includes statements such as bullying as being unreasonable behaviours repeated over a long period of time which an employee finds it difficult to defend themselves against these actions. There is an inherent role of power in bullying relationships.

However, power is not mentioned in the Australian legal definition, nor health and safety guidelines, possibly because the concept of powerlessness is a subjective. Even in some academic circles, it has been suggested it doesn’t need to form part of the definition because it is inherent in all bullying scenarios.

However, bullying can be either due to a formalised power structure (ie organisational position) or due to informal power such as social support, knowledge or experience. The latter is fundamental when it comes to upwards bullying.

Gaining the upper hand

When we explore how a lower ranked employee gains the upper hand in the power stakes, the research points us in the direction to help us understand.

One strategy used in upwards bullying is that of alliance building. A lower ranked employee will ally themselves with another employee in a position of authority (often management) gaining their support. This is referred to as cross-level co-bullying. The targeted manager not only is attacked from below, but becomes increasingly isolated by others in the management structure as a result.

One of the most mentioned strategies used to bully managers is through use, or perhaps more accurately abuse, of organisational systems. In this circumstance, a lower ranked bully uses the organisational grievance structure, normally seen to give targeted employees a pathway to resolution and/or justice, an opportunity to attack and undermine the manager. Some employers, in place of using this process for natural justice, may automatically try and appease an employee making a malicious or vexatious complaint. They are driven by the fear of legal ramifications. The targeted manager, in this circumstance experiencing a loss of support and isolation from their employer, may be relocated or removed, while the perpetrator remains. This highlights the importance of ensuring all participants are provided with natural justice.

Other workplace factors that can influence upwards bullying include:

  • Role overload which increases stress and vulnerability to bullying.
  • Organisational change leading to those change leading managers to be targeted by employees who perceive them to be the cause of that change and the negative impacts they experience.
  • Competition for positions where the unsuccessful applicant targets the successful manager for payback with the bully rallying those around them to co-bully and get rid of the boss.
From covert to overt

In all bullying, a target is worn down over time. The above scenarios provide the strategies of how those who bully upwards can achieve their goals.

Those who bully upwards tend to use more covert behaviours in the initial period including:

  • withdrawal of information or knowledge;
  • not supplying information such as reports;
  • not doing work by assigned deadlines;
  • not being contactable;
  • not attending meetings;
  • or coming in late.

They rely on personal and informal sources of power and their tactics reflect their power base at the time.

However, their approach increases to more overt tactics as the manager becomes increasingly worn down and the bully increases in confidence and the power imbalance. Their behaviour escalates to overt threats and accusations which might include aggressive outbursts, confrontational emails and phone calls, threats to disrupt work, as well as verbal and physical intimidation or threats.

A clear message – managers don’t deserve abuse

The research indicates that managers don’t speak up in cases of upwards bullying for a number of reasons.

Seeking support with a bullying employee whom they don’t have the skills and knowledge to manage may come with a perception of incompetence that could be used against them. This may affect their position and standing and this could lead to a negative performance review.

In some workplaces, help seeking with employee issues as a manager may be frowned upon. Some managers feel they should be able to, and have been employed to, manage the situation by themselves. Other manager’s simply view managing employee behaviours, even those negatively directed at them, as part of their job so they don’t report the behaviours.

Managers’ feelings of shame at being bullied could be intensified for those who think they have failed because they have been bullied by a subordinate.

Targeted workplace managers, like everyone else, can suffer significant harm from workplace bullying including mental health impacts and risk of suicide as a result of upwards bullying. Workplaces need to deliver clear messages that a safe workplace applies to manager equally as it does to everyone at work. The systems developed need to protect them, as much as everybody else.

Note – references are hyperlinked in the above text.