Upward bullying… is it a thing?

Recently I read a piece in the Canberra Times regarding “upward’ bullying.  The term had me intrigued, as bullying is almost always from supervisor/manager to subordinates, or between colleagues.  Rarely does one hear about bullying of the bosses, but it’s certainly not something new.

Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) even regard bullying of subordinates (where there is a breach of trust) as ‘corrupt conduct.’ 

So, what exactly is ‘upward’ bullying?

Most are now aware of what constitutes bullying in a general sense:

Repeated behaviour which is victimising, humiliating, intimidating or threatening towards another person or group or people, and is a risk to the health and safety (including psychological health).

Well, it follows that ‘upward’ bullying is the same, in reverse, right?  Not necessarily so.

This particular type of bullying is more subtle. Things like refusing to take on reasonable work allocation, not completing tasks or not doing them properly (on purpose), spreading rumour and gossiping, not following the correct channels, being deliberately avoidant and combative, pushing the boundaries with policy and procedures; there are many examples.  Upward bullies may also ‘borrow’ power from external organisations like unions, to exert pressure on a supervisor or manager.

Some researchers say that upward bullying thrives in organisations that are struggling to respond to change.  They say that bullying results from attempts to manage the stress and frustration that results from internal and external pressures.

In regard to upwards bullying, employees find it easier to channel their rage

towards a person they see as representative of the organisation, or towards an effective manager simply doing their job.  Perhaps some may even bully up in an attempt to exploit the intolerance that organisations have for bullying in general.  Whatever the reason, it’s important for organisations and leaders to be aware that this type of bullying can also happen, albeit less obvious. 

In the end, supervisors and managers get paid more because they hold leadership positions and have additional responsibilities.  Part of that is to manage staff, their performance and also their conduct.  Upwards bullying needs to be identified and dealt with, just like traditional bullying.

There are a number of ways private companies and government can make sure bullying (up, down or sideways) is dealt with. These include:

  • Having a clear code of conduct, ensuring all staff are aware of what it means to not respect another. And, not just giving it personnel as part of onboarding, but constantly reinforcing the messages through ongoing training, development and knowledge sharing.
  • Have a consistent grievance management policy.  There’s no need to necessarily panic if there’s conflict.  Some things can be dealt with informally, quickly and focus on outcomes.
  • Create an environment where positive questioning and appreciative enquiry are the norm.
  • Train supervisors and managers on how to talk to people.  It sounds easy, right?  Being able to have effective and sometimes difficult conversations (particularly about conduct) is a skill that is generally lacking in middle-management.

Related Posts