When Bosses Are Bullied

We all know it exists.  The co-worker that just makes their boss’ life miserable and meetings are power struggles that hinge on games meant to humiliate the manager and make them look foolish.  Or the employee refuses to provide important information or perform a task on time in order to sabotage their Boss and make them look inept to their superiors.   Maybe the employee’s ideas weren’t implemented or they don’t like the performance review they received.  Maybe they don’t like authority.   Groundbreaking research in this area shows that the impact is the same.  The study below found that: “Over half of the interviewees (including most of the managers who experienced an experience of upwards bullying) reported an increase in stress, along with anxiety symptoms such as shaking and sleeplessness. Interviewees also reported experiencing anxiety attacks and clinical depression.”

This is the type of post that results in my email box filling up with angry messages from innocent targets of bullying.  Before you read the vital information below please put your own experience aside.  Recognizing all aspects of bullying in NO way denies the impact of what you’ve lived through.  It doesn’t give a pass to bosses who abuse their authority to demean and destroy their employees.  Instead it allows a true dialog that encourages solutions that will actually work.  This type of approach doesn’t sell books, or self-help DVDs, or create a ground swell of support for legislation, but it does create dialogs free of vicious rhetoric and polarizing labels like “snakes” and “sharks.”

Here’s the presentation to the Australian Parliament‘s inquiry into workplace bullying.  Hat’s off to Australia for leading the world on this issue.  This was submitted by: Dr Sara Branch – Griffith University Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance; Dr Jane Murray – Bond University Faculty of Business; and Dr Sheryl Ramsay – Griffith University Griffith Business School.  Read the portion excerpted below deals only with upward bullying.  [Download pdf]

Prevalence and Affect of Upwards Bullying in Australia

Branch’s doctoral study on the issue of upwards bullying was the first empirical study into upwards bullying and explored the dynamics of power in order to explain how a person in a position of authority can be bullied by a subordinate. Upwards bullying occurs when a supervisor or manager is bullied by a subordinate, it could also include individuals, such as teachers and lecturers who are bullied by students. Through two studies, an interview and questionnaire study, the nature of upwards bullying, including, the causes, behaviours, impacts, how it was managed and potential prevention and management strategies were explored. Within the questionnaire study a total of 138 managers (93 Male; 45 Female) completed the questionnaire with 22% of respondents self-identifying as having experienced upwards bullying. While this rate is higher than the expected 10-15% and should be considered carefully (with further survey data required to confirm the prevalence of upwards bullying), it does recognise the occurrence of upwards bullying. The following contains excerpts from Branch’s thesis with regards to the affects of upwards bullying for the targets, the workgroup and organisation.

As expected, managers who were interviewed as part of an interview study (24 managers – 12 males; 12 females, from public and private organisations discussed either the general work environment and/or a specific experience of upwards bullying) reported a range of physical and psychological impacts. The majority of managers interviewed (including all managers who discussed an experience of upwards bullying and those who discussed the general managerial environment) reported some impact upon their health, including a number of physical conditions such as general ill health, eczema, shingles, and migraines, which the interviewees believed had been caused or exacerbated by their experience of inappropriate behaviours from staff and/or upwards bullying. Interviewees also reported a number of psychological impacts. Over half of the interviewees (including most of the managers who experienced an experience of upwards bullying) reported an increase in stress, along with anxiety symptoms such as shaking and sleeplessness. Interviewees also reported experiencing anxiety attacks and clinical depression.

In addition to health impacts, managers also indicated a number of personal impacts, such as intention to leave or leaving the workplace, not wanting to go to work, a loss of confidence, concern for safety and thinking they were insane. In addition to managers appearing wary about seeking support, a related personal impact was that over half of the managers seemed to be concerned about how being bullied by a staff member or an allegation of bullying (or similar) might affect their career. In addition to concern for their career, it also seems that the experience of inappropriate behaviours by a staff member or upwards bullying can affect how a manager behaves at work. Almost all of the managers interviewed described how their behaviour at work changed as a result of their experience of inappropriate behaviours or upwards bullying by a staff member. Changes expressed by managers included constantly bracing yourself for what was coming next, ensuring ‘all their bases were covered’, becoming protective of self, and becoming wary or reluctant to address behaviours in the future. Therefore, it appears that the experience of upwards bullying impacts on a manager’s confidence, and their ability to fulfil their day–to–day duties. In particular, managers expressed how their experience of feeling bullied by a staff member or witnessing others in upwards bullying situations made them wary or reluctant to address behaviours by staff in the future. Even managers who discussed the managerial work environment appeared to be wary about managing staff due to incidents of inappropriate or abusive behaviour. Thus, it appears that the experience of upwards bullying or the possibility of upwards bullying can make managers wary and protective while at work, and can have a substantial affect on their ability to function at work.

Furthermore, according to those interviewed, the impact of upwards bullying appears to go beyond the manager. Comments by interviewees suggest that the manager’s workgroup and the organisation are also affected. Naturally, as the manager becomes protective and wary, this impacts upon their own productivity and, as a result, upon the organisation’s productivity. Two-thirds of the managers interviewed (the majority being those who described an experience of upwards bullying) explained how their productivity was reduced as a result of their experience. This was mainly through involvement in disciplinary or grievance investigations which took them away from their normal duties, or through constant challenges to the manager. Others described the reduction of their productivity as due to their concern over what could happen next or because they didn’t want any contact with the staff member.

Moreover, over half of the managers in the present study (including almost all of those who described an experience of upwards bullying) perceived that the workgroup was affected because they too were involved in the investigation or the conflict itself. In a number of the experiences described, it appeared that members of the workgroup were at times supporting one to three central individuals by participating in the bullying or inappropriate behaviours. As a result, half of the managers interviewed stated that this contributed to increases in tension within the workgroup. A third of those who discussed an experience of upwards bullying reported that the group was divided into two, those who supported the manager and those who supported the staff member. A general increase in stress and an adverse affect on productivity was also reported by a third of those who had an experience of upwards bullying. Finally, a number of managers who described an experience of upwards bullying attributed the departure of staff from their workgroup directly to the bullying the manager experienced. Interestingly, a number of these findings were reflected predominately by managers who had experienced or witnessed upwards bullying. It may be that as the experience intensifies so too does the affect on the workgroup as they are drawn into the conflict.

In summary, it appears that upwards bullying impacts on the health and work environment of those who experience and those who witness it, as well as affecting the workgroup. As one of the participants who reviewed the findings of this study, as part of the member checking process, stated: our area [is] still experiencing long term deep resentment by some staff and [a] supervisor left to take up another position because of the attitude towards him. It appears that the impact of upwards bullying or inappropriate behaviour by staff can have similar impacts to other forms of workplace bullying; that is, negative effects on health as well as long term work related effects.

The questionnaire study also confirmed that upwards bullying negatively affects a managers’ job satisfaction and organisational identification, and increases their intention to leave. Results from a one- way between-groups multivariate analysis of variance suggest that managers who self-identified as having experienced upwards bullying feel less supported by their manager and colleagues than those who have not had an experience of upwards bullying.

Overall, this research program indicates that upwards bullying is a disturbing social phenomenon that is unrecognised in many organisations. Upwards bullying may have substantial costs to organisations financially, as well as negative health impacts on the manager and functioning of the workgroup. Importantly, it needs to be made clear to both managers and staff that, just as bullying behaviours are unacceptable when perpetuated by a manager or colleague, these behaviours are also unacceptable when carried out by a staff member(s) and directed towards a manager. Organisations need to initiate policies and intervention strategies to prevent incidences of upwards bullying and to assist managers who are targeted. Additional research into upwards bullying as a form of workplace bullying and the efficacy of preventive organisational interventions to address upwards bullying is required.

6 thoughts on “When Bosses Are Bullied

    • Thanks Drew! Each year I poll readers and colleagues to find out what I can add to the dialog about workplace bullying. The response is always the same: provide the necessary critique that all movements and disciplines require.


  1. I would like to share something with you


    As a director of a Brisbane firm, I have been under an environment where I have been bullied and harassed with racial remarks regularly. It have been a long 3 years battle inside myself along with comments such as “open your slant eyes if you can’t see…I can’t help you. My staff also expressed her views on Asian who drives prestige cars having “small dicks…which applied to you”.

    It might be a short email, but the pain has been terrifying and it still haunts me today. I am unable to control my mind and the images are vivid. I have not been able to face my “Asian” family and kids at home. Tears have been flowing to work and from work to home. One of the staff witnessed what I went thru and I appreciated his companionship thru the darkest hours.

    I have been successful of what I have achieve but this fear will always remain until there is justice.

    Should you wish to discuss this, please reply.




  2. I am so glad I read your article. It has encouraged me to research the issue further. I was on the edge of resigning, but knowing I am not alone and it is not an indication of weakness, I have asked for help. Australia seems way ahead of the research or acceptance of this form of bullying than in England. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. WOW! I had no idea this was even something that was going on in the workplace thinking i was alone in this ‘battle’. I googled to find information on bullying and harassmemt from employees and if there were others dealing with many strong personalities within the team and came across this article.

    The article describes exactly what is currently happening to me in my current position. I was previously the manager of the team who were quite difficult to keep on track with productivity.

    As time progressed, I struggled to find knowledge and support of colleagues to assist me with resolving many issues within the team and the result was to think of myself, identifying the warning signs of stress, angst, fear and return to my much calmer career.

    My supervisor recognised my problems identifed and wanted to keep me in the team where i was moved to another role, identifying productivity within the team. This has progressed into an idea that from the team i am bullying and harassing staff from holding them accountable for the work they are not completing correctly.

    This is where the issues arise and the article pretty much explains exactly what is happening now. It has also inspired me to take a stand.

    Nothing to lose.

    Liked by 1 person

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