Upward bullying: When bosses are targets of harassment

by 10 Aug 2011

With awareness of bullying and its insidious effects on the rise, one aspect that receives little attention is the small but not insignificant number of cases where managers are bullied by team members.

WISE Workplace Investigations has conducted investigations into a number of such cases, always in remote locations with stable staff.

The profile of the typical case of "upward" bullying would be a team of between 5-10 staff in secure positions. It often occurs in government, normally with one or two long-term employees who have had designs on the manager's job in the past.

The influence of one or two disgruntled, negative employees can be profound. New managers stepping into entrenched group dynamics stand little chance if the team is determined to make life difficult for the new manager.

Self-confidence, awareness of team dynamics and ability to manage recalcitrant, possibly underperforming staff, are necessary to win these cases.

A study conducted by Griffith University in southwest NSW revealed that nearly a quarter of Australian bosses are the targets of upward bullying.

One of the main triggers for upwards bullying is organisational change, the survey notes. This may be a change of working conditions, management, or processes. Employees may blame their manager and respond by bullying them.

Upwards bullying has the potential to damage a manager's mental health and wellbeing.  It can cause psychological stress, anxiety, and even depression. Managers may also lose confidence in their abilities and feel less satisfied in their jobs. 

Upwards bullying also has the potential to impact the bottom line.

It can result in lost productivity, increased absenteeism and higher staff turnover, as well as the cost of intervention programs. Bullying of managers is epitomised by gossip, back stabbing, disrespect, disobedience and a failure to comply with rules. Bullies will question competence and influence newer staff through misinformation. Potentially unionised, what usually happens is, complaints are made by the team against the poor performance of the manager.

Complaints are typically made as a group - with unwillingness to talk to investigators or managers as individuals. This is because there is power in numbers. Key ringleaders can maintain control over other less motivated team members through the group, but cannot necessarily maintain that control in one-on-one interviews.

This is a major problem for managers who often want to impress senior managers and assert their control in the workplace. Admitting they cannot control their staff is admitting to failure. So managers who are victims of bullying will often try to keep up appearances long after they should have asked for help. 

Managers who decide to take the bull by the horns and confront troublemakers often trigger more bullying and undermining, which may lead to unfounded complaints. Senior managers should consider the complaints with an open mind until the true nature of the problem is established. There may be wrongs on both sides.

Never dismiss a bullying complaint because you believe the accused reports that the complaints are payback and frivolous. Proper independent investigation is the only way to establish what has gone on and to prevent costly lawsuits or claims of adverse action. After the investigation, if there has been a pattern of bullying against the manager, senior management should take firm action to split up the team and separate the protagonists and ringleaders. 

This can get problematic if rural locations are in play. Government and union workforces are also more difficult to change. Strong support for managers from senior management, however, must be the priority if bullying conduct is going up the line and not down. Coaching for the manager and strong senior management support are what's needed.

Managers should be encouraged to report bullying and harassment and to discuss the issue openly with employees. But unfortunately many managers are reluctant to report upwards bullying for fear of recrimination or because some feel they should deal with the problem themselves.

At the same time managers must try to build better relationships with staff, breaking down the "us versus them" mentality. Workplaces should adopt grievance management processes that employees can trust.

About the author

Harriet Stacey is the co-founder and principal of Wise Workplace Investigations. She is one of Australia's leading authorities in investigative interviewing. Harriet specialises in corporate investigations and disciplinary processes. She has been involved in more than 100 investigations since the company's inception - predominantly in the NSW public sector.



  • by Bernie Althofer 10/08/2011 4:18:26 PM

    It can be a fine line that managers have to walk betweeen getting the job done and being targeted or accused of being a bully. Sometimes it is the simple things that are said such as "As a matter of interest, what do you have on next week" can result in findings that this was unreasonable management. On the face of it, the average manager would say "How could this be?" Sometimes managers may be targeted because they are trying to instill a sense of responsibility and accountability in an environment where the workers have stacked the decks by 'currying' favour with the upper echelons of the organisation and create a belief that they can do no wrong. If managers raise the 'b' word, they find little support from upper management and end up being 'lame duck' managers with a giant target painted on them. Don't under estimate the power that some workers have when they feel threatened or challenged when they are being called to account. Fear of change can do mysterious things to workplaces. Upwards bullying could also be used to 'target' internal experts or those who might be well educated in the area of workplace bullying and harassment. Allegations can also be made to 'restrict' promotional opportunities. Some organisations may also have a culture where it is expected that managers 'grin and bear' everything that is thrown at them, and a failure to do this, can be a career limiting move. I was recently discussing this issue with a colleague. He indicated that the "b" word had been raised in a performance interview. The person was told to think of another word or words to describe what happened, otherwise management would have to do something about it. Coercing staff even at management level to change their view about what has happened to them is just another way of sweeping it under the carpet. So, as indicated in the article, investigations might uncover some nasty truths about what really happened.

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