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Upward Bullying and Organisational Change


Workplace bullying is attracting increased attention as organisations realise its impact. Bullying affects the culture and morale of staff, and also the sustainability and productivity of an organisation.

Traditionally, bullying is perceived as a more senior person victimising a junior person.

However, have you considered that Managers can also be targeted and subjected to bullying behaviours in the workplace?

Research by Sarah Branch, a psychologist at Griffith University, found that “although managers clearly have formal authority, they can also be victims of bullying and need just as much support as other staff”.

Characteristics of Organisational Change

Vantage Performance works with organisations that share characteristics that can lead to upward bullying.

These organisations are all going through periods of rapid organisational change, driven by volatility, instability, growth or expansion.

We have witnessed upward bullying in organisations a number of times.

True to Branch’s observations, employees who are disgruntled by change can react by ‘blaming their manager and respond by bullying them’.

These are the characteristics we’ve discovered when dealing with staff and managers in organisations where upward bullying is occurring:

  • Staff report feeling ‘left out of the loop’ or ‘in the dark’ when changes occur
  • Communication breaks down and people are often provided with conflicting information
  • Staff and management feel ‘out of control’ with the situation and challenges they face
  • Absence of a clearly defined strategic plan
  • Inadequate frameworks, systems and processes across the human resource function.

Bullying affects productivity

Upward bullying can potentially cause psychological stress, depression and anxiety according to Harriet Stacey, co-founder and principal of Wise Workplace Investigations.

Stacey explains that managers may lose confidence in their own abilities and feel less satisfied in their jobs.

Upward bullying can also substantially undermine the achievement of business objectives due to lost productivity, increased absenteeism and staff turnover.

Organisations divert time and resources into addressing the issues, instead of navigating through the organisational change effectively as a strong team.

Periods of organisational change also present unique challenges for managers who want to be seen to be ‘in control’. They hesitate to come forward and ask for help, fearing that they may be perceived as a failure or liability to the organisation.

Upward bullying signs

If you are a manager in an environment characterised by organisational change, here are some signs that may indicate upward bullying is occurring in your workplace:

  • Failure of staff to comply with rules, meet deadlines and attend meetings on time
  • Disrespect and attempts by a ringleader to undermine authority in front of others
  • Increased gossip and ‘chatter’ amongst staff
  • Unrealistic demands by staff
  • Constant requests for private meetings that are manipulative in nature and dictate unrealistic demands and expectations
  • Recent change in the behaviour of your team towards you.

Toxic upward bullying

Upward bullying is most toxic when a group of staff are involved.

We saw this recently in a manufacturing business, where several production staff made a series of (informal) complaints regarding a line manager. In this situation (which is common) there was a ‘ringleader’ who was encouraging others to voice their complaints about this particular manager.

When individuals were asked to explain the problem, so that an investigation could be carried out, there was strong resistance.

When a group of people rally against one person, there is often a hidden agenda and when investigated it was clear that the agenda in this situation was that ‘the manager goes or we go’.

In this type of situation, staff gain control by manipulating an agenda and failing to take accountability for their own behaviour and actions. They will typically blame the manager and continue to redirect or evade participation in an investigation.

If you’re a victim of workplace bullying have a read of our post on, What to do if you are being Bullied at Work.  Stop bullies in their tracks.

We are interested to hear about your experiences of upward bullying in the workplace.

Richard Dunks was a former managing director at Vantage Performance, Australia’s leading performance improvement and turnaround firm with proven success in solving complex business challenges.

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