Are you being targeted by an upward bully on the team you lead? You are probably also experiencing hostility from a group of subordinate colleagues exhibiting mob behaviour in support of that bully and you’re likely frustrated by yet another group of otherwise perfectly agreeable folk who have been intimidated into passive bystander role by your powerful upward bully.  Unfortunately, you might also have found yourself caught up in middle management squeeze, whereby the bully on your team has managed to gain the ear of your workplace supervisor.


Let’s bust some myths

Upward bullies are not socially inept. They are not insecure and they are not motivated by the greater good in any way, shape or form. They also do not bully their bosses because they perceive you as weak. They don’t secretly admire you nor really want, deep in their misguided heart, to be your friend. Upward bullies are not interested in solving issues; they love creating conflict and thrive on being the architect of disharmony in the workplace. They have low self-reflection coupled with high self-esteem and are therefore very tricky people to deal with.


What upward bullies do

Upward bullying is an intense, frequent and aggressive manipulation of informal power in the workplace. Upward bullies work hard at being the seat of informal power.  They disregard authority and have the confidence to take on any leader, regardless of that leader’s skills, experience, reputation or ability.  Wherever opportunities present themselves, they will take control of the workplace agenda and work flow, manipulating colleagues and bosses alike. They network to build allegiances to shore up and extend their power base.


Why they do it to you

Whenever their agenda does not align with the bully’s own, every workplace supervisor, no matter what their age, experience or leadership style, is a potential target.

It is not your fault that you’ve been targeted by an upward bully, but how you respond to them will dictate how successful you are in minimising their impact on yourself and your team.

Some more recently appointed leaders could misinterpret and try to laugh off initial displays of upward bullying as a relatively harmless rite of passage. Some leaders might attempt to ignore evidence of an upward bullying culture in the hope that the situation will wear itself out if not given oxygen. Both of these well-meant responses will give the bully tacit permission to ramp up their toxic behaviours.


Two Types of Upward Bullies

Justified, or custom and practice bullies resist change, employing strategies including sabotage, presenteeism (turning up regularly, but not actually doing the required work) and withholding specialist knowledge. They rationalise their unprofessional behaviours by insisting that the status quo is always the right way to do things, spreading fear of change as widely as possible.


Entitled bullies confidently expect everything to go their way. They do not accept criticism and are malicious and aggressive. They will fearlessly lash out at supervisors (or make the bullets for others to fire) and are prone to respond to reasonable direction with vexatious complaints that all too often are taken seriously. 


Inciting a Mob

Upward bullies can develop a power relationship over their colleagues, manipulating susceptible groups by feeding their basic need for belonging. Alternatively, the bully may play on a colleague’s fear of being singled out as a target themselves.  A mob will assist the bully to prevail and by ramping up the aggression of others, the bully can step back to conduct their power play like a puppet master.


Two Types of Bystanders

Those who don’t actively join a mob may present as traumatised bystanders. They may fear what could happen to them if they speak up, talk themselves into believing that they have no power to change what’s happening or convince themselves it’s up to the boss to fix the situation.


The complicit bystander will have been worn down by a toxic workplace culture. The spiral of negative behaviours exhibited by the bully and their mob will have drained the emotional, mental and physical wellbeing of the complicit bystander to the point that they feel little or no loyalty to their workplace managers.


A Toxic Workplace Culture

A workplace characterised by insufficient resources, unrealistic expectations and/or inadequate training is fertile soil for the growth of upward bullying. Insufficient communication and a lack of transparency from the leadership team promotes potential suspicion and disloyalty. 

A high stress environment where teams do not feel valued can allow an upward bully to thrive.  Add to this mix, the perils of change management for the modern leader and it is unsurprising that upward bullying has received more recognition in recent years.


Overcoming Upward Bullies

  • Never ignore your instincts when you feel that a member of your team is attempting to manipulate you or others. Be alert and observant as to how workers interact both with you and with others above and below you.
  • Make it your business to know who is the ‘grey eminence’ in your workplace. Are they wielding their power in a decent or malicious way? They may not necessarily be the bully nor even be aligned with that bully. They could be your powerful ally.
  • Gather a brain’s trust of professional friends, drawn from both within and outside of your organisation, if possible. You will need to enlist people you can trust to give you good advice when you can’t think straight. You may believe that opening up to others is shameful or weak on your part, but this perspective is false. Your bully wants to you to be isolated. Do not isolate yourself.
  • Be proactive around your emotional, mental and physical health. Spend time doing things you enjoy with those you care about.
  • Do what is within your power to dial down a toxic workplace culture. Train your people properly, appreciate and acknowledge their work, provide quality resources. Communicate well and often and show that you value your team.
  • It’s important that your line manager knows that you are being targeted by an upward bully as soon as practicable. Get them onside before the upward bully does. If the bully has already made advances to your manager, get yourself well prepared and call a meeting to give your boss your perspective. Ask for and expect their advice and support. If it’s not forthcoming, you may need to go above their head or find yourself an alternative position where people like you are appreciated, not abused.

upward bullying explained

In this video, I explain the factors that enable upward bullies to take control of a workplace.

Meet Sandra

Author The Upward Bully in the Teaching Profession

I work in the education sector, leading and managing a comprehensive high school on the north coast of New South Wales, Australia.

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Gain accurate  insights into the nature of the upward bully and how to effectively deal with them. While written from the perspective of a leader and manager in the education sector, the issues, scenarios and solutions translate readily to any work situation.

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