From 2015 to 2018 I completed my Masters in Education around the topic of upward bullying in the teaching profession. Part of my thesis consisted of a review of current literature coming out of upward bullying research from around the world. I have reproduced the literature review from my thesis below.

Upward Bullying in the Workplace: a literature review


This literature review extends the scope of enquiry beyond previously published articles related to Downward Bullying in the workplace. While the bullying boss is gaining traction as a topic for research, subordinates who bully remain relatively unexposed.

This review is significant in that it opens the conversation around the lack of knowledge, understanding and support for the target of Upward Bullying. It explores the research into the character of both perpetrator and target of Upward Bullying and raises questions about the contextual factors which enable Upward Bullying to occur. Further research into Upward Bullying should reveal the way forward in how to recognise and effectively deal with bullies who destabilise the workplace structure, negatively impact productivity and efficiency and cause significant professional and personal damage to those whose job it is to manage them.


What happens when the schoolyard bully grows up?

While bullying among children and young adults has been recognised and addressed in schools over many years, the extent, manifestation and management of bullying from the schoolyard to the workplace has emerged as problematic in the past twenty years. During the 1990s, researchers in Northern Europe began to identify, examine and evaluate the effects of workplace bullies (Andersson & Pearson, 1999; Kim & Smith, 1993; Leymann, 1996). Workplace bully is now a term that has become well recognised in Western society and it is widely acknowledged as a common hazard of any work environment.

Academic research to date has focused on the study of Downward Bullying, the perpetrator being identified by many as the bullying boss (Cemaloglu, 2011; De Wet, 2011; Killoren, 2014). It is clear from the literature reviewed Downward Bullying is both widespread and deplorable, (Public Service Association of New South Wales, 2013) but contrary to the tenor of this widely used and well respected document, it is not the only form of workplace bullying.

While the existence of Upward Bullying is acknowledged by a significant number of researchers, many concede and some lament that this is an under researched area  (Branch, Ramsay & Barker, 2006; Casimir, McCormack, Djurkovic & Nsubuga-Kyobe, 2012; Zapt 2003) – a number of researchers are dismissive of Upward Bullying, claiming it to be quite insignificant in comparison to downward and Horizontal Bullying (Casimir, McCormack, Djurkovic, & Nsubuga-Kyobe, 2012; Hadikin & O’Driscoll, 2000; Keashly & Harvey, 2006). Others contend that the extent of Upward Bullying is not clear, largely due to substantial difficulties in encouraging managers to disclose their experiences of having suffered bullying at the hands of subordinates (Branch, Ramsay & Barker, 2006; Lee 1997). According to the literature, Upward Bullying may be concealed by the actions of aggressive workers who accuse their supervisors of bullying when they themselves are the bullies, using the system to protect them (Andersson & Pearson, 1999; Ariza, 2011; Durdağı, Isa, & Sinan, 2013; Jenkins, Zapf, Winefield, & Sarris, 2012). It is indisputable that very few academic studies of Upward Bullying have been published[1] therefore little is known about the true nature of Upward Bullying. The findings of existing research will be given close attention with consideration given to areas of both consensus and dispute in the available research to date.

This review will examine the current research into and definitions of what constitutes Upward Bullying (including mobbing) as a subset of the wider phenomenon of workplace bullying. There will be reflection on the paucity of data available as well as an investigation of how some researchers have uncovered a lack of appreciation of the nature of Upward Bullying.  Investigations on the dearth of support, which is currently offered to managers caught up as targets of Upward Bullying, including the insidious practice of mobbing will also be examined.

There is wide consensus, even among researchers who downplay the issue, that Upward Bullying is a multidimensional problem, which could conceivably include individual factors where the nature of a workplace bully can be identified as well as the typical persona of a workplace target (Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996; Cemaloglu, 2011; Glasø, Matthiesen, Nielsen & Einarsen, 2007; Kim & Smith, 1993). However this profiling is reasonably contentious and far from universally accepted. Research on these individual factors will be evaluated as well as studies which explore contextual factors (Andersson & Pearson, 1999; Jenkins et al., 2012; Keashly & Harvey, 2006; Yukl, 1989). These situational factors include the nature of a workplace susceptible to Upward Bullying behaviours and the role that change might play in providing an enabling environment for the Upward Bully. This review will conclude with recommendations for future research directions. So, what is workplace bullying and what forms does it take?

Defining Workplace and Upward Bullying

Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying has been defined as the exposure to negative acts repeatedly over a long period involving intense and frequent aggression towards individuals (Birks, 2014;Branch, 2004; Einarsen, 2000;Hadikin, 2000;Rayner, 2001). The general consensus of researchers is that the intimidation and harassment exists within a structure, whether formal or informal, of a power imbalance between or among perpetrators and targets.

An important aspect of workplace bullying is that the victim or target has real or perceived difficulty in standing up to the bully or bullies and feels unable to defend her or himself (Einarsen, 2000; Hadikin & O’Driscoll, 2000; Leymann, 1996; Rayner, Hoel, & Cooper, 2001; Salin, 2003). This feeling of powerlessness is often interpreted as a worker’s reaction to a bullying boss and such a stereotypical generalisation could well be part of the reason that Upward Bullying has remained largely unexamined.

The vast majority of studies examined for this paper are agreed that for actions to be considered as workplace bullying they must have occurred not as a one off incident, nor as a few occurrences, but generally persisted over a period of not less than six months. Occurrences need to be regular and repeated in order to be considered as bullying (Andersson & Pearson, 1999; Einarsen, 2000; Glasø, Matthiesen, Nielsen, & Einarsen, 2007; Kristensen, Hannerz, Høgh, & Borg, 2005; Leymann, 1996; Salin, 2003) and where the bully is successful in getting away with their behaviours, bullying is likely to escalate in intensity and frequency and thus become more widespread across the workplace (Einarsen, 2000; Salin, 2003).

Researchers identify three types of workplace bullying: 1) Downward Bullying, whereby a supervisor or boss or member of the executive team intimidates, harasses or is aggressive towards one or a number of subordinates, 2) Horizontal Bullying between members of a workgroup with formally equal standing, and 3) Upward Bullying whereby the supervisor or boss is the target of unpleasant and degrading attacks from members of the workforce (Ståle, Einarsen, Hoel, Zapf, & Cooper 2003; Zapf & Gross, 2001). The following section describes the three categories of workplace bullying in more depth.

Downward Bullying

Downward Bullying is perceived as the most often reported, usually by self-report (Ståle et al. 2003). By inference, this is seen as the most frequent form of workplace bullying, although a common thread in the research is that Upward Bullying may be hidden in the workplace for a variety of reasons and is deserving of a great deal more attention from academics (Ariza-Montes, Muniz R, Leal-Rodríguez, & Leal-Millán, 2014; Branch, Sheehan, Barker, & Ramsay, 2004; Lee, 1997). It is also a concern that most reports of bullying are self-reported and there is a complexity associated with all forms of bullying in the workplace which would suggest that self-reporting is not necessarily an accurate way of collecting data.

Horizontal Bullying

Also known as lateral bullying or inter-group conflict, the research indicates that Horizontal Bullying shares the attributes of Downward Bullying while attracting even less research attention than Upward Bullying.[2] Casimir et al. (2012) in their study – Psychosomatic model of workplace bullying: Australian and Ugandan schoolteachers devote a single sentence to the practice of Horizontal Bullying. They state that the target and the perpetrator of Horizontal Bullying “have equal hierarchical status” (Casimir et. al., 2012 p. 413). However it is suggested by some researchers that informal power imbalances make the target susceptible to bullying by a peer or a mob of peers (Davenport, 1999; Leymann, 1996).

Upward Bullying

Upward Bullying has attracted less research than Downward Bullying and appears more complex and multifaceted than either horizontal or Downward Bullying – consideration needs to be given to workgroup conflicts, power imbalances and challenging workplace environments (Branch, Ramsay, & Barker, 2006). While much of the research has some significance with regard to the existence of Upward Bullying, this is scant in comparison to the more popular focus on bosses who bully their staff members.

Somewhat surprisingly, astudy into the cultural context of bullying (Casimir et al., 2012) disregards its own evidence of Upward Bullying amongst teachers in Australia and Uganda which according to the figures presented has a rate of 13% in an Australian school and a weighty 22% in a Ugandan school. This contradicts the researchers’ argument that Ugandan people, living in a high power distance society are more accepting of an autocratic and authoritarian boss and much less likely than Australians to take on formal authority figures. Other studies place the percentage of bosses having experienced bullying by members of staff at as much as 66% of a small group of twenty four managers (Jenkins et al., 2012) and just under 33% in a study of two hundred and forty two nursing students and lecturers (Mintz-Binder & Calkins, 2012). These results seem to contradict each other, perhaps due to the small sample size of one study and conceivably the focus on a specific workplace environment of the other.  

Upward Bullying seems to be a hidden issue for a number of reasons. Managers may be bullied by staff in more subtle ways than the manner in which bosses bully workers. It is apparently common for key personnel who are bullies to withhold information and to curtail communications with their supervisors (Branch et al., 2006). This practice is closely linked to mobbing whereby groups of workers acting as a combined force are able to systematically and repeatedly target bosses or senior colleagues. When the boss is the target, mobbing results in a widespread dysfunctional culture in the workplace (Einarsen, 2000). From these readings, it could be presumed that mobbing is the natural progression from successful efforts by a single Upward Bully – an escalation of sustained uncivil behaviour in the workplace.

Upward Bullying may be concealed by misuse of the formal grievance systems in place to assist staff dealing with a bullying manager. Certainly such widely used guidelines as the Charter of Dignity and Respect in the Workplace (Public Service Association of New South Wales, 2013) mistakenly assume that workplace bullying is the province of bosses alone. It can be that reasonable requests by supervisors are construed or misrepresented by disengaged staff members so that they position themselves as the victim rather than the perpetrator of bullying. The result of this can be that managers become wary of addressing performance issues (Branch et al., 2006). Managers can become stressed and anxious, knowing that in doing the right thing, they are exposing themselves to malicious attacks. “I had to force myself to discipline staff and would keep in mind that tolerating bad performance was…unfair” (Jenkins et al., 2012 p. 5). From these observations, it is reasonable to suggest that workplace supervisors can be damned if they do, damned if they don’t when enforcing reasonable work expectations on difficult members of staff.

Managers interviewed by Branch et al. (2004) were concerned that grievances against them could impact their careers; that tackling Upward Bullying would expose them further and that to seek support and assistance when bullied would harm their standing and future promotional prospects.  Lee (1009) found that managers tended to assert that dealing with difficult members of staff was just part of their workload and they should be able to handle Upward Bullying without support . Conversely, Mintz-Binder & Calkins (2012) found that new managers were targeted at a higher rate than more experienced managers. However this finding could be inaccurate due to more experienced managers not wishing to be seen as incompetent in handling staff. The results are directly contradictory to Einarsen (2000) who considers more experienced managers to be targeted more often. Nonetheless, more research is needed that focuses comparatively on newer and longer term bosses in order to uncover any potential patterns of perpetrators in selecting their targets.

A common thread in the literature revealed researchers doubted the validity of claims of workplace bullying because much of it was self-reported. Many researchers identified the possibility of staff members creating a fallacy to mask their own lack of work ethic or willingness to move forward with changing workplace practices as skewed evidence. There is of course the potential for participants to adapt a victim mentality. Branch et al. (2006) identify the possibility of a trend towards unfairly blaming supervisors for workplace toxicity or instability. There is a very plausible likelihood that inaccurate self-reporting of bullying may well skew research data as noted by Ariza-Montes et al. (2014). Closed question techniques will result in closed answer responses and thus yield unreliable data. For example, asking people who have self-identified as targets of workplace bullying to respond to questionnaires and interviews set up through social media or without provisional ethics approval may skew results and discourage valuable contextually extended comments where the central theme is ‘Have you ever been bullied at work?’ More accurate research might be achieved by addressing what would appear to be a lack of knowledge, understanding and support.

The Lack of Knowledge, Understanding and Support

A Lack of Knowledge

Upward Bullying is ignored or simply mentioned in passing by a number of researchers, giving the reader the impression that it is of little concern (Kim & Smith, 1993: Namie & Namie, 2009). A number of studies undertaken by Casimir et al., (2012), Namie & Namie, (2009), Riley, Duncan, & Edwards, (2012); van der Valk, (2015) and Zapf, (2003) use a version of self-referral for data collection. Within these studies there is too often a tendency for loaded questions, which lend themselves towards identifying bullying bosses rather than other bullies in the workplace. For example, Riley et. al. (2012) employed a questionnaire that put forward forty four questions to participants about bullying scenarios in the workplace. Twenty-eight of these questions relate to hierarchical positions within the school that assume bullying is connected to a formal power imbalance. For instance, statements that required a graded response such as:  1) Tasks are set with unreasonable or impossible targets or deadlines, 2) Your concerns about unfair treatment, bullying and harassment are dismissed and 3) Recognition, acknowledgement and praise are withheld, appear to be weighted towards identifying Downward Bullying. .

Although the sample size of eight hundred participants is impressively large, this survey may have been designed to confirm preconceived notions about what constitutes bullying in the workplace and who the perpetrators might be. Studies that target participants who see themselves as victims revealed that 99.6% of these respondents said they had experienced some form of bullying during their employment and that this bullying had been perpetrated by people in management positions. While the survey clearly identified the significance Downward Bullying has in the workplace it is argued the purpose of the questions have little strength in highlighting awareness of Upward Bullying and lack any scope of capturing valid data for identifying Upward Bullying.

While Namie and Namie’s (2009) wide ranging US Workplace Bullying Survey 2007 focused primarily on Downward Bullying, this study of seven thousand seven hundred and forty participants reported that 10% of bullies in the workplace could be identified as subordinates. Again, this is a reasonably significant number, given that the thrust of the survey was to pinpoint misbehaviours by bosses. An interesting aspect of their results showed that where Upward Bullying was identified, female workers were more often the perpetrators and that male bosses were more often bullied by female subordinates than any other configuration. These male bosses were the least likely to complain of being bullied. This may be due to concerns by these male bosses of being perceived as weak and unsuitable for their managerial role or a fear of damaging their future prospects of promotion (Branch et al., 2004; Lee, 1997; Mintz-Binder & Calkins, 2012). It has also be argued in this paper that male bosses tend to shy away from making complaints about female workers for fear of being tangled up in a fraudulent accusation of sexist behaviour.

Conversely, the first Australian national study of the work environment of the associate degree nursing program found that 33% (77 individuals) of nursing directors questioned had been bullied within a twelve month timeframe and they identified the main offenders as being their subordinates in the program (Mintz-Binder & Calkins, 2012). This is a significant percentage, however it is across a fairly small sample of respondents in a rather specialised field and thus ought not be generalised to the broader population. While these results may be alarming for the nursing population, more studies need to be undertaken across different organisations to form a general picture about the situation. Clearly the call from researchers for more attention to the area of Upward Bullying is one worth heeding (Ariza, 2011; Birks, Budden, Stewart, & Chapman, 2014; Branch et al., 2006; Durdağı et al., 2013).

A Lack of Understanding

There are times when managers try to enforce unpopular work practices because they are attempting to implement new policy. Middle managers seem to be to some extent more often targeted in this situation, known as management squeeze whereby they are pressured from both above to get their team to perform and from below as a calculated act of resistance (Ariza-Montes et al., 2014). According to their study, those above middle management level seem less likely to be bullied, but almost one third of those upper executive staff surveyed in this study of over six hundred and fifty managers identified Upward Bullying towards them over a three year period. These figures suggest the possibility of a lack of understanding of the stresses on managers due to the largely unacknowledged and therefore unaddressed practice of Upward Bullying.

Bottom up mobbing behaviours are more common in schools than in other organisations, according to Durdağı et al. (2013), a Turkish study of sixty school principals.  However their claim that mobbing in educational institutions is more common compared to all other workplaces would appear somewhat hyperbolic and difficult to substantiate. Given the study’s context was in education with no comparisons made between other organisations, I would suggest the study presents a weak argument in relation to their depth of understanding of the nature of workplaces other than the education sector.

As recognition of workplace bullying increases and with it the structures and processes to combat it, it is ironic that the declaration of having been bullied by a boss can be used as a weapon with which to initiate or maintain a process of Upward Bullying (Einarsen, 2000). A manager is in a very ‘tricky’ position when simultaneously attempting to defend him or herself from an Upward Bully while at the same time contesting malicious claims of bullying made by that individual or mob of bullies. A key element of workplace bullying is the perpetrator’s ability to reduce the recipient’s capacity to defend her or himself (Einarsen, 2000). The workplace grievance process can be long and gruelling and is easily abused to prevent disciplinary action or mediation by a manager in dealing with Upward Bullies (Branch et al., 2004).  “If I told him anything he would interpret as negative he would…rant, yell, rave…he would try to intimidate me” according to one participant in the study by Jenkins et al., (2012 p. 9). While the majority of studies of workplace bullying focus on the more accepted notion of  the boss as a Downward Bully, the insidious practice of the Upward Bully hiding behind the protection of workplace structures and norms is potentially more widespread than current research would indicate.

Nonetheless, incivility in the workplace can spiral into more intense behaviour on the part of both supervisors and their subordinates, so that a tipping point is reached. This cycle of revenge and conflict escalation where “one person mocks another; the second responds with an obscene insult” (Andersson and Pearson, 1999 p. 458) creates conditions ripe for both upward and Downward Bullying to occur (Kim & Smith, 1993). There has been, according to their Revenge and conflict escalation paper, comparatively modest theoretical and empirical attention paid to the reasons for escalation of coercive and uncivil behaviour in the workplace, despite strong evidence that spirals of incivility exist.  Further work on Upward Bullying could conceivably encompass a focus on the spiral of incivility identified by these researchers.

A Lack of Support

It would appear the likelihood of a supervisor being a target of Upward Bullying may increase with certain factors, which include job insecurity and dissatisfaction, frustration with a perceived lack of adequate remuneration and working in a job that can be extremely emotionally demanding. Targets tend not to have a strong familial or social support network (Ariza, 2011). Under these adverse conditions, it is unsurprising that the Upward Bully is able to reduce the target’s ability to shield her or himself from attack. The Upward Bully is finely attuned to choosing a victim who is vulnerable in this way (Einarsen, 2000).

Jenkins et al., (2012) have found that managers are unlikely to report Upward Bullying behaviours, for fear that their complaints would lead to an accusation they were not doing their job properly in managing the personnel under their supervision. Rather than reporting and gaining support from senior management, the target of Upward Bullying fears that reporting a situation will put them in a more aggravated position, with further isolation and erosion of both their formal and informal power (Branch et. al. 2006). These factors justify the supposition that Upward Bullying may so far have been considerably under-reported and consequently under-recognised.

In one of the few available research papers dealing exclusively with Upward Bullies, Branch et al. (2004) assert that a common practice of Upward Bullies is to bypass their direct supervisor and take malicious complaints higher up the managerial ladder, so that the first the supervisor knows of a problem from the Upward Bully is when their senior manager or federation representative confronts them with the details of the allegation. While a scant eighteen managers were interviewed for this study, there is firm support in other research to verify that more senior staff may be enlisted by the Upward Bully in order to weaken the power base of their supervisor and shore up their own informal influence on workplace interactions (Ariza, 2011; Durdağı et al., 2013; Einarsen, 2000; Riley et al., 2012). One third of the eighteen managers interviewed identified as having been targets of this isolating practice, with the result that they felt undermined and unsupported from above as well as attacked from below in the “managerial squeeze” situation identified by Ariza (2011).

The lack of support for the target of Upward Bullying may well stem partly from the difficulty in distinguishing between a target and a perpetrator in cases of workplace bullying. There can be culpability on both (or all) sides and truths may easily be blurred over time (Andersson & Pearson, 1999; Einarsen, 2000; Jenkins et al., 2012; Riley et al., 2012). Upward Bullying is indeed a multifaceted, complex and elusive concept to accurately capture and track. It might be possible from this complicated phenomenon to define the nature of the bullies and the bullied by examining specific character traits of both.

Character traits

The Perpetrator

Some studies have identified particular character or personality trains in Upward Bullies.

The Upward Bully may well be a person with particular character traits; high rather than low self-esteem, tending to the narcissistic, with little self-concept recognition. These people are alleged to use anger and aggression as bullying tactics on their bosses (Baumeister et al., 1996; Stucke & Sporer, 2002). These are the types of bullies who push back against a boss who initiates disciplinary action upon them or undertakes a mediation process to deal with their poor or unacceptable workplace behaviours or performances. The push back – resisting or opposing the perceived enemy – may occur in the form of aggression only or aggression combined with malicious grievance procedures against the supervisor, therefore taking the focus away from themselves as bullies in the workplace (Branch et al., 2004).

The Upward Bully may be a person very confident in their informal power in the workplace, to the point that they openly erode the formal power of their supervisor through such practices as withholding important information, failing to attend meetings either on time or at all, failing to meet deadlines, sniping in public forums and spreading spiteful gossip about their victim (Branch et al., 2004). A number of participants in their Perceptions of upwards bullying: An interview study referred to the Upward Bully’s behaviours as a game. These disrespectful actions by an individual Upward Bully may lead to an environment conducive to mobbing behaviours of staff towards their bosses (Durdağı et al., 2013). So where bullying goes unchecked, it seems reasonable to consider that the perpetrator may gain confidence to recruit others to their cause.

A lack of ability to agree with or concede to the opinions of those in higher authority, a grudge against someone who got the job they thought should be theirs or a different and subversive agenda to that of company or department direction can all fire the Upward Bully into action (Nicholls, 2015). These are people who are “…power hungry and they like the feeling that they can come in there…and torment a bunch of people.” (van der Valk, 2015 p. 5). These bullies may in fact have serious personality disorders, however apart from some brief mention of narcissistic tendencies in a couple of the studies, there is no exploration of any other types of personality disorder in the research under review. While the purpose of this literature review is not directly related to unpacking personality types and personality disorders, a larger study focusing on this aspect, as contributing factors to the problem of bullying in the workplace, could yield a very informative investigation.

Individuals with a lot of influence can punish a work supervisor via social exclusion. Where they can withhold knowledge, they can exert power by making it difficult for their bosses to perform their role effectively. Subtle behaviours may escalate over time so that bullying moves from covert to overt in a downward spiral of uncivil behaviour that is not adequately addressed and corrected (Branch et al., 2004; Kim & Smith, 1993). This act of social exclusion could be a very powerful method of controlling and harming a target.

The Target

The typical target of Upward Bullying can be difficult to pinpoint partly due to individual perceptions of what constitutes bullying. Younger managers may tend to see behaviours labelled by older managers as bullying to be harmless fun, a rite of passage rather than poor interactions that should not be tolerated (Einarsen, 2000). Conversely Birks et al. (2014) in their study Turning the tables: The growth of Upward Bullying in nursing academia contest that Upward Bullying is aimed more at younger, than older managers. This study focuses on workers in the same position, namely Directors of Nursing who are tasked with teaching subordinate staff within their faculties, whereas Einarsen’s data is more wide ranging across professions and can offer more general insights.

There is evidence to suggest that the character traits of particular types of victims of Upward Bullying may well develop after bullying has commenced, rather than be a consequence of a pre-existent condition which attracts the bully to them (Lee, 1997). Given the research identifies Upward Bullies as self-confident and powerful, it might be safe to assume that they would attack any boss who threatened their power base. How that boss reacts might well be the catalyst for further bullying episodes.

In their study of three hundred and sixty eight Austrian public hospital employees, Glasø et al. (2007) found that around one third of participants displayed a general victim personality profile. These participants were more introverted, more disagreeable, more lackadaisical in their approach to their work, more emotionally unsettled and more closed to new experiences. Given that two thirds of the participants studied did not show any of these tendencies, the indications from this data are that a general victim type may not exist. On the other hand there is a plausible notion that a vicious circle might be in play, where the target becomes increasingly more vulnerable and predisposed to further attacks. The study itself concedes that the emergence of a group of more neurotic and introverted targets may well be due to the bullying endured, rather than a reason for that bullying to occur, although other research suggests targets of Upward Bullying tend toward introversion, neuroticism and submissiveness (Coyne, Seigne, & Randall, 2000). Two other subgroups emerged – the disappointed and depressed which may be a result of bullying rather than an antecedent and the common group, which seems to be a random collection of all the rest of the participants surveyed. However the authors have drawn no firm conclusions on this data.

Other personalities that may be typical of targets of Upward Bullies include people who may be difficult to work with and as a result are generally disliked. It is suggested that isolation and resentment on the part of managers who are perceived as different and who have poor organisational skills are more likely to give rise to episodes of Upward Bullying (Branch, Ramsay & Barker, 2006). There is a propensity in some departments or companies to attempt to remove supervisors who are generally thought of as difficult or unpopular (Salin, 2003). On the other hand, managers who cope well with workplace bullying, defusing conflict and using less confrontational strategies for managing bullies, were able to de-escalate the conflict between themselves and the perpetrator (Zapf & Gross, 2001), so it could conceivably be extrapolated from this study that managers who have poorly developed emotional intelligence i.e.  the ability to identify, assess, and control one’s own emotions, the emotions of others, and that of groups (Goleman, 1996) are less likely to be capable of defusing or deflecting Upward Bullying.

Parallel to these human factors , there may well be contextual factors supporting Upward Bullying in the workplace.

Contextual Factors

The Toxic Workplace

Researchers make a link between a toxic environment in the workplace and the prevalence of Upward Bullying. There is a reasoned suggestion that where bullies are allowed to flourish, the atmosphere in the workplace deteriorates (Keashly & Harvey, 2006) and a counter argument that a noxious workplace will enable bullying to develop (Andersson & Pearson, 1999).  A third plausible proposition is that there exists a bidirectional relationship. People who have recognised upwards bullying in the workplace have identified the symbiotic existence of a dysfunctional work environment (Branch et. al. 2006). It is difficult to pinpoint which one comes first.

The literature suggests a stressed, heavy work environment will lend itself to fostering Upward Bullying. Upward Bullying may also flourish in an environment where roles are ambiguous and demands are incompatible with expertise, generating conflict and frustration (Birks et al., 2014; Einarsen, 2000; Jenkins et al., 2012). While there are some workplace stresses that cannot be changed, there are organisational ways and means of dealing with stresses in an orderly manner, for example regular open and transparent communication; recognition and celebration of achievements; acknowledgement and appreciation of both team and individual efforts which the research suggests could turn around incidences of Upward Bullying. Conversely, there has been a link established between authoritarian leadership and Upward Bullying. Where staff members feel that they have little or no influence on issues that concern their work, they may react by bullying the supervisor, whom they regard is to blame for the situation (Vartia, 1996). Again, the research suggests that with goodwill and guidance, these practices can be changed in order to alter the workplace to one where Upward Bullying has difficulty maintaining traction.

In departments and faculties where office politics thrive, Upward Bullying may become part of the culture and cement itself into the custom and practice of the work environment to a point where both the target and the bully feel themselves to be pawns in the system (Salin, 2003).  Where the pressure to perform is high, sabotage by employees of a high achieving supervisor can occur. Those bosses who raise the standard and expect top performances from their subordinates can be deliberately punished via Upward Bullying, to the point where they may be expelled from the organisation, frustrated and defeated (Neuman & Baron, 1998; Salin, 2003). In a Finnish study of three hundred and eighty five managers, Salin (2003) found a positive correlation between Upward Bullying and toxic or dysfunctional office politics. High achieving executive team members were routinely punished for their high expectations of their staff in order to uphold practices of self-interest for the bullies. The assertion is made that Upward Bullying can be seen at least in part as a purposeful and aggressive tactic in companies and departments wherein there is a high degree of expectation of competence as well as a great deal of rivalry among members of staff, both executive and non-executive. It is a cultural problem and one which will not change without a great deal of effort and goodwill on the part of senior management.

Change Management

An emerging key contributing factor in relation to bullying involves technology and professional development. The nature of twenty first century advancements decree how we communicate both within and across departments and companies. Organisational restructuring resulting from modern technology such as the rollout of new software which requires the development of specific workskills in staff at all levels has inarguably increased the formal power gap between management and employees, which of course can promote Downward Bullying (Ariza-Montes et al., 2014; Hearn & Parkin, 2001; Vaez, Ekberg, & LaFlamme, 2004). However these studies do not take into account the ability of workers with expertise to withhold information from less technologically skilled managers. These critically important experts can therefore bully their bosses by denying them the opportunity to upgrade their skills and understanding of modern processes and practices (Branch et al., 2004; Kim & Smith, 1993; Nicholls, 2015). 

Twenty first century changes impact upon all organisations and it is argued that unless leaders adopt a transformational approach, organisational health can decline. In a study of five hundred secondary and primary, public and private teachers in Turkey, Cemaloglu (2011) found that unless a deliberate and cultivated transformational approach to change was maintained by principals, staff tended to blame the boss for unwelcome or poorly understood change and proceeded to bully them. In times where change is inevitable and thrust upon the underprepared worker with a loss of real or perceived rights, it is thought that the reaction may be to resist by blaming the bosses and bullying them in retaliation for the stress they are believed to have caused (Davenport, Distler-Schwartz, & Pursell-Elliott, 1999; Jenkins et al., 2012).

While there is little doubt that pressures from the global community lead to an amplification of pressures to be more efficient within organisations, it appears that these pressures also lead to increased competition for a shrinking number of managerial positions, with heightened internal competition and subsequently an atmosphere of retaliation and sabotage of those successful in gaining promotional positions (Salin, 2003). Related to this, efficiencies in running costs, including downsizing, layoffs and pay cuts have been seen as considerably influential in the growth of an antagonistic workforce (Neuman & Baron, 1998).

Where changes occur without effective communication from upper management to middle management and subsequently from middle management to workers, it is claimed that the conditions are suitable for Upward Bullying, especially mobbing, to gain momentum. Where a workplace is poorly prepared for change and management is not well informed or disinterested, subordinates are likely to feel justified in blaming their bosses and that they have the right to punish them (Leymann, 1996).  These assertions seem reasonable and well considered. While the solution appears to be simple, it is nonetheless not in any way easy.

Upward Bullying might be effectively addressed when we are able to increase our knowledge and understanding of this form of workplace bullying. In recognising the character traits and contextual factors that foster Upward Bullying, researchers may be able provide valuable data to inform future workplace practices.


Bullying in the workplace has captured an increasing interest from researchers worldwide since the 1990s. While the existence of Upward Bullying in the workplace has been acknowledged, it has been generally sidelined from most research into bullying since this time. This may be explained by the more widespread prevalence of Downward Bullying, making it an issue of greater concern to researchers. Perhaps similarly to the prevalence of misandry compared to misogyny, Upward Bullying may not have the popular traction that Downward Bullying commands.  There are few studies of Upward Bullying as a phenomenon and those that do exist often display a paucity of data from questionably selected participants. More studies of Upward Bullying need to be made in order to provide greater understanding of this phenomenon, this understanding leading to prevention strategies. 

Future studies should be undertaken using reliable test instruments, for example open-ended questioning of appropriately selected respondents, so to avoid skewed data and closed responses. To attain more accurate data, future research needs to avoid loaded data collection methodology. It is not enough to encourage people who believe they have been bullied to answer questionnaires. These people are not truly representative samples of the target population. Populations must be more widely selected in large enough numbers, in order to encompass an adequate range of respondent perceptions and research questions must be carefully considered to prevent leading the witness.

The practice of using tertiary students as convenient survey candidates should be avoided. While there is evidence that Upward Bullying thrives in student/lecturer relationships (Birks, 2014; Mintz-Binder, 2012), this is not directly comparable to what happens in the workplace where subordinates and supervisors routinely work together over more lengthy periods of time. Studies that mix professional with student respondents (Ariza, 2011) would not appear to be totally focused on workplace bullying so much as on getting a large number of responses quickly and easily. Results from such research is not likely to be as useful as studies which can be focused solely on bullying in the workplace.

While some research has given insight into the possibility of a target type, (Glasø, 2007; Kim, 1993; Rayner, 2001), there has been very little focus on the probability of specific types of people who might be typical of Upward Bullies, apart from Jenkins (2012). With the briefest mention of narcissism and other disorders perhaps being indicators of the nature of the Upward Bully (van der Valk, 2015) this is an area for further investigation.

Until we are able to increase our accurate knowledge and understanding of the manifestation, extent and conditions which promote Upward Bullying, we are limited in the amount of support we can offer to targets. Further research, particularly involving senior departmental employees who have had wide ranging opportunities to experiences and reflect on Upward Bullying should help to identify where Upward Bullying occurs and it will then be possible to understand and manage this form of bullying in order to improve professional relationships and environments to benefit of all members of the workforce.


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[1] Searches for “upward* bull*” AND “workplace bull*” OR “Bullying by employee OR “adult bully*” NOT “student” on EBSCO, Informit, ProQuest and Google Scholar returned 26, 7, 20 and 37 results respectively, only 21 of which were published in peer reviewed journals.

[2] Searches on Google Scholar for Horizontal Bullying and lateral bullying result in the top 30 searches dominated by bullying in the nursing sector and in the schoolyard.