Daily Briefing

'Upward bullying': What happens when the boss is bullied?

While workplace bullying can take many forms, it sometimes involves direct reports "upward bullying" their manager. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Ludmila Praslova, Ron Carucci, and Caroline Stokes explain why employees bully "upward," and offer tips to help managers address it.

Ludmila Praslova is a professor of Graduate Programs in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and accreditation liaison officer at Vanguard University of Southern California. Ron Carucci is co-founder and managing partner at Navalent. Caroline Stokes is an expert in business sustainability, people strategy, and executive leadership development.

Why do employees bully 'upward'?

Overall, roughly 14 % of workplace bullying in the United States is "upward" bullying toward managers by direct reports, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI).

According to Praslova, Carucci, and Stokes, "[u]pward bullying often starts with covert behaviors such as withholding information and subtle gaslighting. After eroding some of the bullied supervisor's legitimate authority and psychological resources, bullies escalate to spreading rumors, circumventing, and insubordination, further undermining the target's position and well-being."

Direct reports are sometimes driven to bullying by personal characteristics, including charm or manipulation skills, by nepotistic relationships with their direct managers' supervisors, or by membership in a clique, the authors write. "And wherever there's rampant self-interest and a culture of winning regardless of ethics, you'll find people willing to undermine anyone in their way to get what they want, regardless of where in the hierarchy they reside," they add.

WBI found that the role demographic factors play in bullying is complex. According to WBI, most bullies are men (67%) who target women (58%) more than other men (42%). Women who bully in the workplace (33%) also target other women (65%). However, the cases of men who are bullied by women (11%) cannot be labeled as "unlikely," the authors note.

"Global organizations deal with additional layers of demographic and cultural complexity," the authors write. "However, in most contexts, deviating from the locality's 'power standard' is a risk factor of being targeted."

"High-stress workplaces coupled with societal and political polarization, the increase in feelings of entitlement and their associated interpersonal aggression, and a lack of psychological literacy create a perfect storm of conditions that increase the likelihood of bullying—including upward bullying," they add.

7 steps bullied managers should take

According to Praslova, Carucci, and Stokes, managers being bullied by a direct report should "try to spend some time in a calm environment, away from stressors," and consider these seven things to determine the best course of action:

1. Don't be ashamed

Instead of feeling ashamed of "upward" bullying, managers should bring attention to a direct report's inappropriate behavior as soon as possible

"Someone else's harmful behavior is not a reflection of your leadership — but not doing something about someone else's harmful behavior may become one," they note.

2. Confront the issue

While "[b]urying yourself in work, isolating from important support systems, and downplaying the severity of the issue" may seem more appealing, it "is illusory and short-lived," the authors write.

3. Document your experience

There are several benefits to documenting your trauma, including preventing gaslighting and reframing you own experience to foster learning, healing, and post-traumatic growth, Praslova, Carucci, and Stokes, write.

4. Ask for help

Human resource professionals can help you plan a mediation. "While covert bullies may not welcome such a confrontation or may find ways to play the victim, alerting your HR team is an important step to getting the bully's behavior on record," the authors write.

5. Check your emotions

The authors warn against "ruminating on your resentment of a bully's behavior and your contempt toward yourself and them." Eventually, your resentment may reach a boiling point, leading to an inappropriate reaction.

6. Be prepared to stand up for yourself

While confronting a workplace bully may seem daunting, "under the right conditions, it may be the best thing for both of you," the authors note.

Ultimately, "you're still the boss," they add. "You still have some influence over your bully's career. And bullying behavior is unacceptable—it's not good for you, your team, or the organization."

7. Evaluate whether you should stay or go

It is not a manager's responsibility to "rescue" or "reform" an employee who is behaving like a "malignant, violent, or vindictive bully," the authors write.

In particular, when a next-level manager is colluding with a bully and the environment has become "toxic and anxiety-producing," you should consider whether you should leave the organization, the authors write. "Leaving an unhealthy environment is a victory, not an embarrassment," they add.

4 ways next-level managers can support bullied individuals

If someone you manage is being bullied by their direct reports, Praslova, Carucci, and Stokes suggest these four steps "to prevent committing injustice or becoming a pawn in a Machiavellian plot":

1. Be mindful of 'skip-level meetings'

Most senior leaders have conversations with employees multiple levels below them when the "bosses in the middle" are not present. In these cases, next-level managers should "be judicious with how and when you initiate them," the authors suggest.

2. Listen to concerns and avoid colluding

If an employee who is multiple levels below you requests a meeting to talk about their boss, "that should raise all kinds of red flags," according to the authors.

During these meetings, next-level managers should "[a]sk questions to understand the person's concerns, and find out how they tried to solve the problem," they suggest. 

3. Provide support to your direct report

When a direct report is struggling with a tense relationship with one of their direct reports, next-level managers should assess the situation and provide any necessary support.

Ultimately, "every leader has growth needs, and nobody is equipped to manage every challenging personality," the authors write.

4. Establish a healthy workplace culture

When an employee tries "to undermine others in the organization, regardless of hierarchical direction, it's a clear signal the culture is, in some way, condoning that behavior," the authors write.

To address this, managers should work to "[e]liminate organizational mechanisms that elicit self-serving behaviors, and develop systems to prevent harm," while creating "an inclusive culture that's psychologically safe for everyone," they add. (Praslova et al., Harvard Business Review, 12/8)







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