The stereotypical workplace bully is the aggressive boss demeaning a quiet team member. But bullying is ultimately about power, and positional authority is only one power source. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI), 14 % of all workplace bullying in the U.S. is upward, or bullying of managers by subordinates.
Bullied supervisors have been shown to suffer the same emotional and experiential consequences as other targets: depression, anxiety, loss of confidence, poor health, and often job loss and career derailment. And yet discussing their experiences remains taboo — shrouded in shame, feigned ignorance, and target-blaming.
In a UK branch of an international company, Caroline’s client, Leila,* spent several months trying to unite her product development team. She invited feedback and collective brainstorming, guided team members through the most complicated assignments, stayed late to create samples, and even organized a visioning retreat.
A member of her team, Angel, often stalled on doing the work, feigning confusion and asking the same questions about tasks over and over again: “What exactly is your vision? Is this even necessary? I don’t get how this is supposed to work; you may need to do this yourself.” As a result, Leila started doubting her abilities, despite winning multiple innovation awards and exceeding product launch expectations while leading previous teams.
Leila also had a feeling of “flying blind” — like decisions relevant to her projects seemed to occur above her, based on information she didn’t have. Leila discovered that Angel had circumvented her by going to the next-level manager for decisions, which then were not communicated to Leila but implemented directly by Angel, making it look as if Angel was in charge. She had a feeling that Angel was also smearing her reputation.
When Leila asked her manager, Gemma, why Angel was allowed to come to her for decisions, Gemma chided Leila for her “lack of vision” and criticized her “poor communication” and “weak leadership” — all while praising Angel’s “initiative.” Gemma had never raised these issues with Leila before, but in response to Leila’s questioning, pressured her to resign or be demoted.
Leila’s health and confidence were already impacted by the stress. She ended up resigning. On her last day with the company, she overheard Angel singing, “Victory is mine, the Wicked Witch is gone.”
As Leila was working on sensemaking and reclaiming her confidence from the paralyzing shame, she realized that Angel had wanted the promotion Leila had received, that Angels’s partner worked with Gemma’s partner, and that the feeling of “flying blind” was not something she had imagined — Angel and Gemma were indeed withholding the information.
Unfortunately, Leila’s case isn’t unusual. Upward 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. Typically, bullying by subordinates is enabled by support from the management one or more levels above the targeted supervisor. Angel might have had the motive, but Gemma ensured the bullying outcome.
Why Counter-Stereotypical Bullying Happens
Bullying by subordinates can be fueled by personal characteristics such as charm or manipulation skills, by nepotistic relationships with next-level supervisors, or by membership in a clique. 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.
Research on the role of demographic factors in bullying is complex. WBI reports that most bullies are men (67%) who target women (58%) more than other men (42%). Women bullies (33%) target other women in 65% of cases. Nevertheless, the cases of men bullied by women (11% of all cases) cannot be dismissed as “unlikely.” Hispanic employees report both the highest rates of victimization and higher rates of bullying others, while Asian employees report the lowest levels of both. Other demographics can impact bullying in multiple directions, with younger, older, parent, and non-parent employees reporting being targeted. This indicates that bullying power dynamics are often contextual and idiosyncratic to specific organizations, units, and occupations (e.g., nursing). Global organizations deal with additional layers of demographic and cultural complexity. 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.
How can an individual manager in a complex environment protect their mental health, their unit’s productivity, and their career? Here are a few suggestions.
If You’re a Targeted Manager
Being bullied — from any direction — cases a surge in stress hormones, which makes it hard to think clearly. This “fight” reaction may result in acting rashly, or sometimes we may freeze or fawn (i.e., try to please and keep the peace). Gaslighting further warps our sense of reality and can make us indecisive.
When faced with a difficult situation, try to spend some time in a calm environment, away from stressors, and consider the best course of action. Here are some things to think about:
Don’t give in to shame.
When leaders feel unable to effectively manage a bullying direct report, it’s natural to feel inadequate. One client we worked with described the feeling clearly: “I feel like a failure. What does it say about me when I allow someone I’m supposed to be leading to be so rude?” The shame felt by leaders unable to stand up to those they should lead is intense and creates an urge to cover the situation up.
Resist that temptation. Instead, draw attention to the inappropriate behavior as soon as you can. 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.
Resist the allure of avoidance.
Escaping the pain of being bullied is an understandable temptation. Burying yourself in work, isolating from important support systems, and downplaying the severity of the issue feels like safety but is illusory and short-lived. Not talking to a person you trust allows gaslighting to permeate deeper into your mind.
Write down what’s happening.
Yes, documenting your own trauma while it’s happening is a torturous experience. But taking notes has several benefits. First, covert bullies gaslight — they will likely try to deny events or present an alternative account to you. Having dated notes will help your own mental state and clarity. In addition, if they present an alternative account to other people, dated notes will be priceless.
You can also use the notes to reframe your experience to support learning, healing, and post-traumatic growth. Note things you’ve learned (e.g., “I now know how to recognize gaslighting and covert bullying patterns”) and return later to reflect on your growth (e.g., “I developed a process to help others in a similar situation”).
You may need support from your HR professional or some other resource to 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.
Monitor your accumulating emotions.
Beware ruminating on your resentment of a bully’s behavior and your contempt toward yourself and them. That resentment will boil over — likely at an inopportune moment. You may snap at your bully (and fuel their evidence against you) or at someone else. A professional coach or therapist can help you cope with your emotions and address any possible roots or long-term patterns associated with how others have mistreated you.
Prepare yourself to stand up to your bully.
While confronting someone who is harming you may feel daunting, under the right conditions, it may be the best thing for both of you. Whatever is driving your bully’s behavior ultimately reflects their lack of emotional maturity and health. In some cases, confrontation and subsequent accountability may well be the course correction they need to save their career from derailing when (not if) their bullying behavior backfires.
Remember, you’re still the boss. 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. After all, others likely see what the bully is getting away with. You may need a coach to help you prepare for such a confrontation — to address and channel your emotions, help you with the words to say, and build your confidence. But the strength you will gain will likely spill over into other areas of your leadership.
Decide if it’s time to go.
It is not your responsibility to “rescue” or “reform” a malignant, violent, or vindictive bully at any cost. Your health and safety come first. In particular, if your boss is colluding with your bully and the environment has turned more toxic and anxiety-producing than it’s worth, consider whether staying with this organization is the best option. Leaving an unhealthy environment is a victory, not an embarrassment.
If You’re a Next-Level Manager
At some point, someone you lead may be bullied by their direct reports. Consider these suggestions to prevent committing injustice or becoming a pawn in a Machiavellian plot:
Monitor how you use skip-level meetings.
While senior leaders often hold conversations with people multiple levels below them without the “bosses in the middle” present, be judicious with how and when you initiate them. Using them for group Q&A-type conversations or purely for mentoring younger professionals is usually safest. Be sure to check back in with your direct reports (i.e., their bosses) to discuss anything you’ve heard that might concern them — without violating employee trust.
Listen, learn, and don’t collude.
When people multiple levels below seek you out to talk about their boss, that should raise all kinds of red flags. Their complaints may or may not be legitimate. Ask questions to understand the person’s concerns, and find out how they tried to solve the problem (e.g., speaking directly with their boss, getting guidance from HR, etc). Agree to look further into the situation, but be sure never to sound like you’re agreeing with or confirming their views. You can empathize, saying things like, “I’m sorry you’re having that experience,” but never collude by saying, “How could he do this to you!”
Be aware that research finds that bullying subordinates often involve higher-level managers in order to create cross-level harassment of their supervisors. Don’t gaslight and deny the possibility of problems (after all, statistically, while managers can be targets, they’re more likely to be bullies), but don’t be a pawn, either. Get multiple sides of the story before drawing any conclusions.
Coach and support your direct report.
If your direct report acknowledges a tense relationship with someone they lead, listen with care. If they need leadership development, support them with guidance and resources. If they’re being bullied or gaslit, coach them on handling it. Avoid judging their leadership as weak or ineffective — every leader has growth needs, and nobody is equipped to manage every challenging personality. Investigate, engage HR if appropriate, or bring in an unbiased outside mediation coach. But don’t undermine your direct report’s leadership or confidence by withdrawing your support from them.
Invest proactively in a psychologically healthy culture.
When people work to undermine others in the organization, regardless of hierarchical direction, it’s a clear signal the culture is, in some way, condoning that behavior. Don’t cop out with, “Well, people are human — there’s always a bad apple in the bunch,” as a client of Ron’s once did. Eliminate organizational mechanisms that elicit self-serving behaviors, and develop systems to prevent harm. Build an inclusive culture that’s psychologically safe for everyone.
. . .
Bullying of any kind should never be acceptable in your organization. Upward bullying in insidious, so learn to detect its covert patterns. If you’re a next-level manager, do whatever you can to support your managers who are targeted by manipulative employees. And if you’re a target of such behavior, remember that other people’s gaslighting and egotism are not your fault. Taking care of yourself and your work while overcoming this challenge can take your leadership and personal development to a higher level.
* Names and details have been changed throughout for privacy.