How to protect yourself from upward bullying

- Wednesday, April 27, 2016

 

A quarter of Australian bosses are the targets of upward bullying according to a study conducted by Griffith University. Upward bullying occurs when a manager is subjected to bullying behaviour by their subordinates.   Recent research presented at the 10th International Conference on Workplace Bullying in Auckland last week presented new research on the dynamics of upward bullying.

The study conducted by Eileen Patterson, Sara Branch, Sheryl Ramsay and Michelle Barker investigated the power dynamics of upward bullying cases through qualitative research methods involving semi-structured  interviews with six managers from different levels and industries. The research findings indicate that for upward bullying to occur, the normal power imbalance in favor of the manager or supervisor has to be undermined  and the legitimate authority of the manager has to be diminished or removed.

As I have stated in previous blogs,

“One of the main triggers for upward bullying is organisational change.”

This may be a change of working conditions, management or processes.  The influence of one or two disgruntled, negative employees can be profound.  New managers stepping into entrenched group dynamics stand little chance if the team is determined to make life difficult for the new manager. Employees may blame their manager and respond by bullying them.

Upward bullying has the potential to damage a manager's mental health and well-being.  It can cause psychological stress, anxiety, and even depression.  Managers may also lose confidence in their abilities and feel less satisfied in their jobs. Upward bullying also has the potential to impact the bottom line. It can result in lost productivity, increased absenteeism and higher staff turnover, as well as the cost of intervention programs.  

Bullying of managers is characterised by gossip, back stabbing, disrespect, disobedience and a failure to comply with rules. Bullies will question competence and influence newer staff through misinformation. Strong existing or out-of-office relationships with senior managers can also have a significant negative effect on the ability of a manager to manage.

Patterson et al found that the loss of a manager’s legitimate power was caused by a lack of organisational support or staff members perceiving the manager to be an illegitimate leader. Once this swing in power occurs, the manager becomes vulnerable to bullying behaviour from subordinates. The type of behaviours often inflicted include:

  • use of an organisation’s policies and procedures
  • coercive tactics such as humiliation and intimidation
  • use of expertise or access to information to gain an advantage; and
  • ingratiation to those in important positions to gain access to formal power
Strong support for managers by senior management is critical in preventing upward bullying.  So, let’s say you are a manager and you find yourself in this position with little support and disgruntled employees?   Here are my tips based on the studies so far that might help:
  1. Seek support from your management
  2. Develop and maintain close working relationship with your senior managers and powerful people in the business
  3. Ask for coaching or seek mentors to assist with your self-confidence – you’re going to need it!
  4. Resist fighting back with bullying behaviour towards your team
  5. Don’t make significant changes to existing work practices until you have established your credibility
  6. Find a legitimate way to demonstrate your value to the team – find your thing!
  7. Bluff – it might just be a long game of poker.

Self-confidence, awareness of team dynamics and ability to manage recalcitrant and possibly underperforming staff are necessary in these cases.

So it might be a case of keeping your enemies close, your bosses closer and bluffing your way through until you prove your worth!

Supporting new leaders and managers in your business will go a long way to helping them build and maintain legitimate authority within the workplace. WISE Workplace together with its allied businesses can help you provide the right type of support - be it coaching, leadership skills or managing under adversity. For more information on how we may be able to support legitimate leadership contact 1300 580 685.  

Comments
John Hartigan commented on 27-May-2016 06:15 PM
"These are useful tips ...however also working with clients and understanding often the unconscious use of the "48 Laws of Power" as well as the IR/Political framework, I have found invaluable."
Anonymous commented on 08-Apr-2017 06:04 PM
"In a previous job, i had a female manager, very intelligent but a wimp. I witnessed her been bullied by fellow managers and by girls on her team. This girl would talk down to her at meetings, she wouldn't say goodbye to the manager in the evenings, she would ask other girls what they were doing for lunch and exclude the manager even though they all went together. Another threatened to leave if she didn't promote her and called her a weakling in front of another manager that the female manager was afraid of. To observe how she was intimidated and easily bullied by fellow female managers was shocking"
Anonymous commented on 19-Nov-2017 10:17 PM
"Great tips.

In addition to these, I think it would be important to talk with the employees (in private and find out WHY they are doing what they are doing. Maybe, for instance, there bullying relects some deep-seated form of fear or insecurity about what is going on in their workplace.

Once you properly understand why they are doing what they are doing, you are then in a positiion to talk through with them how their underlying insecurities may be addressed. This is addressing causes of the problem at its core If you can do this, you can knock the legs out from underneath the problem. If you do that, the problem - like a table top - falls flat on the ground."
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