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Climbing the Ladder of Incivility: Upward Bullying at Work

1st Jan 2021

As a process, bullying has previously been defined as a, “systemic abuse of power” (Vaillancourt et al., 2010). The word ‘power’ creates a dominant image in mainstream minds of what bullying in the workplace looks like; a shaken subordinate coming to terms with repeated and intentional uncivil behaviours from tyrannical managers.

Despite bullying from superiors to subordinates making up a large proportion of reported cases (TUC, 2019), there is a form of bullying that is often left unanalysed. Seen as, “relatively rare” (CIPD, 2020), upward bullying occurs when employees bully members of staff who are in hierarchical positions of authority (Birks et al., 2014).

Research in the field of bullying has not concluded why this direction of bullying occurs. This may be due to the challenge of accessing organisations for data in this area and some reluctancy from employees to come forward to speak about their experiences. However, Hoel et al. (2001) suggested that some employees may be bullied by subordinates due to their levels of resentment.

For example, if an employee is due to get a promotion but it is given to another colleague, they may see this as fuel to behave in an uncivilised manner towards managerial colleagues. Branch et al. (2004) also suggests that some employees may feel isolated from colleagues, and that this absence of support network and reluctance to ask for help may result in an increased exposure to bullying.

An alternative explanation for upward bullying may be the presence of an incivility spiral. An incivility spiral may occur when an employee feels that their manager has performed unreasonable actions towards them, so look to do the same back to them. If a manager then has a negative emotional reaction due to this behaviour, they may perform another undermining act towards their employee to handle their emotions. This reciprocal pattern of ‘tit for tat’ may continue until an intervention or departure occurs (Anderson and Pearson, 1999).

As with bullying at all levels, upward bullying may have both physical and psychological impacts on those who are exposed to these behaviours (Birks et al., 2014). Research is needed to identify how common upward bullying is and what the full impact is on those who are affected by it. In the meantime, it is clear that more education and support are needed for employees at all levels to understand what constitutes as bullying and an explanation as to why anyone at work can experience it, even if they are in a position of hierarchical power.

For information on how to support employees, take a look at our training programmes for the workplace or visit our information pages.

Written by Jason David Phillips

Jason is a former Public Relations and Communications professional. He is a Trainee Organisational Psychologist looking to support the well-being of employees through his writing at BulliesOut.

Image from Unsplash (https://unsplash.com/photos/ww78Vcb-WZc)



Anderson, L.M., & Pearson, C.M. (1999). Tit for Tat? The Spiraling Effect of Incivility in the Workplace. The Academy of Management Review, 24(3), 452-471. doi: 10.5465/amr.1999.2202131

Birks, M., Budden, L.M., Stewart, L., & Chapman, Y. (2014). Turning the tables: the growth of upward bullying in nursing academia. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 70(8), 1685-1687. doi: 10.1111/jan.12317

Branch, S., Barker, M.C., Sheehan, M.J., & Ramsay, S.G. (2004). Perceptions of Upwards Bullying: An Interview Study, presented at The Fourth International Conference on Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace, Bergen, 2004. Bergen.

CIPD. (2020). Managing conflict in the modern workplace. Retrieved from https://www.cipd.co.uk/Images/managing-conflict-in-the-workplace-1_tcm18-70655.pdf

Hoel, H., Cooper. C.L., & Faragher, B. (2001). The experience of bullying in Great Britain: The impact of organizational status. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 10(4), 443-465. doi: 10.1080/13594320143000780

TUC. (2019). Bullying at Work Guidance for Workplace Representatives. Retrieved from https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/Bullying%20at%20Work%202019.pdf

Vaillancourt, T., McDougall, P., Hymel, S., & Sunderani, S. (2010). Respect or fear? The relationship between power and bullying behavior. In S. R. Jimerson, S. M. Swearer, & D. L. Espelage (Eds.), Handbook of bullying in schools: An international perspective (pp. 211–222). New York: Routledge.

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