Reverse Bullying in the Workplace

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Bullying in the workplace is not new. Usually, its peers or subordinates who are the target. However, reverse or upwards bullying has consequences that are as just as devastating as any other form of bullying behaviour.

What is reverse/upwards bullying?

When managers are subjected to bullying by subordinates. Seems like a far-fetched concept on the face of it, but why does this happen? Reverse bullying can rear its head in times of uncertainty when staff (and often management) feel insecure. These could be times of restructuring or downsizing, where there is little communication from decision-makers. Causing staff or individuals to vent their frustration on management. Bullying involves the abuse of power, real or perceived, and sometimes the strongest personality might not be the manager.

On the other hand, a manager could also find themselves with a team who inherently spurn instruction and resist the managers leadership of the team.

Reverse bullying is a threat to organisations

Without well-developed policies and procedures, any working environment can become a place where personal agendas supersede productivity, respect and optimal practices. Work teams can become toxic and this attitude can spread throughout the organisation. Certain individuals may continue to push boundaries, and if the problem goes unaddressed the culture of the company will become contaminated.

What is the motivation behind reverse bullying?

Reverse bullying can often be instigated by an agitator seeking to exercise their own power and may try to rope others into joining them. Some people who have a strong need to fit in may either join the bully or protect them by remaining silent.

A reverse bully may be acting a certain way for self-gain. They might have little regard for the reputation or career prospects of any colleagues who join them.

Because the bully has their own workplace agenda, they may promote their own beliefs, values and opinions without consideration for the impact on individuals or the organisation.

Usually, this type of personality feeds off their need to showcase their own power so it’s highly unlikely that they will change their behaviour themselves.

Can strong leadership help prevent reverse bullying?

Definitely, but we must understand what strong leadership means. Organisations may have harsh authoritarian divisions between executives, management and employees. This kind of leadership style is likely to result in an “us vs them” mentality at all levels. A lack of communication fuels distrust and the workplace becomes a fertile breeding ground for bullying at every stage.

On the contrary, strong leadership fosters a culture of inclusivity, transparency and open communication. Policies and procedures are well established and communicated to staff, which in turn, are encouraged to ask questions and give input. Strong leadership can build a positive team culture throughout the organisation and develop open lines of communication.

Staff feel secure, are productive and show their loyalty by supporting management. If someone tries to stir-up trouble against a manger, they’re less likely to get support from their colleagues. Bullies often fill a void created by a lack of strong management and leadership.

Workplace bullying can be addressed successfully

Organisational culture plays a significant role in all workplace bullying, including reverse bullying. If your business has repeated incidents, it may be time to revise your policies around work place behaviour and communicate them to your entire workforce. Everyone must be made aware that all forms of bullying are unacceptable and will not be tolerated under any circumstances and feel empowered to raise their concerns.

In relation to reverse or upwards bullying managers frequently feel that to lodge a complaint or grievance is an admission, to senior management, that they are incapable of handling the situation themselves and that they have therefore failed.

Clear channels and processes to handle any allegations must be established and all staff, including managers must be encouraged to report instances of bullying, including reverse bullying without prejudice.

Depending on the nature of the bullying allegation or complaint, an inquiry, facilitated discussion, mediation or investigation may be appropriate. Great organisations proactively schedule regular staff anti-bullying, harassment and discrimination training as part of their strategy to proactively promote a positive workplace culture and mitigate risk. For over 20 years iHR Australia has been providing specialist workplace training services and industry-leading independent investigation services to support the requirements of its clients.