Upward Bullies; a Hidden Menace in Our Schools

Upward bullying is the misuse of personal power in the workplace with the express intent of harming a leader.
Transparency and communication are the best ways to deal with adult bullying.

What is Upward Bullying?
When we think about bullying in schools, our first thoughts tend to go to student-on-student bullying, which has been the at the forefront of research, policy development and school practices for more than 50 years. In the past 30 years, however, adult workplace bullying has also gained the attention of both academics and employers, albeit with a clear predisposition to downward bullying; bosses who bully their staff. Downward bullying is an overt, easily identified and measured form of bullying. Formal and informal grievance procedures that allow classroom teachers the means to stand up to downward bullies in our schools are well established.  Two other forms of adult bullying have been identified in this time; lateral or horizontal bullying (peer-to-peer) and upward bullying (bullying the boss). Unlike instances of downward and lateral bullying, upward bullying has been misrepresented, downplayed and ignored, despite it being a major problem across the helping professions, including police, nurses, paramedics and teachers.  It is a complex phenomenon, controversial and impossible to ignore, but poorly understood, under acknowledged and managed inconsistently at a systems level.

Upward bullying is the misuse of personal power in the workplace with the express intent of harming a leader, manager or supervisor in a position of formal authority over the bully.  In a school context, this could be a faculty head teacher, stage leader, assistant or deputy principal or, in an increasing number of cases, the school principal. 

Over a 12-year period, Philip Riley’s longitudinal Principal Occupational Health and Wellbeing Survey of school leaders in Australia, Ireland and New Zealand has provided ample evidence of the extreme stresses of the principal’s job. The unreasonable professional and personal demands, depressive symptoms and burnout suffered by school leaders are shown to be significantly higher than in the general population. Principals have been consistent in identifying offensive workplace behaviour as a major stressor with adult-to-adult bullying reported at more than four times the rate of the general population.

If you have a member of staff who covertly or overtly attempts to intimidate or harass you, if they try to draw you into a power play, if they are repeatedly negative towards or about you, you have an upward bully to deal with. Not only that, but you are also likely to have additional members of staff manipulated by the bully participating in mobbing behaviours against you and a further group of bystanders who see, hear and say nothing in a state of learned helplessness, giving tactic support to the upward bully bent on bringing down their workplace manager.

Who are These People and What do They do?
Myths surrounding the nature of the upward bully stand in the way of effectively dealing with them. It is important to understand that adult bullies are not socially inept. They do not lack confidence and they do not subconsciously admire the target of their aggression, nor do they secretly want to emulate or befriend them.  Their actions are not misguided attempts to achieve the greater good. Upward bullies thrive on conflict and enjoy wrong footing authority figures.

Upward bullies have a highly developed sense of self-worth and put a great deal of effort into being the seat of informal (personal) power in the workplace. They have little to no regard for authority (positional power) and have no hesitation in taking on any school leader whose agenda does not align with their own. Your skills, experience, age, ethnicity and gender have no influence on their motivation, but they could influence the way in which the upward bully executes their plan to unseat you.

There are two distinct types of upward bully. The first is the justified bully. They are change resistors who believe strongly in the aspects of custom and practice that suit the comfortable position they have created for themselves. They rationalise their unprofessional behaviours by citing convention, clinging to ‘the way we’ve always done it’. They claim ownership of the workplace, seeing themselves as belonging to the school and the school belonging to them.  They look for ways to position their target as an outsider, who will never understand how things are done here and therefore should not be respected, accepted nor complied with. Justified bullies may respond positively to careful and considered management, which might include mediation, consultation and well-structured disciplinary measures.

Entitled bullies are a more difficult prospect and unfortunately entitlement is a growing societal trend, heightened by the impact of COVID, unprecedented natural disasters and widespread human conflicts. The entitled bully has low self-concept and lacks the ability or inclination to self-reflect. The intensity of their hostility towards those they perceive to have wronged them tends to be disproportionate to what the issue would seem to demand. Unshakeably self-righteous, the entitled upward bully will put serious effort into eroding the credibility of a school leader who has dared to criticise or attempt to supervise their work practices. While the justified bully ultimately wants to be left in peace, the entitled bully is more likely to actively sabotage, socially exclude and maliciously accuse their target.  

An upward bully may opt for a covert form of bullying including; failure to meet deadlines, neglecting to impart specialist information or making themselves unavailable to attend meetings. Should this approach not achieve the desired results or, conversely, if the bully is emboldened by the impact on their target, they may progress to a more overt approach; challenging their boss in open forums, spreading rumours, organising a mob and pushing other members of staff into a bystander role, whereby the workplace culture becomes increasingly toxic. When the school culture is poisoned by such means, it becomes difficult for anyone on the outside looking in to understand where the real problem is and who is responsible for it. In these circumstances, the school leader can find themselves in a high-risk situation as the upward bully is well positioned to convince higher authorities that they themselves are the victim, rather than the perpetrator, of bullying in the workplace. A malicious grievance process instigated by the upward bully against their principal, deputy or head of department will trigger increased and sometimes unbearable professional and personal stressors on the school leader.

Why is Upward Bullying Misrepresented and Under Reported?
For too long, dealing with upward bullies has been dismissed as simply part of our staff management role. The effective supervision of difficult staff has been downplayed and normalised as a distasteful but necessary burden of the leadership position. When we are faced with an upward bully, the strong inclination and expectation is to deal with it ourselves rather than self-identify as being a target. None of us want to be perceived by our colleagues or our supervisors as incompetent or unsuited to our current or future roles.  

Sometimes, school leaders don’t report being bullied by staff members because they mistakenly feel a sense of shame. They turn the situation inward, blaming themselves for their perceived inability to deal with bullying behaviours. They wonder what it is about themselves or their behaviours that has caused someone to flout their authority or dislike them. Leaders who suffer in silence risk developing a victim mindset, becoming increasingly risk averse and disappointed, operating at the most basic capacity and most disturbingly, slipping into a depressive state.  Others may unwisely choose to channel their very own inner bully, and go head-to-head with the perpetrator, a debilitating and character destroying option.  Both the overwhelmed leader and those who strike back will face considerable difficulties, drawn into a battle orchestrated by the upward bully, increasingly losing support from their school community and supervisors.

Under reporting plays directly into the hands of the upward bully, who thrives where there is a lack of transparency and communication. Every person in a leadership position can expect to be inappropriately challenged by a subordinate and it is how we respond to bullying behaviours that will determine how subsequent interactions will unfold.

Responding to Upward Bullying in the Teaching Profession
In her recent article, Workplaces must respond better to the bullied boss, Sara Branch identifies three changes to the ways in which organisations should respond to cases of upward bullying. These changes require a simple shift in mindset and might readily be applied to an educational setting.  

Firstly, upward bullying is not a problem for managers to solve in isolation. The development and maintenance of a positive workplace culture is the responsibility of all members of staff.

To increase the awareness of the nature, scope and implications of upward bullying, all staff should receive regular training in prevention and harm minimisation, commensurate with the training required around student bullying and downward bullying.

Secondly, school leaders must be afforded the right to natural justice. Upward bullying is not a personality clash and it is not a conflict between two people of equal status within the department. Should a member of staff submit a malicious grievance, the best a school leader can expect as an outcome is that it is eventually quashed. There is no requirement for the false accuser to receive consequences, nor undergo counselling nor disciplinary action.  Too often, following the dismissal of a formal complaint against them, the target is obliged to suffer the ongoing presence and unrelenting unprofessional practices of their accuser without recourse.

Thirdly, we need a system wide approach to enable the development of an organisational learning culture. By gathering and analysing data on occurrences of upward bullying, robust policies, procedures and strategies could be developed to effect a cultural change in which upward bullying is no longer misrepresented to nor endured by leaders in our schools. 

Riley, P., See, S-M., Marsh, H., & Dicke, T. (2021) ‘The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey (IPPE Report)’. Institute for Positive Psychology and Education, Australian Catholic University. Retrieved from https://www.healthandwellbeing.org/reports/AU/2022_ACU_Principals_HWB_Final_Report.pdfAU/2021_ACU_Principals_HWB_Final_Report.pdf

Branch S. Workplaces must respond better to the bullied boss. Nat Hum Behav. 2023 Oct;7(10):1607-1608. doi: 10.1038/s41562-023-01702-w. PMID: 37640831.

Sandra Rosner is an Australian high school principal who researched upward bullying in the teaching profession for her M.Ed. in 2018. Her thesis made the Dean’s Honours List. In 2023 she published her book The Upward Bully in the Teaching Profession; how to stop your staff bullying the boss. Sandra enjoys sharing practical solutions to help school leaders and middle managers dealing with adult bullies in their schools. Visit her website at theupwardbully.com or contact her at [email protected]