Upward Bullying Takes its Toll on School Leaders

When a principal is brought down the culture of the school is destabilised.
Destabilising the leadership in a school effects the entire school.

How can it be that upward bullying is still not adequately acknowledged, understood nor addressed? Given the current alarming wellbeing concerns for school leaders around the country, the time to recognise and respond to upward bullying in the teaching profession is now. 

The recently released Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2023 (1) has revealed that across Australia, more than one in three school leaders have been targeted by bullies in the past year.  Staggering as this figure is, it still does not paint an accurate picture of a dire situation. When we consider all of the categories of offensive behaviours surveyed, the actual number and frequency of principals being bullied by students, families and members of staff is even greater than it first appears.

Three out of four Principals surveyed in the ACT indicated that they had been threatened with physical violence last year and two in three WA principals stated that they had been subjected to conflict and quarrels in the same time period. Throughout the country more than half of the school leaders surveyed had been subjected to gossip and slander. 

In fact, all eight categories of offensive behaviour explored in this highly respected longitudinal study, (which range from sexual harassment to cyber bullying) expose manifestations of intimidation suffered by school leaders. Whether executed by staff, students, families or community members, such aggressive behaviours towards school leaders must be called out for what it is - upward bullying.  So, what is upward bullying?

Upward Bullying Is…
… NOT… a personality clash. It is not a misunderstanding and it is not a conflict between two people of equal standing in the workplace (2). Upward bullying is the deliberate and calculated use of informal power to undermine a person in a position of authority with the intent of doing irreparable professional and personal damage to the target. The upward bully has no sympathy nor compassion for the person they choose to attack. They thrive on conflict and are buoyed by their sense of self-righteousness. Whether coming from a position of ‘justification’ or ‘entitlement’ the upward bully is well versed in concealing both their intent and actions and adept at gaining support from those around and above both them and their targeted supervisor. Routine tactics include; engaging a mob of willing supporters to spread gossip, threaten or complain about their workplace leader; intimidating coworkers into a passive bystander role; and enlisting senior managers to employ ‘middle management squeeze’ whereby the school leader is attacked both from below and above, too often via a malicious complaint. This rather effective malicious complaint strategy is an example of DARVO, a psychological term that stands for deny, accuse, reverse victim and offender. It is a manipulative technique favoured by upward bullies in their attempts to deflect responsibility for their unprofessional activities back onto the target of their abuse.

Conditions are Perfect for Upward Bullies
Principals continue to suffer physical and mental stressors at an increasing rate year on year. 1 in 5 of almost 2500 principals surveyed in 2023 indicated moderate to severe depression. Serious mental health conditions were flagged at a much higher rate than the general community. These include burnout, stress and sleeping issues. It is now common knowledge that over half of Australian school principals are seriously considering leaving the profession. Upward bullies are adept at smelling blood in the water and need no encouragement to take advantage of school leaders who have been worn down by the unrelenting complexity of their role.

Add to this that schools now face a dearth of upcoming leaders with sufficient skills and experience to step confidently into vacated principal roles. The number of deputies, assistance principals and head teachers seeking promotion has dwindled so that experienced school leaders who retire or resign are being replaced by much younger personnel, many of whom have not had the opportunity to develop a full set of competencies for the role. Motivation and enthusiasm are excellent qualities, however when a new young principal is learning on the run to lead and manage an ever-increasing multiplicity of tasks, upward bullies will take every opportunity to embed a toxic culture in the workplace.

While any person in a position of formal leadership in a school is a potential target for an upward bully, the situation for school principals is of particular concern. When a principal is brought down, the fallout is cumulative; the most senior member of the school staff is dislodged, the executive structure is shaken and the entire school community and the culture of the school are destabilised.

Why School Leaders Must not Suffer in Silence
While we are adept at routinely recognising and calling out student on student bullying, when we as school leaders are bullied, we find ourselves confronted by the same uncomfortable sense of shame as do our bullied kids and unlike our students, often without a trusted adult to dispense sage advice when we need it. The principalship can be a lonely, isolated position and “traditional views of leadership can contribute to a culture where principals feel obliged to handle high levels of stress without seeking help”(3). 

Being bullied by a person who has no respect for our positional authority can trigger an intense emotional response and the target of a bully may question themselves rather than the perpetrator, ruminating over what’s wrong with me/my leadership that I’m the one being attacked? Turning the blame within and suffering in silence to convince ourselves and others that we’ve got everything under control means that the bully is able to continually weaken our position and progressively isolate us.  Eventually the targeted leader who does not enlist help will find themselves both professionally and personally damaged, sometimes irreparably, sometimes tragically. But such debilitating outcomes can be avoided with a more responsive approach.

Just as we counsel students in how to deal with childhood bullies, we must call out the perpetrator in order to attain transparency. This makes the situation more difficult for the upward bully to control because bullies rely on stealth mode within which they can act without recourse, remain shielded by their mob, rely on the inaction of bystanders and manipulate anyone they can persuade to their cause at senior management level. Calling them out signals to them that we have recognised their intent and refuse to tolerate their bullying behaviours. 

It is important to recognize that being bullied says more about the perpetrator than the target. Everyone in a managerial role is a potential target. Both irresolute and strong leaders, newly appointed and experienced practitioners, have bullies to deal with. As leaders, our positional power is a magnet to the justified and entitled members of our staff. How we respond to them dictates how they will manoeuvre in their attempts to gain the upper hand.  Leaders who succumb to bullies more readily may be tormented by a bully who acts alone. Leaders who are more resistant to bullying behaviours may find that the bully develops a veritable arsenal of support over time to wear them down and gain the upper hand.  In either case, we have to be resolute in our response.

We can effectively deal with an upward bully by calling out the behaviours and seeking help. The paradox is that while all school leaders tend to be extremely supportive of each other, less of us have the fortitude to put our own hands up and divulge that we are the target of a bully in our workplace. While we all understand perfectly in theory that there is no shame in identifying ourselves and asking for help, in practice none of us want to be that principal. The embarrassment that prevents us from speaking continues to cause a great deal of harm because upward bullying will never be addressed at the systemic level unless the prevalence and nature of the issue is recognised, acknowledged and understood. 

In recent times serious mental health issues have been transformed from shameful secrets to normalised health conditions. This was in part the result of dedicated public health campaigns that enabled people to talk openly about serious afflictions including anxiety and depression. Because the stigma of such conditions has been significantly reduced, many lives have been saved and even more changed for the better.  In the same vein, by shining a light on upward bullying as workplace malpractice we can generate a focus for our collective right to a bully free workplace.

Principal Wellbeing is Paramount
Bullying of school principals by members of their school community needs to be recognised as highly detrimental to the health and safety of our school leaders.  Dealing with these upward bullies is everyone’s responsibility - everyone in each school community in every education department around the country.  It is not sufficient to educate principals about the real and present dangers of upward bullying and expect us to manage it ourselves, however we do have a role to play. Our role is to recognise and acknowledge situations in which we are being targeted by upward bullies, to be proactive in calling out the bullying and secure support from our supervisors, peer colleagues and our networks. 

By means of the above techniques, in individual school settings, we are effectively dealing with bullies in an ad hoc manner, but upward bullies will not cease to proliferate until such time as we can collectively effect a definitive change in workplace culture. Adult bullies must not be tolerated in any position in any location. To ensure bully free zones for adults as well as students in our schools, a systemic method is essential.

If we are able to develop a learning organisation approach (4) we will go a long way towards minimising the impact of upward bullies in our profession. By gathering and analysing existing data, valuable insights would be gained about the scope and prevalence of upward bullying and this in turn would enable the development of a thoughtful and measured systemic response. Australian Secondary Principals’ Association president, Andy Mison, has recently taken a number of key actions to Federal education Minister Jason Clare. Should the anticipated focus on retaining and sustaining our principals be adopted by education ministers across the country, we could reasonably expect that two of Mison’s key actions, namely monitoring principals’ health and wellbeing and tailored training and development programs would encompass the recognition, management and eradication of upward bullies in our schools.

1 Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2023 (Dicke, T., Kidson, P., Marsh, H., 2024).
2 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.
3 Tina King, Victoria Branch president of the Australian Principals' Federation.
4 Sarah Branch.

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]

Image by Nick Bolton