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What makes an upward bully?

by | Jul 29, 2022

I had the honour earlier this month of being featured by HRM Online, the news site of the Australian HR Institute, in an article about upward bullying.

I am deeply passionate about highlighting this form of bullying because it is underreported, broadly unknown and not covered by most legislation and HR policies. However, it can be as dangerous as downward or peer bullying – sometimes more so. Why?

  • It’s more calculated.
  • It’s focused on vengeance and a skewed view of “justice”.
  • It’s driven by jealousy and fear.
  • It’s driven by being made accountable.

It usually includes the building of a clique, or mob, which creates dangerous workplace environments – and in regional Australia, can make your local pub, school, sporting club and supermarket unsafe for the target, too.

How do you spot an upward bully?

As I shared with HRM Online, there are some defining characteristic that differentiate an upward bully.

1. They go under the radar.

They do things like withholding information from their manager. It’s subtle insubordination that starts to impact productivity but is not as visible as other bullying behaviours.

This might look like:

  • A cook not telling the kitchen manager or chef about a bad batch of ingredients which leads to the chef having to explain why a dish is unavailable.
  • A night shift team leader not reporting a staff absence to the operations manager, so the manager can’t explain reduced productivity on that shift.
  • A department head not being informed about a client meeting until after it’s done, so they have no opportunity to attend or set expectations.

2. They rarely act alone.

Because they don’t have authority within the business, they need to create power a different way – and that is often by building a clique or mob. And as I said in the article, often the people in the mob are being manipulated as the messengers – they don’t even know the intention of the leader.

This might look like:

  • The bully encouraging the group they’ve formed to refuse to attend a training session.
  • The bully inviting the group to the pub for drinks and strategically spreading misinformation about the target that influences their relationship with the manager.
  • The bully deliberately asks their team to report certain things to them and withhold that from the manager to undermine their target’s authority.
  • The bully asks their mob to make complaints on mass or defend them against their target.

3. They use formal procedures against their target.

The fabulous Sara Branch, an academic expert on upward bullying, defines upward bullying as ‘specifically characterised by perpetrators using formal grievance systems to bully their managers.’ That means the complaints process, grievance procedures and policies can be used as a weapon by an upward bully to punish their target.

This might look like:

  • The bully lodging a false grievance about the target’s behaviour.
  • The bully using formal reports to make false claims about workplace practices or issues.
  • The bully getting their mob to lodge claims against the target.
  • The bully manipulating HR or another leader in the business to believe there is a problem with their boss.

4. They thrive in places they feel safe.

The increase in remote and hybrid work increases the opportunities for upward bullies to create these safe spaces – and avenues to undermine and manipulate.

This might look like:

  • Increased refusal to attend the office or meetings.
  • Making disparaging comments about the manager’s environment on video calls where the manager is working from home.
  • Coordinating individual video or phone calls with peers outside normal scheduled calls to build their mob virtually.

5. They bully and misbehave, but they don’t get reported.

Managers don’t report upward bullying.

In my twenty plus years of working on upward bullying cases, the most common scenario I find is a new manager, recently promoted but lacking support and training to manage a team that then undermines them. But I’ve also seen senior managers victimised by new employees who decide to pursue the new boss.

In all cases, the managers fear looking like they’ve lost control of their team. They feel ashamed, humiliated, and powerless. They let it continue to try and protect their jobs and authority and suffer in silence.

In my next newsletter, I’ll share with you what you can do to deal with an upward bully in your workplace.

If anything, I’ve raised in this newsletter resonates with you, then I invite you to get in touch with me. I’m interviewing 100 people for my study into this systemic problem, and if you’ve ever experience upward bullying, I’d love you to be involved. Email me on admin@hrblueprint.com.au to register your interest.

Maureen Kyne



Maureen Kyne

Maureen is a leading authority in workplace bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination. With qualifications and a career spanning nursing, manufacturing, construction, transport, HR, IR & WHS she brings wide-ranging experiences.

Having lived and worked in both regional towns and capital cities, Maureen understands the economic and workplace pressures faced across diverse environments from harvesting sheds in farming communities to metropolitan corporate boardrooms.

Maureen presents with a warm demeanour and easy conversational style yet is fearless in raising the issues most prefer to avoid. Whether wearing a prevention, detection or correction bullying hat, Maureen knows how to peel back the layers and get to the root cause of the toughest and most complex situations.

Respect drives change and as a confidante and training facilitator Maureen will do what it takes to save lives and build better futures.


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