UncategorizedFebruary 7, 20240

Reverse Bullying: Subordinates Intimidating Upward in the Workplace

Are you really being bullied, or are you the bully?

Reverse bullying, also known as upward intimidation, is an emerging concern in today’s workplace dynamics. Traditionally, bullying was perceived as a top-down phenomenon, with superiors exerting dominance over subordinates. However, a shift in power dynamics has given rise to instances where subordinates engage in intimidating behaviors towards their superiors. This phenomenon poses unique challenges within organizational dynamics, as it disrupts traditional power structures and can undermine productivity, morale, and overall workplace well-being.

Example: Who was bullying whom?

Picture a mid-level manager new to an organization who has only been surface trained on the company procedures. Let’s say he’s a big guy physically, and when he gets frustrated, he turns bright red, and he starts talking louder, not yelling, however. He works with all women, and because of his size and tone, not the context of his words, the women start calling him a bully. But when the mid-level managers supervisor took a closer look at the situation, he saw another side. The manager’s subordinates were resistant to his authority, resentful of his domineering style, and had been casually taking their own actions ignoring his directions and requests. Each time that happened, his frustration would get more fueled again.

It is toxic and it can turn into a game for the subordinates: ‘We don’t need to do what so-and-so says, because he’s a bully.’

This example illuminates’ ways in which bullying can be both disruptive to the workplace and challenging to address. Statistics show cases of open violence or direct threats by one employee against another are relatively rare. Far more common are the many smaller, sometimes daily aggressions that might range from a raised voice or cutting remark toward a subordinate, to a passive-aggressive refusal to respond to emails, or a favorite stapler that repeatedly goes missing.

In many cases, it all boils down to perception. What’s bullying to one employee may merely be blunt directness to another. For instance, in Hawaii, where social norms suggest a softer communication style, simply being less than friendly can sometimes be labeled as bullying.

There’s also “reverse bullying,” where employees undermine managers’ authority by ignoring their requests or showing subtle signs of disrespect, then jump on any expressions of anger or frustration with an accusation of abuse.

Signs of Reverse Bullying:

  • Verbal Intimidation: Subordinates may use aggressive language, sarcasm, or belittling remarks towards their superiors.
  • Undermining Authority: Actions such as openly challenging decisions, spreading rumors, or disobeying orders can undermine a supervisor’s authority.
  • Isolation and Exclusion: Subordinates may intentionally exclude their superior from meetings, discussions, or social events, creating an isolating environment.

Underlying Causes:

  • Changing Workplace Dynamics: Evolving organizational structures and collaborative work environments may blur traditional hierarchies, leading to increased tension.
  • Perceived Injustice: Subordinates might feel unfairly treated or believe that their contributions are undervalued, prompting resentment towards superiors, stemming from real or perceived grievances related to management decisions, favoritism, or perceived abuses of power.
  • Lack of Communication: Poor communication channels can contribute to misunderstandings and frustration, fostering an environment conducive to reverse bullying.
  • Furthermore, ineffective leadership, inadequate communication channels, and a lack of accountability mechanisms may inadvertently enable such behaviors to flourish.

Impact on the Workplace:

  • Decreased Productivity: Reverse bullying can create a toxic atmosphere, hindering collaboration and reducing overall team productivity.
  • Employee Turnover: The stress caused by reverse bullying may drive talented individuals to seek employment elsewhere, impacting workforce retention.
  • Diminished Morale: A culture of intimidation can lead to low morale among employees, affecting job satisfaction and overall well-being.
  • For victims, the experience can lead to heightened stress, decreased job satisfaction, diminished self-esteem, and even psychological distress.
  • Moreover, the prevalence of reverse bullying can erode trust in leadership, foster a culture of fear and distrust, and impede collaboration and innovation. Left unchecked, it can contribute to increased absenteeism, turnover, and ultimately, reduced organizational performance.

Strategies for Prevention and Resolution:

  • Put your money where your mouth is! The number one reason we see an entity succeed or fail in their prevention and resolution strategies is do they follow through with what they say, do not simply put words on paper, take ACTION.
  • Promote Open Communication: Establish, clearly communicate repeatedly, the channels for employees to express concerns and grievances in a safe and constructive space. Organizations must prioritize fostering a culture of respect, inclusivity, and open communication, where all employees feel valued and empowered to voice concerns without fear of retaliation.
  • Leadership Training: Provide training for supervisors on effective leadership, communication, and conflict resolution skills. Leadership training programs should emphasize the importance of emotional intelligence, conflict resolution skills, and fair and consistent management practices.
  • Implement Anti-Bullying Policies: Clearly define and communicate policies that address all forms of workplace bullying, including reverse bullying.
  • Foster a Positive Workplace Culture: Encourage teamwork, collaboration, and mutual respect to create a positive and inclusive work environment.
  • HR departments play a crucial role in providing support to both victims and perpetrators, facilitating mediation or conflict resolution processes, and implementing appropriate disciplinary actions when necessary.
  • Moreover, promoting a culture of accountability and transparency reinforces organizational norms that discourage bullying behavior and encourage constructive feedback and collaboration.

Reverse bullying represents a complex and often overlooked aspect of workplace dynamics that requires careful attention and proactive intervention. By understanding the underlying causes, consequences, and strategies for prevention and mitigation, organizations can cultivate healthier and more productive work environments where all employees feel respected, supported, and empowered to thrive. Through concerted efforts to address reverse bullying, organizations can uphold their commitment to fostering inclusive, respectful, and psychologically safe workplaces for all.


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