Workplace bullying from the bottom up

In the United States, workplace bullying tends to be a top-down phenomenon. According to the latest Workplace Bullying Institute national scientific survey of workplace bullying in the U.S. (link to summary here), supervisor-to-subordinate bullying is by far the most frequent pattern (65%), followed by peer-to-peer bullying (21%). Subordinate-to-supervisor bullying, which some researchers call upward bullying, lags far behind in terms of prevalence (14%).

This makes sense. The American workplace tends to be hierarchical. The predominant U.S. rule of at-will employment allows an employer to terminate an employee for any reason or no reason at all, so long as it does not violate legally carved-out exceptions such as employment discrimination laws. Fewer than 15 percent of U.S. workers enjoy the greater job protections provided by collective bargaining laws. Overall, supervisors tend to enjoy a significant power advantage over subordinates.

But upward bullying is real, and like any other form of workplace mistreatment, it can be pretty awful for someone on the receiving end.

Harvard Business Review weighs in

Recently, the Harvard Business Review published an article by Ludmila N. Praslova, Ron Carucci, and Caroline Stokes (link here), exploring upward bullying and providing advice to targets. Here’s a snippet of how they explain this dynamic:

Upward bullying often starts with covert behaviors such as withholding information and subtle gaslighting. After eroding some of the bullied supervisor’s legitimate authority and psychological resources, bullies escalate to spreading rumors, circumventing, and insubordination, further undermining the target’s position and well-being. Typically, bullying by subordinates is enabled by support from the management one or more levels above the targeted supervisor.

…Bullying by subordinates can be fueled by personal characteristics such as charm or manipulation skills, by nepotistic relationships with next-level supervisors, or by membership in a clique. And wherever there’s rampant self-interest and a culture of winning regardless of ethics, you’ll find people willing to undermine anyone in their way to get what they want, regardless of where in the hierarchy they reside.

Their major categories of advice (accompanied by explanations) sound a lot like that given to other targets of workplace abuse:

  • “Don’t give in to shame.”
  • “Resist the allure of avoidance.”
  • “Write down what’s happening.”
  • “Seek help.”
  • “Monitor your accumulating emotions.”
  • “Prepare yourself to stand up to your bully.”
  • “Decide if it’s time to go.”

Standing up to the bully

From these clusters of advice, one stands out as being particularly noteworthy, and that’s standing up to the bully. Workplace bullying subject matter experts have known for years that the stand-up-to-your-bully advice, which has its roots in childhood bullying scenarios, often turns out badly when subordinates confront bullying bosses. Frequently this only exacerbates the situation, hastening the target’s demise.

However, a supervisor being bullied by a subordinate usually has a major advantage by virtue of the fact that they typically review the person reporting to them and may have a significant say in that employee’s compensation and job security. A target of upward bullying can aptly classify this behavior as being performance-related. (Of course, all targets of workplace bullying should be able to claim that as well. But especially in the more common top-down form, the target is often blamed or ignored when they report bullying to management.)

This does not mean that the target of upward bullying has it easy. The interpersonal side of dealing with a highly manipulative individual can be exhausting and exasperating, regardless of where bully and target stand on the organizational chart. And because more in-your-face bullying tactics are a surer way to get fired, frequently the bullying subordinate relies on passive-aggressive approaches that are harder to identify and comprehend. This can be maddening to sort out.

A complex topic in need of greater attention

The Harvard Business Review piece is especially welcomed because it adds insight to a type of workplace bullying that calls for more research and understanding. Search “upward bullying” or “workplace bullying by subordinate” and you may see what I mean. A lot of the research and commentary comes from other countries, where work cultures are more horizontal (i.e., less top-down), with greater union density and stronger worker legal protections. Under such circumstances, it makes sense that more upward bullying would occur.

In fact, I’ll offer a hypothesis that in the U.S., a disproportionate amount of upward bullying occurs in public sector and unionized workplaces, where workers tend to enjoy stronger job protections. Quite simply, it’s easier to terminate a bullying subordinate in an at-will employment setting than in one where more documentation of good cause may be necessary to defend the same action.

I’ll offer a further hypothesis that at least some of the claimed upward bullying in the U.S. involves workers with less power trying to exert some degree of influence over bad supervisory situations, including those where the boss is a jerk or even a bully. In such situations, passive-aggressive, indirect ways of expressing unhappiness or resistance may be the only viable paths available, at least until a better opportunity comes along. This, of course, should not be reason to dismiss the presence of genuine upward bullying, but it should be part of the discussion.

“Gaslighting” is the Merriam-Webster 2022 “word of the year”


Back in October, I shared a short viewer’s guide to the 1944 film Gaslight (link here), noting that it inspired the pop psych term gaslighting, which is “now used to characterize psychologically manipulative and controlling behaviors in interpersonal relationships, the political realm, and — of course — our workplaces.”

Well, little did I know that the folks at the venerable Merriam-Webster dictionary would designate gaslighting as their “word of the year” for 2022! Here’s Leanne Italie, reporting for the Associated Press (link here):

“Gaslighting” — behavior that’s mind manipulating, grossly misleading, downright deceitful — is Merriam-Webster’s word of the year.

Lookups for the word on increased 1,740% in 2022 over the year before. But something else happened. There wasn’t a single event that drove significant spikes in curiosity, as it usually goes with the chosen word of the year.

…“It’s a word that has risen so quickly in the English language, and especially in the last four years, that it actually came as a surprise to me and to many of us,” said Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor at large, in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press ahead of Monday’s unveiling.

“It was a word looked up frequently every single day of the year,” he said.

This is Merriam-Webster’s definition of gaslighting (link here):

: psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator

To learn more

I’m re-sharing a book recommendation and some earlier pieces here on gaslighting, especially as it pertains to the workplace:

To learn more about the dynamics of gaslighting, I recommend: Robin Stern, The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life (2018 paperback ed.).

Past blog posts:

2012-2020: When gaslighting went mainstream (2021)

Gaslighting exists, and it’s horrible, so we should invoke the term carefully (2020)

Institutional gaslighting of whistleblowers (2018)

Reissued for 2018: Robin Stern’s “The Gaslight Effect” (2018)

Gaslighting at work (2017, rev. 2018)

Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream (2017)

Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying? (2013)

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012, rev. 2017)

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