Upwards Bullying: An Exploratory Study of Power, Dependency and the Work Environment for Australian Managers

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Ramsay, Sheryl

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Barker, Michelle

Sheehan, Michael

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In the last decade, workplace bullying has attracted increased attention from researchers and practitioners globally, because of its serious economic and psychological costs. Predominantly, research has examined downwards bullying (as perpetrated by a manager(s) towards staff) and, more recently, horizontal bullying (one colleague bullying another). However, seldom do we hear the voice of managers who feel they have been bullied by a staff member(s), a social phenomenon referred to within this thesis as ‘upwards bullying’. The research program reported here explored the nature of upwards bullying, including, the causes, behaviours, impacts, how it was managed, and potential prevention and management strategies. A mixed methodology approach consisting of two sequential studies was used. The first study, an exploratory semi-structured interview study, gathered qualitative data that informed the second study, a quantitative study that used a questionnaire to examine the extent and characteristics of the phenomenon.

In the first study 24 managers (12 males; 12 females) from public and private organisations discussed either the general work environment and/or a specific experience of upwards bullying. Results indicated that potential causes of upwards bullying included specific aspects of managers’ current work environment, and organisational change. Interestingly, disruptive or inappropriate behaviour by staff towards managers can be both covert and overt. The use of the grievance system in particular, was perceived by managers as playing a role in the bullying process. Overall, findings suggest that reluctance by organisations, Human Relations/Resource Departments, senior managers and the managers themselves (targets) to address inappropriate behaviours by staff members leads to a lack of support. Conversely, the provision of support, when sought or offered, assists managers to address the situation and decrease the personal and work impacts. Finally, the strategies of training, policy development, enhancing relationships between staff and management, as well as provision of support were suggested as interventions for the prevention and management of upwards bullying.

The questionnaire study was developed from the findings of the qualitative study and an extensive review of the workplace bullying and related literature. A total of 138 managers (93 Male; 45 Female) completed the questionnaire with 22% of respondents self-identifying as having experienced upwards bullying. A factor analysis of managers’ perceptions of why upwards bullying occurs found that managers who self-identified as having experienced upwards bullying identified environmental factors as a contributor to the bullying process. Conversely, managers who self-identified as not upwards bullied attributed the cause of upwards bullying to various personal or individual factors of the managers who had become targets. Results from a logistical regression analysis suggested that working in a regional area does not increase a manager’s chances of being upwards bullied, but being a female manager does.

Using an inventory of negative behaviours, a cluster analysis was conducted and identified three groups: ‘Not Bullied’,‘Infrequently Bullied’ and ‘Bullied’. The groups were labelled according to their experience of the negative behaviours. Analysis of Variance results indicated that the experience of upwards bullying impacts upon managers’ job satisfaction, intention to leave and organisational identification, compared with other groups. Results from a one-way between-groups multivariate analysis of variance suggest that managers who self-identified as having experienced upwards bullying feel less supported by their manager and colleagues than those who have not had an experience of upwards bullying.

Overall, the research program indicates that upwards bullying is a disturbing social phenomenon that is unrecognised in many organisations. Upwards bullying may have substantial costs to organisations financially, as well as negative health impacts on the manager and functioning of the workgroup. Importantly, it needs to be made clear to both managers and staff that, just as bullying behaviours are unacceptable when perpetuated by a manager or colleague, these behaviours are also unacceptable when carried out by a staff member(s) and directed towards a manager. Organisations need to initiate policies and intervention strategies to prevent incidences of upwards bullying and to assist managers who are targeted. Additional research into upwards bullying as a form of workplace bullying and the efficacy of preventive organisational interventions to address upwards bullying is required.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Department of Management

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workplace bullying

work environment

Australian managers

upwards bullying

organisational change

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