Upward bullying - a - case history

Upward bullying – a case history

Jackie* came to see me because of the stress she was feeling at work. Stress at work isn’t exactly rare, and it’s something a lot of people see me about. What made Jackie’s story different is what was causing the stress.

“I took over when our last supervisor left” she told me “and at first I wanted to still be as good friends with the other girls. That wasn’t as easy as I thought because it made being in charge more awkward, especially when I had to tell one of them off or say no.”

“I’ve accepted I can’t have the same sort of friendships in work, and I thought that would help. But really I think that I just might not be cut out for it.” At this point I thought that Jackie’s story might be one about her finding her feet in a new role. What she said next though made me rethink that.

“One of the girls refuses to do the work I give her, and what she does do is normally wrong. When I pull her up about it she tells me that she’s not been trained properly, or I’ve not explained it properly. And every time I ask her she just sighs or gives one-word answers or deliberately twists what I say.”

“I tried to speak to her about it last week and she said that I was picking on her. She said that she was thinking about reporting me for it, that she’d seen lots of supervisors come and go, and that I clearly wasn’t up to it. I’ve tried talking to the boss but she says it’s just a personality clash and that I should be able to manage it.”

No wonder Jackie was stressed. People above and below her at work were telling her she was in a job that she just wasn’t capable of. As an outsider, what was clear to me was that Jackie was actually being bullied. “I can’t be being bullied” she argued “this girl works for me, not the other way round”.

Jackie was surprised to hear that 20% of bullying at work is done by people to their managers. In fact it’s so common it has its own name – upward bullying. Being able to see what was really going on let Jackie see that her doubts were being fed by someone who was deliberately undermining her.

It was still stressful at work, but this was stress about someone else’s behaviour and not her own lack of ability. Jackie started rebuilding her belief in herself and her abilities, and managed her stress a lot better – to the point where she was confident enough to challenge the bully about their behaviour.

* Jackie’s real identity has been protected, and she is happy to share her story. 

If you found this case study about identifying upward bullying interesting then why not sign up for my monthly newsletter here with three stories every month on the quirky side of psychology and relationships.