This seems to an issue that people and organisations are unaware of – that a manager can be bullied by a staff member. But there have been times when I hear a story from a manager and I say ‘You are being bullied by your staff member’ and the manager looks astounded and then, the light bulb goes off as they say, ‘Yes, I am!’

What is bullying? It is ‘the repeated use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively to impose domination over others.’

The key word here is domination and this where many believe that it is not possible for a manager to be bullied – as the power sits with manager not the individual staff member, doesn’t it? In fact is it is the manager who can abuse that power and bully the individual. Isn’t it? But not always. Let me provide some examples.

Whilst delivering workshops on performance management staff issues are discussed and it is when it is suggested that a manager needs to have a meeting with a staff member that bullying comes to light. Typically a manager will respond with ‘I can’t do that because:’

  • ‘If I do they will immediately lodge a counter claim of bullying or harassment’
  • ‘They will tell me to my face that they will take the next day off sick which will cause so much disruption to my schedules and work rotas it is easier not to say anything.’
  • ‘They will create so much bad feeling with the rest of the team by bad mouthing me to everyone and, as I am unable to share my side of the story, I run the risk of the team turning against me’.
  • ‘They will refuse to have a meeting with me without a trade union representative present which means that it becomes a big, official thing when all I want as this stage is a quiet word.’

Sometimes staff will take the above actions out of genuine fear. But it can also be about the staff member ‘punishing’ their manager by making life as difficult as possible for them. This IS intimidation, particularly if delivered in an aggressive manner, (I personally have witnessed staff poking their manager in the chest whilst shouting at them!) and therefore it is BULLYING.

In the worst cases the organisation has allowed the individual to bully the manager and win. I have heard of three situations where the manager started conversations around poor work performance and the individual responded by lodging a grievance against the manager. The manager was then told by Senior Management to ‘quietly drop the case’ – not that the staff member’s allegation was proven, or even investigated. Senior Management totally ignored the importance of the situation and took the ‘easy’ route out. However, in each of these cases the manager left within the year. They had to. Everyone in the team knew where the real power lay, with the individual and not with the manager. And with no authority the manager was powerless to whole team.

So let’s be clear – staff CAN and DO bully their managers. And like all situations of bullying we need to:

1.  Be aware it can happen.

2.  Fully investigate any situation where we think this may be occuring.

3.  Take official action if proven.

These are tough situations and tough conversations to be faced. However, the ongoing pain and disruption if bullying, of any sort, if left unchallenged is horrific – it can literally damage lives.

To find out how Converse Well can help you turn difficult feedback situations into opportunities to motivate and engage your staff, call 020 8870 9036 or 07734 944 515 or email