Are Leaders Victims of Bullying?

victims of bullying

There’s much talk in the media and social media about victims of bullying.

In many countries, regulators are responding with new legislative requirements to train and address workplace bullying.

However, much of the focus is on the worker’s wellbeing, where some interventions are directed at the management level, to improve their interactions with their subordinates.

But, are managers and leaders also victims of bullying? There’s not a lot of research on this topic.

For this article, we review a recent publication examining a leadership position’s influence on exposure to workplace bullying.

The paper examines data from 2 surveys. The first uses a sample of 678 social workers and the second is a national sample of 1608 Norwegian employees over 6 months.

How Can Leaders Be Victims of Bullying?

Leaders lead others and set the example of acceptable behaviour in an organisation.

In an organisational context, a leader is formally in charge of organising, guiding, and managing others, and being in a formal leadership position therefore includes a legitimate right to exercise control and influence. Hence, it is a reasonable assumption to expect that leaders should have a reduced risk of experiencing a power imbalance with a subordinate colleague. The authority associated with the leadership position should provide the leader with the effective means to retaliate and even stop mistreatment. Therefore, their leadership position should reduce the likelihood of them being bullied at work.

Keeping in mind the definition of bullying is that it involves a power imbalance between the target and the perpetrator, how can leaders also be victims of bullying?

It is most likely that the direct leaders of worker groups bear the brunt of worker dissatisfaction with their working conditions which can be aggressive behaviour. Workers are also in a position of power over their leader when they undermine them and the power balance shifts. Bullying behaviours from subordinates are likely unexpected and unanticipated creating confusion and stress. As a leader is it possible that this leads to an amplified experience of bullying?

Read our article, Does Workplace Bullying Have Long Term Effects?

What Did The Research Find?

The study investigates if holding a leadership position increases the likelihood that leaders could be victims of bullying behaviour. The results reveal that holding a formal leadership position has no impact on the risk of being bullied.  However, there is some evidence that bullying behaviour increases over time.

The key finding is that whether you’re a worker or a leader, the risk of being bullied is the same. Holding a leadership role does not protect them from being victims of bullying. Leaders perceive themselves just as inferior to the bully as non-leaders.

It’s an interesting finding because these results go against other research conducted a decade ago that showed leadership positions protected the person from being bullied. Could there have been a shift in leader/worker relationships in the past ten years? It’s likely given worker rights are increasing with power balances reducing and fluid work environments continuing to evolve.

Read our article, Why Do People Use Bullying Behaviour at Work?

What Are the Implications?

If holding a leadership position doesn’t reduce the likelihood of being victims of bullying and leaders remain at risk, what does that mean for an organisation?

First, they need to protect and take care of their leaders in the same way as they support other employees.

Second, they mustn’t take for granted that their leaders can handle the mistreatment on their own.

Third, they need to understand that depression and other forms of psychological distress are the main precursors to sickness absence and disability retirement. Organisations need strategies for handling bullying that do not exclude their leaders.

Read our article, Which Leadership Style Impacts Bullying?

Read our article, Workplace Bullying: What We Know and What Works.

Training  to Support Your Leaders

To support your workforce you should have a formal policy that details your expectations of worker behaviour about bullying. The policy should define bullying behaviour and where victims of bullying can go for support.

This policy should be supported by training, starting on day one at the induction, that details what is and is not bullying behaviour. Tap into Safety offers a 12-minute microlearning course that you can use to explain Workplace Bullying and where to go for support.

On the Training Platform, several other short courses support psychosocial safety and your leaders:

  1. Psychosocial Safety
  2. Performing a Psychosocial Risk Assessment
  3. Identifying and Managing Psychosocial Hazards
  4. Respect At Work for Employees
  5. Creating a Psychosocially Safe Environment
  6. Emotional Intelligence
  7. People Focused Leadership
  8. Diversity and Inclusion

All our courses include assessments, certificates of completion and in-depth reporting. Contact Us today for a free demo!



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