Trickle Down Bullying: How to Deal with Negativity From the Top

Monish SubherwalResolving ConflictLeave a Comment

Bullying happens in the workplace. Yet it’s not so apparent as the school yard bully (it’s typically more “covert aggressiveness”). You aren’t left with bruises and cuts – but more emotional wounds (as corny as that sounds).

I strongly feel that leadership comes from the top. If you ever see a website that is ugly and disjoint in its experience, it’s because their leadership team is that way (the outside tends to match the inside). This is “trickle down leadership”.

One of the forms of bullying is what I call, “trickle down bullying”. Like “trickle down leadership”, trickle down bullying is anger coming from someone else (usually above you).

For example, a manager may get very upset with you about having things done a certain way BECAUSE his manager got mad at her for something else.

Trickle down bullying comes from someone’s superior and goes down to their junior (and perhaps even beyond, to people’s homes). It’s negativity that spreads.

An Example of “Trickle Down Bullying” from my own Life

“What the heck was that?!” I thought. I had some difficulty with getting my designs implemented by the developer and my manager gave me hell. In short, he got angry and told me the work sucked.

After the meeting, I continued thinking angrily, “How dare he! He didn’t even know what I put into the project. I worked long hours to get this done. Why is it my responsibility to code it properly? This is unfair!”

Come performance review time, I was shocked by the lower rating. I had performed at peak levels for years. I was pissed.

Next week, I went and saw the developer. I had a talk with them about process and how important it was to get the design done. It went over his head. He said HE had a lot of stuff on his plate. I wasn’t expecting that. I wanted to hear he was sorry for not following through and getting things done. I wanted to hear, yes, we’ll do a better job next time. Instead, I got resistance and a lack of openness to doing the work!

I held my breath until no more. I gave him my thoughts “you know, I got a lower performance review because YOU didn’t do your work. I don’t want this repeated. I’ll have to talk to your manager because this can’t happen again!”

Trickle down bullying at its finest.

When is anger okay?

I’m not going to be like HR and say anger is NEVER okay in the workplace. Because thats just silly.
Anger happens since we are all human beings. It’s not okay, it’s not fun, it’s not “right” – but it happens.

If it happens too often, sure, go ahead and talk to HR. But when it happens, you need to be empowered to deal with it in the moment.

Tip: Nip it in the bud, so you don’t end up bullying someone else out of frustration.

There are 2 steps to dealing with Trickle Down Bullying.

Step 1: Empower Yourself

There are a couple of different reactions you can have to trickle down bullying:

1. You could feel bad and guilty.

This is a form of beating yourself up. You feel like you deserved the trickle down bullying. Thats your inner wimp coming out. No one needs to get angry and you don’t need to feel like you deserve their anger.

2. You feel frustrated and angry.

As human beings, we expect others to treat us as we treat them. We expect others to play by the rules of conduct and good manners because we do. But it doesn’t happen all the time.

It’s unrealistic to think others are as nice as you or are always going to treat you as you treat them.

Some people get mean and that’s OK. You don’t need to be friends with everyone, but you do need to learn how to deal with others powerfully.

Step 2: Consider your Action Options

Once you deal with how you feel about the situation, you have a few options for taking action:

1. Ignore the person all together. They are angry right now and they are dealing with some bullying from their superiors. You aren’t going to change them nor do you need to. Give them space.

If someone is not being positive and supportive, you don’t need to call it out all the time. Pick and choose your battles wisely. A lot of times, people are dealing with their insecurities and anger and are looking to unleash it and nothing you do is going to help them.

2. If you can’t ignore the person (you work with them daily), you need to address it assertively. You DON’T need to escalate and get angry back at them.

Pull the person aside. Ask the person, “What is up? Why are you so angry?” This requires maturity and willingness to understand the other side.

Calling out people’s emotions in the workplace is different than calling out people’s emotions at home. At work, people understand they shouldn’t be so emotional and the fear of HR limits their expression.  Use this to your advantage.

You’ll find typically, as long as you assert your desire to have a good relationship with them (ex: “I want to be effective and help you out…”, they will be willing to apologize and explain what is going on with them.

If the person keeps escalating, sometimes they need more space. Leave them alone until they can talk to you like a mature person.

Note: none of this is fun and can be uncomfortable. But it is necessary at times.

What do you think?

Have you ever dealt with trickle down bullying? What do you think about the suggestions here? Any more ideas on how to deal with this behavior?

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