Kiss up kick down

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Kiss up kick down (or suck up kick down) is a neologism used to describe the situation where middle-level employees in an organization are polite and flattering to superiors but abusive to subordinates.[1] The term is believed to have originated in the US, with the first documented use having occurred in 1993. A similar expression (lit. "lick up, kick down") was used by Swedish punk band Ebba Grön in one of their songs, on an album released in 1981. The concept can be applied to any social interaction where one person believes they have power over another person and believes that another person has power over them.[2][3]

Examples of use[edit]

Robert McNamara[edit]

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists described Robert McNamara, an American business executive and the eighth United States Secretary of Defense, as a classic case of the kiss up, kick down personality in August 1993.[3]

John R. Bolton[edit]

On day 2 of the Senate confirmation hearings, April 12, 2005, for John R. Bolton, a Bush nomination for the US representative to the UN, the Senate panel focused on allegations that Bolton pressured intelligence analysts. Former State Department intelligence chief Carl W. Ford Jr. characterized Bolton as a "kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy", implying that he was always ready to please whoever had authority over him, while having very little regard for people working under him.[4]

National Health Service[edit]

Calum Paton, Professor of Health Policy at Keele University, describes kiss up kick down as a prevalent feature of the UK National Health Service culture. He raised this point when giving evidence at the Stafford Hospital scandal public inquiry. Credit is centralised and blame devolved. "Kiss up kick down means that your middle level people will kiss-up, they will please their masters, political or otherwise, and they will kick down to blame somebody else when things go wrong." [1][5]

For example, NHS Trust bosses are nervous of reporting deficits and seek to under-report until it's too late. They seek to please their political superiors in the short term and shift blame down the line.[2]

Blame in organizations[edit]

The flow of blame in an organization may be a primary indicator of that organization's robustness and integrity. Blame flowing downwards, from management to staff, or laterally between professionals or partner organizations, indicates organizational failure. In a blame culture, problem-solving is replaced by blame-avoidance. Confused roles and responsibilities also contribute to a blame culture. Blame coming from the top generates "fear, malaise, errors, accidents, and passive-aggressive responses from the bottom", with those at the bottom feeling powerless and lacking emotional safety. Employees have expressed that organizational blame culture made them fear prosecution for errors, accidents and thus unemployment, which may make them more reluctant to report accidents, since trust is crucial to encourage accident reporting. This makes it less likely that weak indicators of safety threats get picked up, thus preventing the organization from taking adequate measures to prevent minor problems from escalating into uncontrollable situations. Several issues identified in organizations with a blame culture contradicts high reliability organizations best practices.[6][7]

Kick up kiss down[edit]

Kick up kiss-down has been suggested as a viable more healthy dynamic.[8] Blame flowing upwards in a hierarchy, Weinberg argues, proves that superiors can take responsibility for their orders to their inferiors, and supply them with the resources required to do their jobs.[6]

In workplace bullying[edit]

The workplace bully is often expert at knowing how to work the system. They can spout all the current management buzzwords about supportive management but basically use it as a cover. By keeping their abusive behavior hidden, any charges made by individuals about his or her bullying will come down to the victim's word against the bully's. They may have a kiss up kick down personality, wherein they are always highly cooperative, respectful, and caring when talking to upper management but the opposite when it comes to their relationship with those whom they supervise.[9] Bullies tend to ingratiate themselves to their bosses while intimidating subordinates.[10][11] The bully may be socially popular with others in management, including those who will determine the bully's fate. Often, a workplace bully will have mastered kiss up kick down tactics that hide their abusive side from superiors who review their performance.[12]

As a consequence of this kiss up kick down strategy:[13]

  • a bully's mistakes are always concealed or blamed on underlings or circumstances beyond their control
  • a bully keeps the target under constant stress
  • a bully's power base is fear, not respect
  • a bully withholds information from subordinates and keeps the information flow top-down only
  • a bully blames conflicts and problems on subordinate's lack of competence, poor attitude, and/or character flaws
  • a bully creates an unnatural work environment where people constantly walk on eggshells and are compelled to behave in ways they normally would not.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Mid Staffordshire Public Inquiry Transcript - day 103 - 21 June 2011
  2. ^ a b Calum Paton The Policy of NHS Deficits and NHS Re-form in Health Policy and Politics 2007
  3. ^ a b JJ Mearsheimer, D Shapley MCNAMARA'S WAR Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 00963402, Jul/Aug93, Vol.49, Issue 6
  4. ^ Slavin, Barbara (April 12, 2005). "Critic says Bolton a 'kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy'". USA Today.
  5. ^ Robert Francis (Nov 29, 2011) Organisational Culture seminar: opening statement
  6. ^ a b McLendon, J.; Weinberg, G.M. (July 1996). "Beyond blaming: congruence in large systems development projects". IEEE Software. 13 (4): 33–42. doi:10.1109/52.526830.
  7. ^ Milch, Vibeke; Laumann, Karin (February 2016). "Interorganizational complexity and organizational accident risk: A literature review". Safety Science (Review). 82: 9–17. doi:10.1016/j.ssci.2015.08.010.
  8. ^ Harvey Schachter (Jul. 25 2011) Kicking up, kissing down The Globe and Mail
  9. ^ Petrecca, L. (December 27 2010) Bullying by the boss is common but hard to fix. USA Today
  10. ^ (15 Oct 2010) How to manage a bully boss - Council of NJ State College Locals, AFT Archived 2016-03-13 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ Mary Donohue (2 Oct 2013) Fighting Back Against the Tyranny of the Manager Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine The Huffington Post Canada
  12. ^ DC Yamada (2008) Workplace bullying and ethical leadership - Journal of Values-Based Leadership, Vol. 1, No. 2, p. 49
  13. ^ Robert Killoren (2014) The Toll of Workplace Bullying - Research Management Review, Volume 20, Number 1

External links[edit]