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Categories: Leadership, Leadership

  • SHOCKING - The numbers are staggering - according to the Balance Careers 60-million Americans are affected by workplace bullying.  60-MILLION AMERICANS!  Bullying doesn’t just occur in America – it is a global issue.  In January, I posted a PMI poll question on this site asking if others have experienced bullying in the workplace and 77% of responders said YES, they have encountered bullying. 
  • CONFLICT IS NOT BULLYING - Conflict is important for project success – as project managers we strive to create an environment where differences of opinion and perspectives are encouraged. 
  • BULLYING IS - Unwanted, aggressive and disrespectful behavior used to control or harm others and this negative behavior is repeated over time.  It often escalates and corporations can brush it off as a “leadership style”.   Clive Boddy presented a TED Talk about these bullies he calls “corporate psychopaths” working in all industries creating chaos and confusion to forge their own careers and agendas by bullying. 
  • VICTIMS - When we were kids, the bully on the playground often picked on the smallest, weakest, or the child who was different in some way.  As adults in the workplace, however, the bully often targets someone skilled, popular, kind, ethical and honest.  The workplace bully thrives on watching victims squirm. 
  • WHAT IT FEELS LIKE - The pain of bullying is the worst part with victims reporting very real health issues ranging from dread and worry, shame and exhaustion to disrupted sleep, PTSD, migraines and even suicidal ideations.  Victims feel powerless and are suffering.  This is unacceptable.
  • HIGHER ED – Research by Routledge Taylor & Francis Group indicate higher education organizations are at risk for fostering workplace bullying.  We hear of military hazing, in healthcare there is a known phrase about “nurses eating their young” and bullying even occurs in the legal profession.  In many industries, hostile behaviors are well known and surprisingly these industries are often in fields of higher education.
  • SUBTLE BULLYING – PM BULLYING? – Do we ever assign work before knowing if the timelines are reasonable?  Do we only discuss problems, errors or issues without celebrating milestones or acknowledging the efforts of others?  Do we understand harsh teasing, spreading rumors/ gossiping, ignoring individuals or even getting in the personal space of others can be lesser forms of bullying?
  • COST OF BULLYING – Bullying isn’t just hurting the individual.  Bullying tears down company culture by increasing absenteeism and decreasing presenteeism.  It influences healthcare costs.  Beyond this, it affects employee turnover, can lead to litigation……and for us project managers, bullying can directly lead to project failure. 
  • WHAT CAN YOU DO?  - Lead by example.  As a project manager, help your company create zero tolerance policies around bullying.  Enable conversations about bullying – create awareness.  Do not tolerate bullying in your meetings and quickly confront bullying when witnessing it by standing your ground without emotion – use the facts and document every time witnessing or encountering bullying behavior.  Hold bullies accountable for their behavior with disciplinary consequences and make this part of your organization’s cultural values and norms.  Make a stand!
Posted on: June 05, 2019 06:57 PM | Permalink

Comments (9)

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This is a very sensitive, yet important subject. I am surprised with the statistics of people being bullied in the states - 60 Millions - Wow !

Hi Lori,

Thank you for bringing attention to this subject. Reading this post made me think about my experience as a project manager in relationship to bullying. Although I have never called it that, I would have answered your poll in the positive as one who has experienced bullying in the workplace. I would even go as far as to say that over 90% of project managers have experienced it  although again, they would likely not call it that.

Project managers lead warriors on the enterprise field of battle and as such are positioned to take the flak from individuals who fear the change to come. I have many times experienced engagements that are outside the bounds of acceptable behavior, to the extent that others who have witnessed it would encourage me to bring it to HR, but I have always accounted it as an unfortunate aspect of the job. So, although I have never called it bullying, I must concede that others who have witnessed it have told me that it is exactly that.

Its an interesting subject where the line should be drawn when you are an agent (i.e. spearhead) of change. I would be interested in your thoughts.

Hi George: First, let me say I love your writing style - the way you spin a phrase is so clever.

As change managers, often leading projects some are resistant to, we do encounter bad behaviors at times. In a previous role, I was trained in motivational interviewing and I have used those principles/skills many times when encountering resistance or even poor behaviors. That has been very helpful for me. I have not been a victim in the workplace of bullying, but am shocked at how many people are afflicted. I have definitely witnessed it before! I think the best thing we can do is talk about this - bring it out in the open and stand up to it when we see it.

I am not a confrontational person by nature, but I did learn some practical suggestions when researching this topic for a presentation I gave recently at my local PMI chapter. For example, someone suggested if you encounter bullying in a meeting - ask the bully to leave. If they refuse, close the meeting down. Later circle back with that person to discuss.

Another example was how a conversation with a bully about their behavior might go....something like this by Mark Murphy, a New York Times bestselling author and teaches the leadership course What Great Managers Do Differently.: I’ve called you in because there’s a problem with your recent performance. Last week in Tuesday’s task force meeting you made three biting and sarcastic remarks during our brainstorming session. That is not acceptable behavior in that setting and it will not be allowed to continue. "I can’t force you to change and I won’t try. But you do have a choice: you can change your behavior or keep it where it is. If you change, you will be much more effective, and I think you’ll see your teammates respond more positively. If you decide to change I can work with you to outline a very specific action plan with clear expectations. If you opt not to change, then we’ll begin an improvement plan which, without significant progress, could ultimately result in termination (insert your own HR policies here). I believe you can change this behavior. But only you can choose the path that’s right for you. Just be clear that there are only two options here and maintaining your present course is not an option. You can give me your decision right now or you can take 24 hours to make a decision".

In my research, I also learned this from the Workplace Bullying Institute website: Tennessee became the first state to pass the model “Healthy Workplace Act,” a law designed to encourage public sector employers to create an anti-bullying policy that addresses abusive conduct by making agencies in the state immune to bullying-related lawsuits if they adopt a policy that complies with the law. In California, a workplace anti-bullying law for private sector employers became effective January 1, 2015. California’s A.B. 2053 requires employers with 50 or more employees that already provide training on preventing sexual harassment to include new training for supervisors on preventing abusive conduct. Both Tennessee and California laws define bullying as repeated infliction of verbal abuse – derogatory remarks, insults, epithets, verbal or physical behavior that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating or humiliating; or the undermining of a person’s work performance. More states are expected to adopt anti-bullying laws in the coming years as anti-bullying continues to trend upward in the news and public pressure builds on businesses to take action. Maybe you and I can help support similar types of action in our states and in our companies. We can also bring subjects like this to our peers on this discussion board!

Lori, some additional thoughts:

When an enterprise goes through acquisition after acquisition, they inevitably have alignment issues. In these situations, project managers are often positioned on the corporate-front and are told to ride into the chaos in full body armor, in recognition that they are going to take on considerable flak.

For me, this is where it is hard to draw a line regarding bullying, as the question rises; Is it bullying when you have been prepared to be bullied. The answer is yes from a third-party perspective, but no from the individual who has been prepared to receive it - even though it is inappropriate behavior no matter how you slice it.

In my experience, those who are grossly out of line get their reward "soon enough", as the change which they fear and have fought to prevent, will occur and they will either concede, adapt and fall into alignment, or they will implode on the big stage and find themselves dismissed to the corporate north pole or better yet - fired. I have seen both occur and have felt end-state justification in not drawing HR level attention to such behaviors, knowing that the life-cycle of conduct eventually catches up with these types of individuals.

So, the question is; am I wrong as a project manager to accept such ridiculed behavior when it is directed towards myself, especially when I recognize that I have no tolerance to accept such behaviors when it is being directed toward someone else. It seems that I have created a double standard, so as I am writing this, I can see why others have tried to direct me to the "HR reporting path," when gross misconduct has occurred. However, I’m still inclined to let it ride for the sake of keeping focused on my primary project objectives.

These types of project issues are why I coined the term “alternative lensing” in project management (reference my recent article on the knowledge shelf regarding this subject), as there are things that the PMBok can never prepare you for in our profession, and for those things you need to look through an alternative lens.

Hi George - I appreciate the additional insight and totally understand what you have described. My company has gone through 3 acquisitions/mergers since my hire - seems like the new normal for big corporations. My personal advice is to hold the same standard for yourself as you do for others - perhaps avoid the need of going to HR by addressing the misconduct directly with the person. Bullies prefer to attack those who do not stand up for themselves. I do not enjoy confrontation, and have a little more gentle approach to this - but I DO STAND UP and let others know when behaviors have crossed the line this can be done respectfully and you are such a beautiful wordsmith that you will come up with a great way to address these behaviors. By standing up, you may not only improve your current situation, but it may stop other behaviors. I want to remind everyone that bullying is intended to harm - sometimes strong negative behaviors are not necessary intended to harm - passionately protesting something they feel strongly about for example. I also want to warn others who do go to HR that HR is there to defend the reputation of the company - and they may not defend the person being bullied. Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) survey results show that most employers still, despite widespread media coverage, fail to fully address repeated mistreatment and abusive behavior by managers and employees. “It is clear… despite significant public awareness, employers are doing very little voluntarily to address bullying,” the 2014 WBI national survey stated. According to the report, 25 percent of respondents say their employers simply deny that bullying happens and fail to investigate complaints. Another 16 percent say employers discount bullying or describe its impact as not serious. Fifteen percent say employers rationalize bullying by describing it as a business-world norm – a routine way of managing or working together, done without malice. Eleven percent say their employers defend bullying when the perpetrators are executives and managers. (Most bullies are managers – 40 percent of WBI survey respondents said bosses were the principal perpetrators of bullying and abusive conduct). Only 12 percent of survey respondents say employers go on the offensive and take steps to eliminate bullying. So....going to HR is not always effective. This is a very complex issue. My intent for this post and for presentations I've shared recently is to raise awareness and encourage us in all industries to begin talking about this issue and start make changes for the better! Talking about bullying, like you and I are doing here is a great start!

Relevant topic and great elaboration.
Thank you Lori!!

Very good post on bullying. The sad thing is that many leader, in all walks of life, are bully’s and preach by example. Sure you can name a few, some at the head of organisation!

Good post Lori, thank you!

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