September 28 & 29, 2020 | Virtual
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I think the topic of bullying is very complicated as it can take shape in many different ways and guises. A Project Manager knows that for a project to be successful the team needs to be successful so there should be no place for bullying within the team however this is not always the case. I would see the effects of bullying in the workplace as the loss of key talent who may be discouraged from taking up senior positions within a team which could stem from low confidence and moral as a direct result of bullying. The percentage of people reporting being bullying and its being link with project failure is a reason why projects fail but I would not see it as the main reason for project failure. Ultimately good management, strong HR policies and a positive, contributed work culture should go some way to eliminating bullying in the workplace.
It is certainly part of the reason. Project team members including the PM may either have very poor working relationships on projects due to bullying, or they may seek other employment/projects altogether. When I see groups that have unusually high turnover in employees, there is usually some underlying cause.
One of my early career projects was the absolute model of a highly effective team with high morale and one of the most satisfying positions I have had. There was a senior leadership change where the new boss was more of a dictator than a leader. People fled the projects and performance was severely impacted. The first leader went on to become a senior executive. The second leader went on to retirement as his performance was noticed by his peers and leaders.
My personal experience with forms of bullying that has impacted project success dynamics has always been outside the spectrum of the core team. Within the core team, I have seen bullying tactics rarely, but when they have occurred, they were quickly dealt with - with the remedy being the removal of the offending party from the team.
However, outside the core team, I have seen strong-armed bullying tactics (CLM prevention: NOT related to my current employer) that have impacted success dynamics. As bullying requires a personal dynamic versus let’s say “simple hardball politics,” offenders take a two-prong approach; one is taking their personal interaction with you to the edge of an HR-able offense, and the second is to apply some form of hardship obfuscated under a legitimate pretense. This approach is intended to beat you down into submission or elicit a volunteer exit (as they lack direct functional control over you).
The above scenario for me, when you are in it - feels like workplace bullying, but is it? When you represent the spearhead of change, and you are not adequately protected from “corporate elements,” you could easily find yourself in this type of menagerie. Fortunately for me, I’ve been able to hold-true through these types of events – and guess what, every offender eventually had the “fruit” of their approaches exposed and exited either voluntarily or with a little push. Because of these events, projects were negatively impacted or even put on hold, but they all eventually won out in the end and were successful from a delivery perspective.
CLM = Career Limiting Move
It is not always easy to see what is going on with a bully or manipulator. I have had experience with "gaslighting" in the workplace where the person tries to convince you that your memory of what has occurred or what was said is not correct, and then blame you for not keeping your end of the bargain, usually in front of others where you are less likely to argue. It wasn’t until I started documenting every conversation in detail until I saw the pattern.
Once I noticed the pattern it became clear what was going on; then once they realized I was onto their tactics, they switched tactics and started avoiding me directly and instead trying to influence others to essentially bully me by proxy. Those people didn’t know the backstory, so they didn’t recognize what was going on until I pointed out the pattern. Then it became extremely obvious that it was intentional rather than a mere misunderstanding.
A practiced bully or manipulator can very much use the question of “it - feels like workplace bullying, but is it?” as part of their whole strategy. I was able to figure it out in my situation (and my management stepped in to back me up) but I’m certain this individual has had success with this approach before where people were more intimidated, and didn’t see what was actually occurring.
I have had some experience with gaslighting as well, now “bullying by proxy” - that would turn the few brown hairs I have left gray. We both were fortunate, in that our immediate management backed us up, which of course makes all the difference.
It gives you pause, to think “what if our management did not have our back”; that would make the dynamic completely different. In addition, my bit of pride in “making it through the tough times” would likely be replaced by the need for additional self-therapy.
I'll be speaking about How the PMO Can Stop Workplace Bullying at November's PMO Symposium 2019 in Denver, Colorado. Part of my sharing is to open the subject of how over 60 million Americans report they are/have experienced workplace bullying ..... and with over 60% of projects reported as failing......there may be a correlation between these things and we need to bring awareness to this subject and help each other know how to deal with these things. I appreciate what you have shared here about your experiences - and about what gaslighting is. The more we talk on this site - and support one another by normalizing experiences or sharing how we worked through challenges is so important for our whole community. Thank you!
Another problem is that these people tend to be very practiced at not getting caught. They can turn on the charm when it suits their needs. One characteristic of gaslighting is that the manipulator will alternate between being nice and the bully. They will thank, praise, or apologize to their victim in order to lower their defenses, and then resume the strong-arm tactics. That’s one of the ways they get their victim to question whether the issues occurring are the fault of the victim or the bully. They have no problems at all lying their way through an interview to present a personality profile of how they wish to be perceived.
A bully can also sink a project through subtle, passive actions that hinder it For example, someone can not reply to emails in a timely manner, causing delays and forcing a PM to spend precious time and energy following up with them. A bully can bring up pointless objections or questions that the PM and/or project team must then spend energy addressing. Perhaps worst of all, a bully can cast a mild unenthusiastic pall over the project, which can contaminate the entire project team and Sponsors, and grind the project to a halt. A crafty bully can accomplish all this without doing anything that can be identified as wrong, so trying to complain about the bully to a higher up will only make the PM appear incompetent.
Years ago, I had a manager who was a gaslighter and a bully. Senior leadership was populated with similar people. Every project was a struggle, decisions were always revisited two, three or more times. Vendors were selected, and then re-evaluated. Delays were inevitable. Projects failed for delivery, timing, features, business value and most definitely cost. It was nearly impossible to keep track of projects because they refused to use any modern project management tools.
I recently learned that a small project that should have been completed in 3 months is still going on almost 4 years later. My manager was eventually fired, but the culture will not change without wholesale replacement of the leadership.
More destructive was the burn out of good people. Turnover was high. More people went on stress leave there than anywhere else I've worked. Workers were blamed for problems caused by the chaos and drama from leadership. Frustrated employees would have outbursts with other frustrated employees. I realized that the reason for the toxic culture was a group of senior leaders who were incompetent and were in fear of losing their jobs. If every employee below them was an incompetent fool creating chaos, then the manager couldn't be blamed for the poor team performance, right?
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