How to Identify a Project Bully

Introduction

Bullying is a significant problem that ignores geographic and cultural borders, nationality, gender, socioeconomic status, and age. Bullying in project management is prevalent globally. The high stress, pressure to perform, competition, and team interaction create an environment that is bully-prone. Bullying can be as harmful in the workplace as it is in schools, causing well-understood emotional and physical impacts—plus a long list of challenges for employees and organizations.

Bullies lead through dominance, fear, and negative reinforcement; and they motivate by threat, humiliation, and exerting power over others. All too commonly, project managers who lead in this manner embrace disrespectful behavior. Since employees must do as their leader says, the bullying model creates a workplace and culture where employees feel vulnerable, anxious, and uncertain.

When a bully is operating in a project, the impact on the team can be toxic. For every short-term result that bullies may achieve, they cause longer-term, negative business and project impacts that far outweigh any temporary benefits. They prevent work from getting done and cause chaos, confusion, and a loss of focus. Productivity, performance, creativity, and team spirit then deteriorate. Bullies harm not only those in the target zone, but also the workplace culture.

Practitioners need to take direct action to prevent, manage, and eliminate all bullying on projects. Many project managers acknowledge that they lack the skills and tools to distinguish a workplace bully from a difficult person. It is essential to know how to separate incivility and normal workplace conflict from bullying—they are different issues requiring different response strategies. Many resources are available to assist project managers, starting with this assessment tool designed to help identify bullies.

If managers, human resources personnel, and senior level executives take the initiative to address bullying early on, much larger financial, ethical, legal, stakeholder, and project problems will be avoided. We encourage zero tolerance for bullying in the workplace, regardless of circumstance, societal norm, or jurisdiction.

How to Use the Project Bully Identification Tool

To cope with a project bully, you must first be able to identify them. This tool helps you distinguish a competitive, ill-mannered, or challenging personality from a workplace bully.

Through a series of questions and identified characteristics and behaviors of bullying versus normal workplace conduct, you will apply the tool to your challenging situation. The questions encourage you to assess the behaviors and the workplace context and situations where the behaviors occur. The tool also helps you recognize if you are properly interpreting the behaviors.

It’s challenging to be objective when you are operating in a frustrating environment. Try to approach the tool when you are fresh and rested.

At the end of the exercise, you should feel that you have properly identified the nature of the problem, the types of behaviors witnessed, and whether or not you are dealing with a workplace bully.

The assessment consists of ten questions about behaviors, workplace culture, and context.

  • Answer each of the questions as honestly and accurately as you can. Details are helpful, and there is no right or wrong answer. It is normal to feel stress or find this process uncomfortable; dealing with unpleasant conflict or a bully is never easy. Once you have answered all of the questions, evaluate your responses. Review the definition of bullying and the information about typical bully behaviors that is provided below. Apply the information to each answer and note whether any of your answers align with any of the bullying behaviors.
  • Identify which of the answers may signal a bullying problem. Reflect and reassure yourself that you have been as objective as possible. Ask a trusted mentor or unbiased advisor to help you.

If your assessment shows that you are facing a project bully, see the resources listed under Next Steps near the end of this tool.

The Project Bully Identification Assessment

To determine if you are dealing with a bullying problem, answer these questions, accompanied by information on the underlying purpose of the question. (You’ll find a copy of these questions in the following section, with room to fill in your answers.)

  1. What are the challenging behaviors you are experiencing? Write them down in a list and be specific.
    This question is designed to help you sort out the various challenging behaviors and conflicts you’re seeing. By listing them, you often begin to see patterns and may see an escalation in the severity and negative impact of the behaviors taking place over time.
  2. Is the behavior happening repetitively (as opposed to a single event)?
    Assess whether you are dealing with a single event or many events—bullying is typically repetitive.
  3. Is the behavior disrespectful? Write down why or why not.
    Bullying is, by its nature, disrespectful. Often, in a moment of objective analysis, you will be able to assess whether the behavior is disrespectful or is simply the output of someone with strongly opposing views or poor communication skills. You may find that the core of the problem is poor conflict management.
  4. Is the behavior deliberate? If so, explain how.
    Bullies act with purpose and intent—they aren’t reacting in the moment. In order to assess whether you are dealing with a bully, evaluate whether you see a pattern of deliberateness to a bully’s behavior.
  5. Is the alleged bully targeting more people than you? Are others being treated the same?
    Bullies usually target one or two people, as opposed to everyone. If they are acting badly with everyone, you may be confronted with a person who has social engagement and communication problems. They may be rude, aggressive, or defensive with everyone and can lack emotional intelligence. These issues are different from bullying.
  6. Are the behaviors benefiting the alleged bully? If so, write down how.
    Bullies do not act for someone else’s benefit, only their own. If they are attacking someone, it is important to link their action to the benefits they are deriving. Often, when you step back and assess, you can see a calculated effort by the bully to eliminate or harm someone that they feel is a threat.
  7. Is the essence of your conflict a difference of opinion? If so, write down why.
    Differences of opinion are an everyday occurrence on projects. They are valuable for helping us to problem-solve by evaluating different options. However, the way we manage divergent opinions can create conflict. This question helps you assess whether the true source of the problem is differences of opinion or bullying.
  8. Are you being provided with feedback that you might not like, but that is fair and constructive? Explain your answer.
    Projects and teamwork are challenging and can be stressful. While we always need feedback on areas for improvement, it’s not always easy to receive this information. As long as that feedback is fair and constructive, then the person delivering the feedback is not a bully.
    You may feel angry, hurt, or unhappy about the feedback itself and turn your emotions against the person who delivered it. Sometimes, we are contributors to the problem. It takes stepping back and evaluating the situation to help sort things out.
  9. Is the problem related to a performance issue, such as triggered by a performance review? If so, are the actions being taken reasonable and arethey aligned with your organization's performance management program?
    Each organization has its own processes and metrics to manage performance. If the problem relates to your performance, dissect the conflict to assess whether it is legitimate or not. We may not like the result of the performance management, but as long as it is reasonable and defensible, it is not bullying.
  10. Does the situation involve a managerial decision such as resource allocation, solving budget problems, project scale reduction, and scheduling decisions that increase workload? If so, is that decision defensible? Does the decision align with organizational goals and your workplace reality?
    Our projects constantly change and many decisions related to them are outside of our control. For example, the executive team many decide that another project has become more important for strategic reasons, or that your project’s budget or scope will be cut. These management decisions are easy to take personally and can have many impacts for our projects. You must assess the decisions objectively; as long as they are defensible and are aligned with broader organizational strategies and goals, they are not bullying. You may not like the decisions, but if you step back, you may find that you are not being personally attacked. Instead, your organization has chosen an alternate route that impacts your work.

Next Steps: Analysis of Responses to the Assessment Questionnaire

With your answers in hand, we can begin to analyze the problem.

Step 1 of 2:

For questions 1 to 6, the following information should help you determine if your situation aligns with the definition of workplace bullying and the common behaviors associated with it.

Workplace bullying is defined as “Repeated, health-harming mistreatment, verbal abuse, or conduct which is threatening, humiliating, intimidating, or sabotage that interferes with work, or some combination of the three,’*

It is important to distinguish the acts of a bully from the inappropriate, one-time acts of someone who is under pressure, having a bad day, or handling a disagreement poorly. These are single events, for which the perpetrator quickly and sincerely apologizes. They understand that they have offended someone and are accountable. A bully’s actions, on the other hand, are repetitive, intentional, and deviant. They deflect accountability and cannot be reasoned with.

While each bully adopts his or her own form of interpersonal destruction, bullying usually includes behaviors that can be categorized into three types, as outlined below (this is a list of representative examples and isn’t exhaustive):

Aggressive Communication

  • Eye rolling, intentionally interrupting, shutting down conversations
  • Insulting or making offensive remarks
  • Shouting, yelling, angry outbursts
  • Bypassing co-workers in order to avoid communicating with them
  • Harsh finger pointing, invasion of personal space, shoving, blocking the way
  • Staring others down, giving dirty looks
  • Sending angry emails or other e-communication
  • Humiliating or ridiculing, excessive teasing
  • Spreading rumors or gossip
  • Ignoring peers when they walk by
  • Playing harsh practical jokes
  • Taunting with the use of social media

Manipulation of Work

  • Removing tasks imperative to job responsibilities
  • Giving unmanageable workloads and impossible deadlines
  • Arbitrarily changing tasks
  • Using employee evaluations to document supposed poor work quality and without setting goals or providing the tools needed to improve

Sabotaging Work

  • Hinting that someone should quit, nobody likes him or her, or that the boss thinks they are incompetent
  • Withholding pertinent information needed to do one’s job effectively
  • Leaving employees out of communication loops
  • Excessive micromanagement
  • Failing to give credit, or stealing credit for others’ work
  • Preventing access to opportunities like promotions or raises
  • Consistently pointing out mistakes, however little or long ago they occurred

Summary

Combining the requirements for repetition, deliberateness, and disrespectfulness with this list of behaviors usually results in the successful identification of a bully (or not).

Step 2 of 2:

For questions 7 to 10, perform a self-check to ensure that the situation is more than a difficult conflict. Not every unpleasant or challenging conflict with people at work or in a project is bullying. On the contrary, conflict is a normal part of life in today’s pressured and deadline-filled workplace. So, it is important to contrast normal work behavior and interactions from bullying, particularly in uncomfortable and difficult times.

Here are some helpful examples of reasonable and regular workplace conflicts that do not qualify as bullying—unless they also involve the behaviors noted in the above definition of bullying:

Respectfully expressing differences of opinion

Heated debates with divergent views of how to approach or resolve a challenge are normal. Sometimes, they are even healthy and should be encouraged to ensure that all opinions are considered. Challenging each other’s opinions is standard behavior in competitive, high-performance team environments. Defending your position might be uncomfortable, but it’s not inappropriate unless you are being humiliated and diminished in the process.

Offering constructive feedback, guidance, or advice about work-related behavior

The key word here is “constructive.” We all should have the emotional intelligence to appreciate our flaws and areas for improvement. In a positive work environment, everyone is challenged to learn, grow, and develop. In order to do that, we need to be open and accepting of helpful and reasonable feedback delivered in a respectful way. Again, we may dislike it or it may make us uncomfortable, but as long as the delivery mechanism is respectful, this isn’t bullying.

Reasonable actions related to staff performance management, such as taking reasonable disciplinary actions or assigning work

Performance management will always be challenging and communicating to someone that expectations haven’t been met isn’t easy. Yet, these actions are a normal requirement of all organizations and part of sound management. The important aspect is reasonableness. If you feel sabotaged, gutted, or shocked by what you hear, consider whether something deeper is going on. If your leaders offer no path for improvement or no performance plan, bullying may be involved.

Unpopular, yet defensible, management decisions such as resource allocation, solving budget problems, project scale reduction, and scheduling decisions that increase workload

We can easily get personally invested in our work and lose sight of the broader strategic vision or priorities within our organizations. However, embracing change and agility is a hallmark of most successful organizations. When priorities, customer requirements, budgets, or management decisions negatively impact our work, it’s easy to lash out when faced with our personal disappointment. While the decision may not be appreciated, as long as it’s defensible and aligns with broader goals, we have to show maturity, flexibility, and capability to adapt. However, if the decision is flavored with retaliation, manipulation, sabotage, or personal humiliation, the possibility of bullying surfaces.

Summary

The key is to approach each situation with a reasonable, objective perspective in order to properly assess if there is bullying involved. Doing a self-check by stepping back and reflecting on the possible source of the problem helps clarify whether you are dealing with a bully or not.

Next Steps

At the end of this process, you should have a good understanding of the nature of the problem you are experiencing and whether or not you are dealing with a project bully. With that information, you can decide upon an appropriate and reasonable strategy moving forward.

If your assessment shows that you are confronting a bully, make an action plan. PMI’s Ethics Member Advisory Group is developing an action plan tool. Until it is released, you can turn to the some helpful resources on ProjectManagement.com.

Webinars

Coping Strategies for Bullying in Project Management

Bullying in Project Management: A Global Challenge

Articles

Profit, Productivity, and Peace — The Business Case for Eliminating Workplace Bullying

Project Bullies: Are You a Victim?

Bullying at Work: An Ethical and Leadership Dilemma for all Project Managers

PROJECT BULLY IDENTIFICATION ASSESSMENT QUESTIONNAIRE
  1. What are the challenging behaviors you are experiencing? Write them down in a list and be specific.
  2. Is the behavior happening repetitively (as opposed to a single event)?
  3. Is the behavior disrespectful? Write down why.
  4. Is the behavior deliberate? If so, explain how.
  5. Is the alleged bully targeting more people than you? Are others being treated the same?
  6. Are the behaviors benefiting the alleged bully? If so, write down how.
  7. Is the essence of your conflict a difference of opinion? If so, write down why.
  8. Are you being provided with feedback that you might not like, but that is fair and constructive? Explain your answer.
  9. Is the problem related to a performance issue, such as triggered by a performance review? If so, are the actions being taken reasonable and aligned with your organization's performance management program?
  10. Does the situation involve a managerial decision such as resource allocation, solving budget problems, project scale reduction, and scheduling decisions that increase workload? If so, is that decision defensible? Does the decision align with organizational goals and your workplace reality?

* Definition of “Workplace bullying," Workplace Bullying Institute, accessed July 24, 2015, http://www.workplacebullying.org/individuals/problem/definition/.

Questions? Contact us at ethics.mag@pmi.org

This information is for educational and informational purposes only and should not be considered as legal or other professional advice.