The Truth about Bullying in Project Management

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This is a guest article by Paul Pelletier, LL.B., PMP.

Neutrality isn’t an option

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.
Desmond Tutu, Social Rights Activist and retired Archbishop, South Africa

Desmond Tutu quote

This quote applies to bullies as well as it applies to elephants. Bullying can be as harmful in the workplace as it is in schools and other areas of society, causing the well understood personal emotional impacts plus a long list of challenges for project manager and their organizations where it is taking place.

Projects are subsets of workplaces and since project management is, for the most part, an activity that involves working very closely with others, the impact of a bully in a project is potentially lethal to project success.

To complicate matters, workplace bullies are often hard to identify clearly. Bullying is a tactic used by the perpetrator to get ahead in the workplace. The bullies are often highly skilled workers who are socially manipulative, targeting those who threaten their career path while adroitly charming those who serve it well. Thus, a senior manager or their supervisor may say, “That person seems great to me” or “She always gets results.” Remember, while good employers purge bullies, most promote them.

There is also an important connection between the “Neutrality isn’t an option” expression and ethics. The PMI Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct included as part of the standard for Responsibility the statement: “We report any illegal or unethical conduct.”

In other words, the Code says that neutrality isn’t an option.

Workplace bullying: a definition

Paul Pelletier
Paul Pelletier

The Workplace Bullying and Institute (WBI) defines workplace bullying 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 a laser-focused, systematic campaign of interpersonal destruction. It has nothing to do with work itself. It is driven by the bully’s personal agenda and actually prevents work from getting done and after all, that is precisely what project managers are responsible for doing – getting project work done through the efforts of others.

Workplace bullying includes behaviors that can be categorized into three types:

  • aggressive communication
  • manipulation of work, and
  • humiliation.

The abuse runs the gambit from insults or offensive remarks, to giving unmanageable workloads, to withholding pertinent information, to inappropriate email or social media, to stealing credit for work.

The impact of bullying on projects

There is a wide range of direct negative and financial impacts which bullying has on projects. The most obvious are impacts on project success, team performance, budgets and timelines.

Shane Cowishlaw, writing on reports that workplace bullying costs New Zealand “hundreds of millions” of dollars. Australia reports losses in the billions. Not surprisingly for companies in the much larger United States, workplace bullying-related costs are estimated to be over $200 billion.

Coping strategies for dealing with workplace bullying

How does a project manager deal with an organizational culture of bullying in the workplace? This is a complex question that I have created an entire presentation and workshop on.

The best short answer is to appreciate what is within your realm of control and influence in order to create an action plan. For example, you may quickly observe that these cultural norms aren’t adopted by the whole organization but seem to have evolved in your unit. That may give you an opportunity of influence outside the unit.

Read Next: Check out the 6 principles of stakeholder engagement for a better way to work with a team than the bullying behaviour described here.

Alternatively, you may see the senior management adopting a disrespectful tone and exhibiting poor leadership skills.

Before you decide what to do, here is a list of issues to consider:

  1. Take time to learn and observe those with influence (i.e. senior management, human resources staff, your manager).
  2. Do your investigative homework (i.e. What policies are in place related to workplace behavior? What is the complaints process? Is it fair, safe? Have there been others who complained? If so, what was the result?)
  3. Consider what information would be needed create the most impactful and effective strategy to present a complaint? How would you obtain this evidence?
  4. Document every incident of unacceptable behavior in detail.
  5. Consider whether you have any colleagues willing to join forces with you – there is power and credibility in numbers.
  6. Realistically assess the risks and challenges you would face if you raised the flag. Be courageous but sensible.

With all the information in hand, create your action plan. Consider this a project. Be strategic, focused and patient. Plan – only move ahead when you are ready. Be prepared for conflict and challenges.

Always have a strategy to protect yourself, and your health. It is possible that the best strategy is to think about how to develop your organizational exit plan. You may not be able to change this toxic workplace but you can leave a message about why you left and move onto a harmonious workplace.

Statue of Winston Churchill

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About the author: Paul Pelletier, LL.B., PMP, is a senior executive, corporate lawyer and management consultant specializing in workplace respect. He has over 25 years of management, legal, and PMO, portfolio and project management experience. He serves as member of the PMI Ethics Member Advisory Group. He is a regular presenting at international project management conferences and on His website is Paul’s book, Workplace Bullying: Its Just Bad for Business is available on Amazon.