“Dealing with workplace bullying” with Paul Pelle

Episode 89 “Dealing with workplace bullying” with Paul Pelletier

From a Canadian perspective, I’m a corporate lawyer. I’m also a bit of a unicorn because I’ve been a project manager for over ten years. I am an author, and I’m privileged to be an international speaker. My work focuses almost exclusively on the domain of leadership skills, particularly about effectively managing workplace disrespect, bullying, harassment, and conflicts in general.


How did you get involved in ethics and project management?

That’s a story that would require a Guinness or two, but here’s the short version. A fundamental pillar of legal training relates to project management even though lawyers don’t understand that. About 15 years ago, I was involved in a massive, national IT/IM legal project on behalf of the Federal Government of Canada, The Department of Justice. I knew nothing about project management. To say that the project had incredible numbers of flaws because of that is an understatement. After the project completed, I decided that I needed more training, so I took my PMP and then that became a passion for me. I attended my first PMI Global Conference, which happened to be here in Vancouver. I attended a session on ethics and project management, and I knew instantly that was a grand opportunity for someone with my background to contribute as a volunteer and PMI.

I had the honor of serving on PMI’s global ethics advisory group for almost five years. As apart of that role, I had the privilege of presenting at many PMI and project management events around the world. I wrote some knowledge shelf articles, and I did many webinars on projectmanagement.com. Out of that, I created a blog on workplace respect and management. Through all of those experiences, I have landed in the place that I’m in now. In addition to that I also, unfortunately, worked in a place where workplace disrespect and bullying were widespread and I became a target. That experience was the genesis of how I ended up writing a book that I never planned to write. When you’re young, the last thing you ever want to be is the poster child for anything that is ugly--like bullying. Nonetheless, that’s how it ended up and how I ended up here.


Is workplace bullying common?

Sadly, I think if you’ve paid attention to the media at all in the last year, I think bullying is without question one of the most prevalent and costly matters in any organization. Unfortunately, statistically, 70% of workers regardless of sector and nation of industry are impacted by workplace bullying. I know that seems like an incredibly large number, but by an impact that doesn’t mean you’re a target. That could mean that your coworkers or someone else you know within your organization are experiencing these challenges. I think we have to accept that bad behavior is incredibly common regardless of where you live and work. Dealing with that bad behavior is very difficult in many organizations.


The connection between project management and bullying

In project management, we have to accept that we live in a very pressure-cooker-orientated environment because of the triple constraints. We have constant expectations that are mounting on us. We also have teams that are put together piece-meal, and usually, the project manager in charge of the team doesn’t have any performance management or human resource management over most of the people. Project managers are stressed out. We’re often trying to create something that has never been done before or trying to do it in a timeframe or budget that is unreasonable. That creates pressure and stress. With such huge expectations, it's normal that there would be conflict, territoriality issues, personality clashes, disagreements--they’re a daily reality.

When you increase the stress levels, you can see how easy it is for people to become disrespectful or to start leading by intimidation, coercion, or fear, and to starting bullying others. As soon as that starts, the impact on project management is a success is nothing but diabolical. As soon as bullying takes place, team engagement plummets, people lose their motivation, the dysfunctions tarts to negatively impact others. It becomes like a toxin.

Bluntly, bullying will almost inevitably lead to project failure or problems. People don’t see that when they’re in the middle of it. They feel terrible. By feeling terrible, you tend to detach from the goal of the team and project completely. It’s unfortunately very common in project management. I think it’s something we’re all very aware of and all have a leadership role to play in learning how to l deal with it better, prevent, and even eliminate it.


As a project manager, what are some of the tangibles where we can recognize bullying in our team?

There’s a huge continuum of what I call disrespectful behavior. I think it’s important to recognize that in the early parts of the continuum, much of the bad behavior isn’t happening intentionally. For example, we make mistakes because we are socially not as skilled as we’d like to be. When we’re angry or stressed, we act out in ways we’re not always proud of. We may not have the cultural awareness that we would like, so we say something that is insensitive or hurtful to someone. We may disagree and not know how to deal with it, so we deal with it poorly and end up upsetting others.

All of those scenarios might be disrespectful because if someone ends up feeling hurt, ashamed,  humiliated or unable to speak because their voice has been stifled. All of those disrespectful behaviors may end up being bullying provided three criteria sets bullying apart from bad behavior in general.

The three elements of bullying that distinguish it from other bad behavior are repetition, intention, and the level of disrespect.

The first and most important: bullying is repetitive behavior. It’s not a one-time person who blows up because they had a terrible day, they say things they don’t mean, and then afterward the next morning, they apologize, they’re very sincere, and the behavior never happens again. That’s not bullying. That’s just someone who acted badly or had a bad day and regretted it. When the behavior is repetitive, you notice that the targeting is escalating, that’s a sign that you could have bullying going on.

Another important component of bullying: it is disrespectful and something that makes another person feel humiliated, degraded, useless, stupid, or just bad. It has to have that component of disrespect.

Finally: bullying is intentional. It’s sometimes hard to see, but when you start to look at the behavior and analyze it, you can see that the bully is always targeting someone in general. They may look like they’re targeting everyone because they treat everyone badly, but usually, they have a particular person or a couple of people they humiliate or degrade. This is very common.


Do you see it playing out where people send these things to colleagues via technology?

I’m going to use an unfortunately world-wide known example. There’s a certain president of a certain country, who tweets on a regular basis. Those tweets involve unbelievably disrespectful comments. Regardless of politics and perspective--that’s not the issue. The issue is the content. Your questions of: do people use this in email? Does it show up in written form? The answer is it does. You don’t have to look very far. Every day you open your paper, and you’ll probably see examples of social media or emails that demonstrates the kind of behavior I’m talking about in written form.


Bullying or sensitivity?

Bullying is not a leadership style; it’s the antitheses. The bottom-line is that if people feel like they cannot speak because their voice is irrelevant, or every time they speak their voice is humiliated, degraded, and they’re made to feel unwanted or welcomed, you’ve got a problem. I completely understand that there are people who have different levels of sensitivity. While some may take bad behavior and laugh it off, others can take it, and it hurts them. The bottom line isn’t to treat people the way you think they should be treated. The actual rule should be you treat people the way they want to be treated. If a person is sensitive, then an intelligent leader is aware of that and chooses language, communication skills, and styles that align with that person and their sensitivities. Is it difficult? Of course, it is. Does that mean we need to get better at communicating? Absolutely.

There’s one thing that I come back to in project management. If you go to PMBOK it says that the most important skill in project management by far is communication, and 90% of our project management life is spent communicating, whether it’s written, face-to-face, etc. If you as a leader in project management find that your skill and communication is bad, you’re not going to have very many successful projects. It’s a call to action for people to grasp what’s going on around them. If it’s not the project manager who is still learning how to communicate and adjust to people’s different levels of communication style, sensitivity, etc. bullying is quite easy to distinguish. It’s easy to see when bullying is taking place because its impact is so clear--the choice of language and behavior is demeaning. It begins with something as simple as eye rolling, shutting a person down when they’re speaking in a meeting or talking over them. It could be that they keep them out of an email string on purpose, so they are uninformed or misinformed. They micromanage people and humiliate them in public.

All of this starts to add up. If you’re observant, you can watch people and their response to the bad behavior, and you can tell how people feel by their behavior. As soon as you sense that people are feeling disengaged and badly, you start to queue in the fact that you have a problem here. People need to understand that disagreements are very normal and healthy, especially when we’re trying to disrupt everything, trying to create new projects, etc. that’s what project management to a large degree is about. The bottom line is we need to learn how to agree to disagree without being disrespectful and disagreeable.


Advice for fixing a misunderstanding on a project

This is going to happen every day. We have to be agile in how we learn to address differences of opinion. Ambiguity is usually the foundation of most problems. It could be that we don’t have a clear process, clear communication, clear instructions, etc. Whatever it might be, as project managers as soon as we are aware that people don’t know what is expected of them or they’re not clear about the next steps that they need to take, you must engage. You must come into the process and address that you’re not all on the same page. You must begin to unravel what is the misunderstanding, the disagreement that’s preventing from people working well together.

Bring people together; it’s useful to have face to face conversations when trying to manage a disagreement/misunderstanding. Find out what is going on. Once you’ve clarified the issue by doing things like active listening, making sure you separate people from the problems. Using simple conflict management tools, I think we can get everyone back to where we want them, back doing the tasks that we need them to do and understanding what they’re accountable for. It is essential to appreciate that the instant we become aware that something isn’t clear, that a signal for us as project managers to get in there and be accountable for ensuring that the lack of clarity is eliminated.


Are there specific professions that are known for “bad behavior?”

Yes, but it’s not something that I can say from a statistical or heavy-duty research perspective. It’s evident that project management is impacted by this bad behavior. It’s like cancer in the sense that it’s not discriminating from one sector, country, or profession, more than another--it’s everywhere.

That being said, it’s obvious to me that there are specific industries and sectors which seem to be more prone to this. Without a doubt, the one that I’ve seen an awful lot of bullying and disrespect is technology. I don’t know why that is, but I think it’s because you have a lot of highly intelligent people with strong views who may not be able to communicate as well as they would like. They might believe that their idea or opinions matter more than others, so you get a lot of challenges in tech. I’ve also seen a lot of challenges in healthcare, education, and projects that combine different professional groups to try to work together. At the end of the day, as project managers, we somehow have to get all those puzzle pieces to fit well and communicate with each other for our projects to be successful. That is the ultimate challenge.


Is it possible to turn bullying around?

Absolutely. The way I describe bullying when you know you have a problem is that you need to treat it like a project. What does that mean? Careful planning. You always have to be thinking about what are the policies and processes in my organization that might assist me? What is the role of Human Resources? What are the documents I’ll need to have the credibility/proof that there is a problem? Who are the colleagues or stakeholders that would be supportive? How do you lay out an action plan for getting the result that you hope to get? And understanding that you have also to evaluate what you want out of this process. What do you believe is important to get, while understanding you might not get it all. What are the fundamental things you hope to achieve?

It’s important to be realistic about what you can control and manage your health, behavior, and good risk management. It’s also essential to understand historically in your organization how bad behavior has been addressed. Historically, have bullies been promoted because they’re fabulously good at getting results as opposed to their behavior being condoned it’s condemned. Sometimes the best strategy may be a well-executed exit strategy.

The bottom-line is life is short, work somewhere awesome.

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