Last month I started my Project Manager Project, intending to answer the questions Project Managers have asked about teams, teaming, and Teamability. Here’s the second part, with thanks to the many PMs around the globe who’ve asked these excellent questions during Teamability webinars.
This one is on a difficult subject: dealing with bullies. And it’s not just for PMs. Here’s the question:
We have one team player that is a bully, and our team is very small. We don’t want to work with him so how do the rest of us deal with him?
Bullying behavior is often rooted in fear. People who bully others are dealing with their fear in ways that may make them feel better, but are (at minimum) ineffective, and (more likely) damaging to team performance. The more stress there is in the environment, the worse this kind of behavior can get. Consequently, arranging an occasional ‘stress break’ for the team is a valuable practice, but try to include the bully. Even just a shared laugh is a great stress breaker – which is why so many project teams enjoy ‘gallows’ humor! Once you get the bully laughing, bullying tends to subside, at least for a little while.
Here’s another little trick. Take note of the degree of ‘friendliness’ the bully is exhibiting. When you are dealing with him or her, don’t be even one little bit friendlier than that. (Don’t be nasty; just go ‘cool/neutral’. If you are naturally very friendly and often smiling, this may be very hard for you!) At the same time, pretend you have very little power (which, paradoxically, is just about the most powerful thing you can do in this situation!) and tell him or her you have no answers. When the bully tries to tell you what to do, ask for more, and more, and more details. Sooner or later, he or she will run out of answers and probably tell you to go figure it out yourself. Which is really what you want, isn’t it?
The key to ‘bully-handling’ is the avoidance of any kind of a power struggle. If you can do this, while practicing Role-respect and keeping the bully focused on job responsibilities with the right Role-fit, the bully’s fear will subside and the general tone of his/her behavior will improve, at least for as long as the stress level remains relatively low.
This same strategy is also effective with ‘know-it-all’ people, and with those who seem to want everyone else to be dependent on them.
A final note: sometimes the best you can do is just not make it worse. If you do that, please congratulate yourself!