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Project Managers and Workplace Bullying: Are You Willing to Risk Everything?

Workplace bullying is likely the “single most preventable and needless expense on a company’s register.” – P. Barnes

PMPs establish and foster workplace behavior expectations through their own leadership values and actions. Simply put – I believe that we learn from the examples set by those above. In effect, that leads to two clear choices that PMPs have: do they commit to a positive, respectful model for workplace culture or a disrespectful, bullying model?

Related Article: From Doing to Managing to Leading

This fundamental decision impacts your organization and also reflects back onto you as the leader.

Choosing a “bullying” Leadership style

PMPs choose a bullying leadership style driven predominantly by dominance, fear, and negative reinforcement. Employees have no choice but to do as their leader says. One can see the merit of this command and control leadership style on the battlefield. However, I don’t believe it belongs in the workplace.

The bullying model creates a workplace culture where employees feel vulnerable, anxious, and uncertain. All too commonly, PMPs that choose this model embrace disrespectful behavior. They motivate by threat, humiliation, and exerting power over others.

The results can be diabolical for the organization, the employees ,and for the PMP. By highlighting the pitfalls of PMPs leading using bullying tactics of negative reinforcement and disrespect, I hope to inspire PMPs to choose to choose the high road, creating a respectful workplace culture. Simply put – being a bully poses a significant risk to you as a leader.

Workplace Bullying – The Leadership Style Test

There is irrefutable data that PMPs set the tone and behavioral expectations for their organizations – their leadership style, expectations, and workplace respect tolerance levels ripple throughout the business. In our hyper-competitive world, there are intense and ever-present demands for results. Many organizations become so focused on short-term results that they ignore how they are achieved or the long-term impacts of the means used to get those results.

Some leaders willingly sacrifice a respectful workplace culture in order to please shareholders, customers, and stakeholders with baseline results. They may believe their employees matter most but in actual fact, results trump everything. If bullying gets those results, then this is the means selected to achieve the ends. The New York Times in a 2015 article reported this phenomenon about Amazon.

“At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas…toil long and late…and held to standards that the company boasts are ‘unreasonably high.’ The company’s winners dream up innovations. Losers leave or are fired in annual cullings of the staff — ‘purposeful Darwinism,’ one former Amazon human resources director said.”

Of particular importance is a quote in the article by Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon:

“As the company has grown, Mr. Bezos has become more committed to his original ideas, viewing them in almost moral terms, those who have worked closely with him say. “My main job today: I work hard at helping to maintain the culture,” Mr. Bezos said last year at a conference.”

The New York Times suggests that Amazon exemplifies the impact of Mr. Bezos’ deliberate choice of leadership style and workplace culture. To quote Mark Graban, author and healthcare expert – “You get what you expect and deserve what you tolerate.” Mr. Bezos is getting what he expects and deserves what he tolerates. Following this logic, if bullying is a tolerated behavior, a disrespectful culture will evolve. Fear will be the primary motivator. The article alleges that is exactly how things work at Amazon.

Focusing exclusively on the risk that PMPs bear for supporting a bullying culture (either by being bullies themselves or by promoting organizational influencers that are), I question whether they appreciate the risks they have embraced. These risks could result in self-destructive, unanticipated consequences – ruining their career, reputation, and taking their beloved businesses down with them. I believe that it’s possible (and in the best long-term organizational interest) to have both workplace respect and healthy competition. Staff don’t need to be abused to perform to their fullest.

The popular TV show 60 Minutes produced an explosive piece called the King of Coal in March 2016 about a US mining company CEO who was convicted of a workplace safety crime for “ignoring mine safety laws and fostering a corporate mentality that allowed the disaster to occur.” The piece highlighted a workplace culture based on bullying that permeated the company. “ The CEO sent terse handwritten notes and memos to managers criticizing them for high costs and low coal production…”you have a kid to feed” he wrote, “do your job”…”pitiful.” “I could Khrushchev you”…and…”in my opinion children could run these mines better than you all do.”

The defendant, Don Blankenship, had for decades been one of West Virginia’s most influential and powerful figures. 60 Minutes noted that: “Prosecutors say for years he condoned and tolerated safety violations for the sake of profit. A federal jury came to a landmark decision, finding Don Blankenship guilty of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety laws.”

Mr. Blankenship lost his job and reputation – the profit-producing bully will also be spending time in prison.

This example highlights the risk that PMPs take by leading with bullying and ignoring their legal and social responsibilities – results are important but if they come at a cost of an unethical, disrespectful workplace culture, the PMP may lose her job and image.

I believe that PMPs determine their destiny when they choose their leadership values and style. The choice is quite simple – do results/profits alone drive the workplace culture or does workplace culture drive results/profits? There are incredibly successful leaders that vehemently oppose the leadership style demonstrated by Mr. Bezos and Don Blankenship – Sam Walton, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates to name a few.

To quote Orrin Woodward, founder of Life Leadership and bestselling author: “You cannot expect your team to rise above your example.” To choose or not to choose to bully – that is the PMP’s question. What will you choose?

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Paul will be speaking at Project World Business Analyst World – Vancouver, October 3-6, 2016.  Register today!


Patricia G. Barnes, Surviving Bullies, Queen Bees and Psychopaths (United States: Patricia G. Barnes, 2012; updated July 2013)

Clive Boddy, “Bullying and Corporate Psychopaths at Work” (December 3, 2012, available from

Ståle Einarsen, Bullying and Emotional Abuse in the Workplace: International Perspectives in Research and Practice (Taylor & Francis: 2003).

Greenleaf, R. (1991). The servant as leader ([Rev. ed.). Indianapolis, IN:
Robert K. Greenleaf Center.

Kouzes, J. & Posner, B. (2008). The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco, CA:

Ray Williams, “How Workplace Bullying Harms every Employee in the Toxic Work Environment” (The Financial Post , February 21, 2015. Available from

Christine Porath and Christine Pearson, “The Price of Bullying in the Workplace” (Harvard Business Review ,January 1, 2013; available from

Clare Rayner, “The Incidence of Workplace Bullying”(Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology ,1997, Vol. 7 No. 3), pp. 199-208.

Ståle Einarsen, “The Nature and Causes of Bullying at Work,” International Journal of Manpower (MCB University Press , 0143-7720: 1999, Vol. 20 No1/2), pp16-27.

Rebecca Thomson, “IT Workers Being Bullied, Says Union,” (March 4, 2008, available from

Jodi Kantor and David Streitfield, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” (New York Times, August 16, 2015 available from

Cooper, Anderson (correspondent), “The King of Coal” (March 6, 2016, CBS 60 Minutes available from

The Associated Press, “Alpha joins the lineup of coal miners in bankruptcy (August 3, 2015, CBS Moneywatch available from

Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, “The Economic Crisis and Ethics” (November 9, 2009 available from

Barry McKenna, “Turing Volkswagen Scandal Show Firms are Willing to Roll the Ethical Dice” (Sept 25, 2015, The Globe and Mail available from

Elliott Brettland, “FBI to probe Sepp Blatter as disgraced FIFA chief finally heads for the exit six days after cash scandal that rocked world football” (June 2, 2015, The Daily Mail Online available from ).

Orrin Woodward, (retrieved February18, 2016 from website:

Sam Walton, (retrieved February 27, 2016, from website:

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