Facilitating a Bully-Free Software Project Team

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I have a friend who writes and consults on workplace bullying. Some of the stories she’s told me are infuriating and sadly familiar, and many of them repeat the same themes. A lot of people, mostly women, in all levels of their organizations, have had to deal with a toxic work environment at some point because of a workplace bully.

Since we business analysts work in a project-based world, we often transition from one team to another and have to form working relationships with new people very quickly. We have to be pretty open-minded and flexible to succeed in that environment. But for our own wellbeing as well as for the success of our teams, we should be aware of the signs of workplace bullying so that we can prevent it from derailing our projects or our careers.

Workplace bullying can range from mild to severe, and the effects on the victims can be emotionally and professionally devastating. Bullying isn’t a one-off situation, but a consistent pattern of behavior. Bullies are generally classified as narcissists. Narcissists lack empathy, have difficulty forming meaningful relationships, objectify others, and lack normal boundaries.

Some of the signs of workplace bullying are:

  • Constantly interrupting or talking over someone
  • Belittling someone’s ideas or work
  • Providing criticism in a public forum (public shaming)
  • Objectifying someone by discussing their clothing or appearance
  • Encouraging confidences and then using that information to shame or embarrass someone
  • Making jokes at other people’s expense
  • Encouraging others to criticize or demean someone
  • Overstating their own skills and contributions or taking the credit for other people’s work

Workplace bully

Most reasonable people want to work things out with their colleagues, and prefer not to ‘make a scene’ in a public forum. Unfortunately, if you’re dealing with a real bully, these instincts will work against you. How do you stand up for yourself or your teammates without being perceived as the aggressor? Can you preserve the integrity of your team?

Firstly, there are a few things to avoid because they will NOT help the situation and could make it worse.

  • Saying “it really hurts my feelings when you do that.” You’ve just signaled to the bully that their bullying is effective and getting to you.
  • Saying “let’s find common ground” or “I want you to be happy.” You’ve just told the bully that you will compromise instead of standing up for yourself.
  • Saying “I’m sorry” too easily or just to maintain peace. You have now just taken the guilt onto yourself and absolved the bully of responsibility.
  • Ignoring the situation or laughing it off. You’ve abdicated the responsibility to protect yourself and your team. The bully will continue to take advantage of your good manners. You don’t get points for taking the high ground because you will have no ground left.

Discuss with team members

Instead, start by politely but firmly setting boundaries.

  • “Please do not interrupt me.”
  • “That’s not on our agenda for this meeting. Let’s discuss that in another forum.”
  • “That’s not okay with me.”
  • “Teamwork requires mutual respect.”
  • “Our team doesn’t engage in backbiting and gossip.”
  • “If you have questions or concerns, let’s talk about that offline.”

If the bully has already destabilized the team, established a group of supporters, or is a supervisor or manager, then the situation can be harder to handle. Here are some more proactive approaches to consider:

  • Meet with your team to establish team ground rules. Write them and post them in the team workspace. Ensure everyone on the team understands their responsibility to hold themselves and each other accountable to these rules.
  • Escalate the issue to the project sponsor. There are multiple ways to do this depending on the situation. Remember that a dysfunctional team puts the project at risk.
  • Escalate the issue to HR. Before you do this, you should document specific instances of the behavior so that you can communicate the problem objectively.

Remember, if you are the victim of the bullying, in addition to the mental distress you will experience, it’s possible that your career will be negatively impacted as well. Sometimes self-care has to be assertive. Don’t let the situation drag on, or you, your project, and your team will all suffer.

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