It was my first week in a new project manager’s job. I got a phone call from Avery – a consultant on the team – who sounded distressed and wanted to urgently meet. I agreed immediately and we met that afternoon.
Almost sobbing, she told me that her male colleague undermines her position and makes her efforts futile. She went on and on. The word “harassment” was in the air. From her narrative, it seems that it was happening for months, if not years. I asked her if she talked about her experience with the previous three project managers this project had. “No”, she admitted, and said she was “not able to take it anymore”…
I offered her a number of options, including to involve human resources, as she mentioned harassment. She agreed with the option of both of them meeting in my presence. I called our other colleague and we met couple of days later over a cup of coffee, on a neutral territory.
– Avery has something to tell you, Nick.
Avery was hesitating but it was too late to retrieve from the face-to-face. With some encouragement, she voiced her concerns. I could see Nick was in shock.
After the meeting he came by my office.
– I am shocked, he said.
– Yes, I saw.
– She spent her Sundays in my house, having wine with me and my wife, over the last two years. We work on a daily-basis… Now to hear all that and the bitterness in her voice…
I listened to his account of events. We agreed that he will think about what he can do on the points she raised. He was to remove all issues she could have potentially thought of as red flags in her communication with their common client.
As a project manager, I reassigned the assistant they shared, so there would be no suspicion of unwanted information passing from one office to another. Nick also arranged for the client to give her an honorary award. Needless to say, they did not have wine together after that. As things evolved in next months, we could see she liked her victim’s role and was soon after another colleague.
Two years later, Nick died of cancer. I always wondered if that story did not trigger it.
This story taught me many things. It taught me empathy and its dark side. It also reminded me to:
- Observe the interaction between team members and stay informed.
- Listen to both sides.
- Do what you can to help overcome the conflict by giving both sides an equal opportunity to voice their concerns.
- Do not allow for self-victimisation on the team. It serve no purpose.
- Take things seriously and involve Human Resources or mediators when there are indications of inappropriate behaviour and disrespect.
- Stay alert to the need to revisit team members’ communication needs and channels and eventually redistribute roles within the team.
- Last but not least, act with integrity.
* names are changed.