Rules for Beating Bullies: How to work with difficult project managers

Shutterstock / Alexandru Logel
Shutterstock / Alexandru Logel

Big Jake was a rough, old-school project manager for a general contractor. He thought subcontractor work was never completely up to par and should go faster. Weekly, Big Jake emailed each of his subs that more crews were needed, and the quality of the work needed to be improved. When a sub requested an extra work order or information about the schedule or the specifications, Big Jake never answered in writing. Instead, he would get on the phone and say it was the sub’s responsibility, not his, to do the work.

When a subcontractor has to confront someone like Big Jake, the sub’s field management often gets defensive, blames itself and starts to blame other subs for the problem. Some subs do increase their manpower and absorb the extra costs rather than confront Big Jake. When the job is over, if any sub tries to make a claim, its chances of success are diminished because Big Jake has a bulky file of his unanswered emails complaining about the sub’s work.

Before Fuse-All Electric bid on a courthouse renovation project, it had not had any experience with Big Jake. Soon, Fuse-All saw Big Jake in action. Fuse-All’s general foreman, Manuel, was angered and confused by Big Jake’s demands and criticisms. Manuel finally called the home office and asked to be replaced. Fuse-All’s vice president of operations, Randy, called Manuel into the office for a talk.

First, Randy asked around about Big Jake and realized he had come across people like him before and had developed some techniques for controlling project managers. Randy explained those techniques to Manuel, and he and Manuel worked out procedures—actually more of a philosophy—for handling a bully like Big Jake.

Randy wanted to keep Big Jake in check and give Manuel the confidence that he had regained control. These techniques, reduced to 10 rules, were fairly easy to follow. Manuel left the meeting, agreeing to stay on the job with the rules he committed to memory as his guide in dealing with Big Jake.

Randy’s List

  1. If Big Jake sends you a written criticism or complaint that is general, reply with details. If you get a detailed criticism or complaint, respond generally. For example, “We disagree with the content of your letter and we need to discuss it.”

  2. If Big Jake tells you that your installation is deficient, do not say “I’ll fix it.” Rather, say, “I need to look at the drawings and I will get back to you.” Until you know exactly what the problem is, do not say “I’ll take care of it.”

  3. When you write a reply to Big Jake, stay away from using “I” and “you.” Instead, use words like “it is” or “the situation is.” Stay factual, not personal.

  4. If Big Jake asks you to do something different from the drawings or specifications, ask him to put it in writing. If he refuses, or simply does not do it, send Big Jake a written confirmation of his direction and instruction.

  5. Do not make promises about the work schedule until you are certain of the job conditions. If Big Jake says he needs you to finish an area of work by next week, don’t answer until you know whether that area is available or whether other subs and their materials are in the way.

  6. If Big Jake says you are holding up the project, ask him to be specific. Tell him you want to find out exactly what he thinks is happening, and then be prepared to go back to him with a specific explanation of the situation and proposed solution(s).

  7. Pin up a large copy of the job schedule in the field trailer and mark it up every day, or at least once a week, to show actual progress. The differences between planned and actual progress will alert you to notify Big Jake about issues caused by his company or others. In some cases, plotting quantities, such as feet of conduit installed or number of fixtures mounted, can be a helpful tracking method.

  8. Keep handy a list of all contract written notice clauses so you can send timely emails of delays, extras, suspensions, interferences, etc. Protect yourself.

  9. For your notice letters or requests for information or clarification, write separate emails for each issue. Complicated letters tend not be read carefully or understood.

  10. Before sending a letter or email, review it to delete all unnecessary words. You don’t usually need to go over the whole history of the job. Stick to the issue at hand and try to avoid accusations. A good rule for writing is to delete your favorite sentences first.

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