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Political Advice for Project Managers: Navigating Office Politics

By Ron Montgomery (1239 words)
Posted in Project & Process Management on October 15, 2012

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By Ron Montgomery, Management Consultant & Owner, OnPoint, LLC

Project managers go through extensive professional development to prepare for the job.  They study scheduling, budgeting, team dynamics, communication, and change management among other subjects.  Conspicuously absent from the typical project management syllabus is the study of company politics.  This is unfortunate because projects are to great extent political activities.


Why are they political activities?  First of all, projects bring about a change in the status quo, which brings inevitable pockets of resistance.  They consume scarce capital and human resources that could be used elsewhere in the organization, which gives rise to rivalries.  Further, project team members hail from multiple departments, each of which have manager with unique interests and objectives which may be inconsistent with those of the project.   So, if they are to be successful, project managers must learn to navigate corporate politics.  Following are four tips to help with this rather unpleasant aspect of the job.



Tip #1 - Occupy a middle ground between the extremes of being either scheming or naïve. 

Save your instincts of revenge for video games, football or perhaps your commute home. Similarly, do not make the mistake of assuming that everyone will support your project and that you will encounter no resistance.  Between these two extremes is a reasonable mindset that a political activity is a normal part of project work and you must plan accordingly.  Always bear in mind that the goal of your political activity must always be to promote success of the project.


Tip #2 - Learn to detect when others are taking aim at your project.   


Sometimes, your political opponents will be quite direct in their opposition to your project and will tell you about their concerns.  If this happens, listen to their concerns and determine if you need to change your approach or your communication plan.  Typically, your opposition will be more subtle and difficult to detect.  This is where you need strong personal relationships with those who are “plugged in” to informal communications within your organization.   Keep your ears open for feedback such as “no one asked me” or “another flavor of the week” or “I don’t understand why we’re doing this now.”  Such comments are signs that you need to review your communication plan to see if you overlooked some project stakeholders or if you need to refine your message.      


Tip #3 - Don’t be too quick in assuming evil intent on the part of the political opposition.  Try to understand their perspectives. 

Some who oppose the project may express their opposition in a manner that seems like a personal affront to the project manager.  Others may exhibit passive-aggressive behavior, appearing in public to be supportive but privately feeding the rumor mill with damaging opinions.  Still others may take action such as withholding allocation of resources – human or financial – to your project.  Your initial reaction to such behavior may be to respond in kind and commence your favorite type of Machiavellian tactics.  To borrow an expression, “don’t go there.”  Begin with an attitude that your opposition is not out to get you and that they may have a point.  Have a private conversation with those who oppose you, and spend most of that time listening to them instead of defending yourself.  By listening, you may learn that you have excluded a stakeholder from your communications plan or that your own behavior may be promoting the political activity of your opponents.  After spending an appropriate amount of time listening, proceed with the next tip.


Tip #4 – Your project sponsor is your best ally – seek his or her counsel. 

Whether the source of your political opposition is due to omissions in your plan or real malevolence on the part or your opponents, you need to have a conversation with your project sponsor.  After taking the time to listen, briefly summarize the issue, identify 2-3 options for moving forward and review all points privately with your sponsor.  He or she may provide you with direction or they may take the matter in their own hands.  Your sponsor has a vested interest in the success of your project, as well as the formal authority and organizational clout to take appropriate action.    


Over the years I have witnessed organizations in which politics were particularly nasty, making it nearly impossible to introduce productive change.  A common denominator in these organizations has been a toxic culture that was inflamed by poor organizational structure and a resultant lack of clarity in responsibility and authority.  This results in internecine turf wars that produce a minefield for project managers.  If you are in a senior leadership role in such an organization, you should take action to correct organizational and cultural issues before initiating major projects.


Keep in mind that some level of company politics is a reality in virtually any organization and opposition should be expected.  A project manager should always maintain a mature attitude and view it as a necessary, if disagreeable, part of the job.  


What political roadblocks have you encountered in your job?  How did you mitigate the challenges to succeed at your goal?  Join us in our Project Management community to continue this and other discussions.


{#/pub/images/RonMontgomery1.jpg}Written by Ron Montgomery, Management Consultant & Owner, OnPoint, LLC Ron is certified as a Project Management Professional, Agile Certified Practitioner and Certified ScrumMaster with over 35 years of hands-on experience in business planning, software development, process improvement & deployment of software solutions.  By partnering with clients to drive business value from technology projects, Ron assists clients with business planning, IT strategy, project and program management, vendor selection and team training/mentoring.



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Comments (3)

Brian McCarthy posted on: October 17, 2012

Thanks for sharing this,

Very interesting article and some good recommendations. I work with office politics on a different level but try to reach the same level of cooperation within the office and teams.

Sometimes just using simple communications techniques can bring everyone closer to understanding and polite communications... even when they have something negative to say!

DINESH JHAWAR posted on: November 13, 2012

What are the special PMP Techniques required in today's dynamic business scenerio ?? We could have a good discussion here..

Larry J Miller posted on: November 13, 2012

Building the foundation to achieve everything else mentioned, is learning the interpersonal elements and communication style of each team member, which then defines the interpersonal communications of the team. Then establish the project's culture and "the way things will be done", so to speak and then actively manage the project's communications.

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