Do Project Managers have to Deal with Politics?

It has been quite a month for me – lots of turmoil, activities, tasks and yes, politics.  I was talking with two peers at a local Washington DC PMI event and this topic came up.  This is one city that certainly knows something about politics, but governmental politics is not what we were talking about.  I’ve had to deal with company, client and project politics many times in my career. My recent conversation with my peers made me think about how prepared PMs are for dealing with the inherent politics that come from working in almost any organization of people.

Did you study anything in your PMP prep course or classes on dealing with politics?  Or, did you see a “politics” chapter in the PMBOK?  You are not alone if you have had to deal with politics and people but felt unprepared to navigate those waters. The problem is, being a good project manager often requires that we do so!

I am not trying to say politics are bad – in fact the definition of politics is:

Workplace politics, (office politics or organizational politics) is the use of power and social networking within an organization to achieve changes that benefit the organization or individuals within it. Influence by individuals may serve personal interests without regard to their effect on the organization itself. Some of the personal advantages may include access to tangible assets, or intangible benefits such as status or pseudo-authority that influences the behavior of others. On the other hand, organizational politics can increase efficiency, form interpersonal relationships, expedite change, and profit the organization and its members simultaneously.

So, there can be positive political networks and affiliations which actually help managers and PMs to obtain success in their projects.  To quote Dale Myers, “…politics is about power, influence, and access. It’s about working the system to get what you want (or your project needs)– which may not necessarily be a bad thing.”

However, if you are a new manager or PM you may not be versed in how to 1) deal with bad politics or 2) how to utilize politics to help you succeed.

Trying to describe or talk about office politics in a single post in impossible, but here are a few tips I use to succeed in political environments:

  1. Treat people with integrity and honesty. Learn that most people want to trust and be trusted. Be honest and ethical in all your dealings – don’t play favorites and don’t play “games.” I always tell people who work for me “treat people the way you would want to be treated.” This doesn’t mean try to make everyone “like” you (rarely does everyone like the PM), but you want to be known as fair and open minded.
  2. Build relationships at all levels. Naturally, you will want to build strong peer relationships and good subordinate relations. Learn to work outside of your immediate circle of relations and expand your network. Build your network without imposing personal agendas. Take the time to form alliances with other organizations, support staff, other PMs, and anyone who you can bring into your network. This really isn’t hard – it can be a simple favor or a willingness to assist in a relatively minor task that builds the bridge between you and another person.
  3. Be aware and knowledgeable of the “Shadow Organization.” Oh yes, it exists, and many times it is more powerful than the formal organization and roles. Find out who has the power, influence, and respect in the organization or project. These can be powerful allies politically, or can blockade your project success. Learn how to find the shadow organization, then network within it.
  4. Learn how to form coalitions. Anytime humans are involved there is power in numbers! You will need to have allies and others who will back your position or decision. If you have formed the right relationships and have developed respect/trust, then you will be better able to get things done. Remember, power doesn’t just come from the organization chart—informal power and influence often works just as well. Every PM needs to have powerful coalitions to help change the way things are done and to counter the organizational antibodies that oppose new ideas.

In your PM role, are you a political pro, or novice?  Please share your tips with us!

Thanks for participating in the discussion.


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