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.


How do you celebrate birthdays? (celebrating team milestones)

OK- so I’ll admit that it’s my birthday. And acknowledging it made me think about milestones in general, and more specifically, for a project team. Birthdays are a great milestone that can—and should-be celebrated. Do you celebrate milestones for your team members? I wish I could say we do a great job; we at least get together once a month and have a cake for all the birthday folks. I already wrote about celebrating successes on your project, but I want to make sure we (as great managers of people) are celebrating our staff’s milestones too. The art of being a manager, no – being a great manager–is to balance and integrate work and life for yourself and your team. (Personal admission: I am probably the worst person to talk about balance!)

So a couple of thoughts here: what do you set as milestone celebrations and how do make sure that the “party actually happens?” There are many excellent books, posts and writings on how to celebrate success and milestones. I especially liked Paul McGuire’s post on “Stop and Celebrate Milestones.” His simple 5 step process for using milestones is easy to implement.

First, do you know what the milestones are for your project or team? Oh, I have talked about the need for a predictive project schedule which always has milestones in it, but I am talking more specifically about which ones you use as “celebration points” from both the schedule and people. How about some examples:

  • Birthday’s – everyone has one! Let’s celebrate the achievement and acknowledge their special day.
  • Length of time on the project or team – surely in the current business climate we should celebrate people who stay with our organization and continue to provide increased value.
  • Major project milestone – I really like doing this with the client or stakeholder. I know I always seem to fill my week with handling problems, so a short time-out to celebrate a success is always welcome.
  • Team member life event – people do have lives outside of work! Be aware of what is going on. An engagement, marriage, new baby, diploma or even new house are great opportunities for the team to celebrate and get to know each other better as individuals.
  • Company/Organization event – do you celebrate your organization’s birthday? I bet your HR folks would say it is a great way to have people realize the benefits of being a part of a going concern. Or how about celebrating promotions? I hope you don’t call someone in and say “Oh by the way, you are being promoted to Vice President” and then walk away. Most promotions come after demonstrated success and lots of hard work. This makes it a great milestone to celebrate, especially if you helped the individual in setting goals to achieve the position, or have mentored or coached them.


Second, when should you celebrate milestones and successes? As G. Legh’s wrote in Accidence of Armoury, “There is no time like the present.” Another way to think about this is celebrate often, and as close to the milestone as possible.

Third, how do you celebrate milestones and successes? The answer is simple – it depends. There have been some great posts and articles written on this subject, so I’ll refer you to some of the better ones:

Fourth, how do you ensure that the celebrations you hold will provide motivation and feedback? This is a little harder to do on a consistent basis. Just holding a party without any special meaning is fine for after work time – but if you are going to celebrate make it count. One way to ensure you are getting the most out of milestone celebrations is to first identify the right milestones! Both project and personal milestones come and go while we are too busy to identify and recognize them. If you are a project manager, you already know that planning is a key to accomplishing a goal. So involve your team in identifying Key Milestones that you all want to achieve and celebrate. I really like the quote from Zig Zigler, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time!” I don’t expect my team to make every goal we set, but when we do make them, they are certainly worth celebrating!!

Finally, be sure that the importance of the celebration and milestone are highlighted. Have you ever been told to come to an all hands meeting for a celebration and then were not sure what was being celebrated? Not the right way to do it! Make sure that the achievement is known and talk about the success.

I think it is time to go celebrate another year of sharing with you! Thank you for reading!

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