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How to Navigate Internal Politics as a Project Manager

Office politics. Those two words make some of us want to hide under our desks. Whether we like it or not, every project and organization has its politics. Project politics can be difficult to define, but generally speaking much of it has to do with power — interactions between those who hold it, and those who seek it. Project politics can be title-driven, position-driven, or just about how connected you are. People engage in workplace politics to reap rewards or when they have a specific agenda. Whether we like it or not, office politics can be difficult to avoid, even if you’re not personally involved. This is because, as a project manager, it is your business, whether it’s your business or not.

As project managers, most of our time and efforts revolve around leading our project team to a successful outcome. We’re proficient in scheduling, budget management, risk management, and communications. However, the interpersonal “soft skills” required for a leader are just as important as the ability to balance a budget.

Understanding office/project politics is essential for project managers. Here are some tips to help you navigate your way through the tricky internal landscape of politics.

 

Foster Good Working Relationships

Good working relationships are key when it comes to the smooth running of a project. Working relationships between members of a project team, stakeholders, and other senior executives can determine how smoothly your project progresses and ultimately how successful it is. When working relationships and issues are handled maturely, issues that come up can be dealt with more easily. Where working relationships are tense and fraught with conflict, individuals will be vying for “top dog” position or letting their individual agendas get in the way of project cohesiveness and success.

Some ways to foster good working relationships include:

  • Hold team meetings and ensure that everyone is heard equally, no matter their job title or duties.
  • Carve out time each month for team building activities. Whether it’s a shared lunch, fun activity, or after-work drinks (even virtually!) so everyone can get to know one another outside of their work roles.
  • Have an ‘open door’ policy and let everyone on your team know that you are accessible to listen to and discuss their concerns/ideas at any time.
  • Set the example by not engaging in petty office gossip. Work to have strong, positive relationships with each team member and set the tone for a positive work environment.

 

Look at All Sides of Conflict

Sometimes, conflict involving internal politics is inevitable. If you’re facing this, it’s important for you to hear everyone out in order to understand perspectives without losing sight of the fact that your ultimate goal is a successful project. If you can get to the bottom of the underlying reasons for the conflict, you’re a step closer to resolving it. Power plays in the office can often come from someone’s insecurity—whether they’re worried about their job or feel threatened by a co-worker who seems to have a more diverse skill set, for example.

Whatever you do, don’t avoid the conflict. By nature, projects challenge the status quo and introduce new ideas and pave a path for new ways of doing things. This alone can assure there will be some conflict. Additionally, it’s common for project teams to consist of many individuals from diverse backgrounds with varied experiences and differing ideas. This is a good thing for a project, but can sometimes cause conflict throughout the process. Embrace it by giving everyone the opportunity to hear and consider differing viewpoints when conflict comes up.

 

Avoid Complicating the Situation

Sometimes in your endeavors to “keep the peace,” you may unintentionally be complicating a situation. Don’t listen to long explanations of why someone hasn’t met their deadlines, why someone is behaving a certain way, or why so-and-so just has to speak negatively about their co-worker in the weekly team meeting. Cut through the political baggage, and get to the root of the issue. If you must, set out ground rules about expected professional conduct that everyone must adhere to (these really should be established at the start of any project). Bonus points if you can involve your team in the creation of these expectations for office conduct and behavior.

 

Remind Everyone That You’re In This Together

It’s all too easy to lose sight of a project’s goal and the shared purpose when embroiled in our day-to-day tasks or the drama of internal politics. It can sometimes be helpful to remind everyone that they are a team and in this together. Job satisfaction is important, but if project politics have gotten so bad that they are taking over the environment, then the benefits need to be more tangible. For example, mention of the importance for your organization to maintain its reputation so everyone can keep their job might be in order. These three simple things tend to work when you want to remind everyone that you’re all a team:

  • Be honest about what’s going on—don’t ignore the elephant in the room. Address issues as a team and with individuals as necessary.
  • Talk to your team more than you think you need to. This can take the form of weekly meetings, 1:1 chats, etc.
  • Have some fun together. Team building exercises are a good way to reconnect and move forward.

 

Look at the Positives of Politics

Of course, not all internal politics are bad or based in conflict. Politics can also be used constructively and even bring about positive change. Some examples of positive politics are listed below:

  • Creating a positive impression assures that key people find you interesting and approachable.
  • Positioning is being in the right place at the right time allows for connecting with the right people to assist with and advance your project.
  • Cultivating mentor/mentee relationships can occur when networking and making connections between team members and stakeholders, especially where experienced/senior folks can act as advisors for junior people on the team.
  • Purposefully making connections come about when a project manager makes strategic visits to senior management, stakeholders, and even support staff to cultivate friendly working relationships.

See the theme? It’s all about helping others while, at the same time, cultivating relationships and a network that can be leveraged during the tough times. Project managers frequently need to negotiate for personnel and financial resources to achieve successful project delivery, and having strong relationships and connections can go a long way to drive the success of your project.

 

Conclusion

Whether the politics are internal between team members or between your supplier and senior leadership, the issues at play cannot be ignored. It’s often impossible to keep everyone happy, so a strong will, incredible people skills, and the ability to navigate human relationships is important. Your role as manager means you must be prepared to tackle problems head-on.

What are your tips for project managers struggling with internal politics on their project team?

 

Written by Lindsay Curtis

Lindsay Curtis writes about communications, education, healthcare research, and parenting. She has extensive experience as a Project Manager, primarily in the healthcare and higher education sectors. A writer by day and a reader by night, she currently works as a Communications Officer for the University of Toronto. She also provides freelance copywriting and social media strategy services for businesses of all sizes. Learn more about Lindsay at www.curtiscommunications.org.

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1 Comment
  1. I really enjoyed this one. As an old-school IBM people manager (now retired) I can attest what you say is all valid. I really think IBM did it right back in the day, and managers were there to help the employees achieve, and it showed. My first manager was a jesuit priest before coming on board – and we were using robotic arms to manufacture floppy disks. My first managerial post was with folks working on ATMs, and that was quite a group. It was bad enough we didn’t have access to decent display screens, and had to use a periscope with a few lines of dot-matrix text, but the management team hit that head on (we all knew how ridiculous it was, but we had a laugh everyday and forged on. For me, it was all about fostering a sense of humor within a team, where we could all just laugh at whatever the ridiculousness of the day was (and it was all pretty much hysterical, in hindsight). Like when we built try and buy software on CDs, right before the internet hit. Or the time we got very childish cartoon character Pink Panther to sell software to banks and insurance companies. Or the time I put a yellow-duck graphical assistant in an IBM user manual, and almost got fired (but I didn’t – saved by a sense of humor in the executive ranks). Do yes, do all that you say, but as a project manager, find ways to make your workforce laugh and have fun, despite the insanity of it all.

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