Dealing with the Politics in Project Management

The type of working relationships and personal dynamics that develop between the members of a project team and others involved in a project, such as stakeholders and senior executives, can determine how smoothly a project progresses and ultimately how successful it is. In a group with good working relationships problems can be dealt with easily and conflicts handled maturely without causing the project to flounder. But where working relationships are fraught with tension, individuals have their own personal agendas or are vying to be “top dog” then personal conflicts can get in the way of the project aims. Issues between members of the team become the over-riding concern both for the individuals concerned and sometimes even the project manager. Meetings can consist of jostling for power or simply trying to justify your position and when that happens progress on the project will suffer.

But we have all seen it happen and office politics are part and parcel of business life (whether in an office or not). For project managers the problem is often compounded because teams are frequently put together simply for the duration of a project and not necessarily chosen with harmony in mind, particularly for an urgent project. But this is a short-sighted approach for those responsible for putting the team together and potentially risks financial and reputational consequences if you fail to deliver the project on time and to the quality expected because of delays resolving internal conflict.

Office politics can be difficult to define but we can all usually recognise the symptoms and they almost always involve a struggle for power whether that entails simply trying to keep your job or to be promoted; and they are difficult to avoid even if you are not personally involved.

Sometimes the politics are not internal but involve the client trying to wield power to get more out of the project than the original contract included; maybe more functionality for the same cost or the agreed functionality for a lower cost? These sorts of problems can be bad for the reputation of a company if a major client starts to publicly criticise the project deliverables and question the success of the final outcome.

So whether the office politics are internal between employees or between the client and the supplier they cannot be ignored. But just how does a project manager cope with office politics? What are the rules of the game? It is rarely possible to keep everyone happy so it usually takes a strong will and some tough decisions on the part of the project manager to resolve the situation. Recognise that the role of project manager is just as important to a project’s success as the client or other stakeholder so be prepared to tackle the problem head on.

In the case of project politics you can learn from politicians themselves and use these three key techniques:

  1. Look at Both Sides of the Conflict
    There are always two sides to every conflict so try and understand both perspectives without losing sight of the fact that the ultimate goal is a successful project. Be a good arbiter and if you can understand the underlying reasons for the conflict you are one step closer to resolving it. Plays for power can often come from underlying job insecurity, for example; something which you might be in a position to improve or at the very least help broker a compromise.
  2. Avoid Complicating the Situation
    Don’t listen to long explanations of why someone is behaving in a certain way or why tasks have not been completed; instead try to cut through all the political baggage and simplify the problem. If necessary employ new ground rules for everyone to follow or halt the project temporarily while the problem is resolved.
  3. Remind Everyone of the Benefits for Them Personally
    People can often lose sight of the benefits of a project to them personally once they are embroiled in the day to day tasks so remind everyone why the project is being done and what they will get out of it. Of course, job satisfaction is important but if the project politics have got so bad that they have become a problem then the potential benefits need to be something more tangible such as the company maintaining their reputation so they stay in business everyone keeps their job! That’s a useful focus for anyone.

Projects are rarely easy and office politics can compound other sorts of problems that arise so they need to be dealt with swiftly and firmly. Project Management is about much more than just scheduling tasks and managing risk and change and a project manager needs to be able to take on myriad responsibilities when aiming for project success.

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