The Politically Proficient Project Manager

If you are a project manager, you will have to deal with organizational politics in virtually every part of your work. Whether it’s trying to attract a sponsor, grab a star performer for your project team, or compete with another project manager for scarce resources, every decision you make will have a political impact. If organizational politics is about advancing someone’s interests over others, then your job title puts you right in the middle of the political battlefield.

Most of us don’t like playing organizational politics. It can seem irrational, counterproductive, and often vicious while all we want to do is get the job done. There is also the stereotype of those slick political operators who make false promises and get by on who they know rather than actual talent. Even so, the project manager can be both politically proficient and retain their integrity. In fact, to be truly successful, every project manager must appreciate and understand organizational politics.

In Jeffrey Pinto’s book superb book, Power and Politics in Project Management (1998), he describes how project managers can find the middle ground between being politically “naïve” or a political “shark” by becoming politically “sensible.” In the fifth chapter (“How You Will Become a Victim of Politics”), Pinto lists ten categories of organizational political tactics:

1. Gaining support from a higher power source or sources – this should be familiar to project managers as the process of gaining an executive sponsor.
2. Alliance or coalition building – the key here is to start building your networks even before you will need them for your projects. As I tell my students, networks are like gardens; they need constant care and attention.
3. Controlling critical resources – This is where the project manager is usually at a disadvantage because he or she has to rely on the stakeholders for resources. This is where your network plays a vital role.
4. Controlling the decision process – Again, the project manager does not have this advantage. That is why a strong executive sponsor is so vital.
5. Controlling the committee process – Committees, teams, boards, and the like are a fact of life in the organization. He or she who controls the agenda, who can be a member, and the chairpersonship can be a powerful ally or enemy.
6. Uses of positional authority – Functional managers have rewards/punishment power while project managers don’t. The executive sponsor may be able to help here.
7. Use of the scientific element – This is the hard science of project planning and control for which the project manager has a natural advantage. Use your expert power wisely to build networks and establish credibility.
8. Deceit and deception – The dark side of hidden agendas, secrecy, and laying traps for others. You should be aware of these tactics so that you can defend against them but do not use them. A project manager that has lost his or her credibility is no longer effective.
9. Information – This is the oil of organizational politics. You want to make sure you have unlimited and unobstructed access to honest information.
10. Miscellaneous games – The old “divide and conquer” tactic. When others argue that “we all are in the same lifeboat” or threaten to “blow the whistle.”

Besides understanding these categories of political tactics, what else can a project manager do to make him or her more politically proficient? Pinto (1998) suggests that political managers sharpen their skills in negotiation and conflict resolution. Consider that 90% of your work will be communication and I bet that a large percentage of that time is involved in either striking deals or handling conflicts. To his list, I would also add networking as this can help alleviate the power disadvantages that project managers inherently have from just being project managers in a functional or matrix organization.

Organizational politics are a natural part of your work life. Ignoring politics will just make you easy prey while becoming a political animal makes you part of the problem. Your first duty as a project manager is to successfully deliver projects and thus it is vital you becoming sensible dealing with organizational politics. Appreciate that politics exists and play the political game with integrity and respect to others in the organization.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this posting are mine alone and do not reflect the views or opinions of my employers or any organizations that I belong to and should not be construed as such.

Pinto, J.K. (1998). Power and politics in project management. Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

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Peter Sperry

The relationship between the project manager and the executive sponsor has always seemed to be the most written about and the most misunderstood. Ideally, executive sponsors should be seeking project managers who can help them achieve organizational goals. But most of the literature seems to be about how prospective project managers should seek out and recruit executive sponsors. A great deal of the bad politics I’ve seen in organizations has involved individuals or groups manuvering to gain executive support for projects that excite them and no one else. Yes, there are occaisionally issues or opportunities the top executives have missed and a good manager or team can proactively offer a project solution. But if senior executives are regularly endorsing projects related to issues or opportunities they had not previously identified, than the first project they may want to embrace is developing a better understanding of the organization they are supposed to be leading. And prospective project managers should think twice before jumping into a political effort to gain executive support for initiatives that do not already have it.

Josh Nankivel

Thanks Bill. I think this is very true on a day-to-day basis with regard to ordinary decisions that get made too. Talking to the right people (not necessarily managers) and getting them on board with an approach is something I do every day.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Peter – Ideally, what you wrote should be the case. But, in practice, you see so many executives either busy with putting out fires or staying out of the limelight that if a project manager waited for an executive sponsor to discover them, the projects would never get an executive sponsor. I think what you are describing is a sign of a mature project management organization but how do we arrive at that state?