PMI expects project managers to be politically smart and recognises that the appropriate and skilful use of politics and power help the project manger be successful (PMBOK® Guide Appendix X3.7). But what is organisational politics?
Project Managers tend to be ‘doers’ that like the action of delivering tangible results, things that have value. Most successful PMs are skilled at managing project sponsors or steering committees and their cross functional teams, and the best are good at navigating complex organizational structures. But, project managers are usually not office politicians and are usually not very good at playing corporate politics.
They see ‘playing politics’ as an undignified form of behaviour where logic, discipline, transparency and loyalty are replaced by deceit, secrecy and subterfuge. And whilst this may be true of some ‘political operators’ everyone in corporate management is involved in organisation’s politics and the biggest mistake a project manager can make is to assume that organizational politics don’t exist.
Project Managers need to understand corporate politics so they can see the warning signs of danger, and can position themselves to survive in politically charged environments. Politics is normal and dealing with it is just another part of an overall stakeholder management strategy.
Organisational politics is neither good nor bad in itself, it simply how power gets worked out on a practical, day-to-day basis. ‘Politics is an influence process in organizations to achieve power to change the balance of power to accomplish your goals or purposes’ (Kakabadse and Parker Wiley 1984). Project Managers need power to do their job and need to use politics as one way of gaining that power. In other words, politics is about power, influence, and access, and about working with the system to get what you need; which is not necessarily a bad thing.
A good working definition of politics is: ‘the use of one’s individual or assigned powers within an organisation for the purpose of obtaining advantages beyond one’s legitimate authority. Those advantages may include access to tangible assets, or intangible benefits such as status or pseudo-authority that influences the behaviour or others’.
‘Good politics’ is about working with the system to achieve positive results and helping to meet or exceed your project’s objectives. It’s about maintaining relationships and getting results at the same time. This can be achieved by finding win-win solutions and working to achieve mature compromises.
‘Bad politics’ is when someone works the system to make themselves look good at the expense of others. Bad politicians are focused on winning at all costs and abusing power systems to impose their will on others. This usually result in win-lose situations that can be highly de-motivating, destructive and dangerous to all involved.
Some traits of political players you need to be wary of include:
- Self Promoting: they take credit even when they have not earned it
- Manage up: they buddy only with power brokers
- Spread gossip and talk badly about others who are not present
- Distance themselves from failure
- Throw bombs into situations and then retreat into the shadows
- Extract information and opinions, without sharing their own.
Some of the ways to counter these traits and position yourself for success include:
- Consistently meeting and/or exceeding the expectations of your stakeholders. Delivering results brings you organisational credibility that is not easily negated by the words and actions of others. This is best achieved by proactive stakeholder management!
- Learn the political landscape of your organization. Be aware of how politics are unfolding around you. Determine the political players in your organization. Observe their actions and tactics. Anticipate what they will do next. Identify the power blocks and alliances that exist. The more you know, the better you can determine the course of action that is best for you.
- Actively manage your reputation. It’s ok to talk about your successes and to self-promote in a positive way. And, also promote your team and/or the people around you who helped with the success.
- Do not let negative talk fester. If someone engages in negative talk about you, your team or your accomplishments confront them with facts – address it quickly.
- Don’t take sides unnecessarily. Try not to become part of one of the existing power blocks, this often limits your options going forward. Instead keep your options open.
- Create your own alliance with people who are aligned with your values and engage in ‘good’ politics. Recruit people into your circle of influence by offering them support, encouragement, information, input, feedback, resources and access to others in your network. Earn their trust and respect through positive deeds and actions. Building your network will take time but it is worth the effort
- Don’t denigrate others. It’s easy to be trapped into a discussion where negative sentiments are being expressed about someone, even if you do not agree. Say, “I’m not comfortable talking about ‘Person X’ when they are not in the room. If you have an issue with them I suggest you talk about it with them directly.”
- ‘Keep your friends close, your enemies closer’. Sun Tzu, the author of the Art of War, understood that you have to be able to think like your enemies if you want to defeat them. So don’t shut out those who practice “bad” politics – rather, engage them, try to understand their perspectives, and learn their patterns. The more you know about them, the better you can manage your relationship with them.
- Remember, it’s not personal. Stay detached, don’t let your emotions dictate your actions, find support in your network, stay positive and, focus on delivering positive results.
- Think and look for “Win-Win” solutions. Win-lose outcomes will create enemies.
- Be true to your core values and principles. If a person or action does not fit within your core values you need to reconsider your path going forward.
- Be trusting but expect betrayal. Pragmatic trust is the key to successful engagement, if you are not prepared to trust people, they will not trust you (see more on The Value of Trust).
Organisational politics can be an ugly game in organisations that are not well lead and governed, often played by those whose only objective is complete, selfish victory (for one effect of this see: Poor Governance creates complexity). To avoid project failure, we have to recognise those who engage in bad politics, protect ourselves and our teams from them, and steer clear of situations where we might violate our core values.
To succeed as project managers, we need to link good politics with good stakeholder analysis and management and proactively use one’s individual or assigned powers within the organisation to obtain the support and resources needed to achieve your project’s objectives and ‘meet or exceed’ your stakeholder’s expectations. In reality, this is the only way you can succeed.