Influence without authority and navigating through internal politics

“Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is more important than the outcome. Not everyone can be Number 1.”

Arthur Robert Ashe, Jr.


All too often one hears project managers complain that they have all of the responsibility and are held accountable for everything on a project, but that they don't have the authority that they need in order to manage the project to achieve successful outcomes. The objectives of this presentation are to lay to rest the myth that project managers have don't have the authority to execute projects, and to provide recommendations to assist project managers in establishing the sort of interpersonal relationship skills necessary for influencing and navigating internal politics. The recommendations are neither a panacea nor a “silver bullet” approach, but are instead simply a common sense approach to improving one's ability to lead effective project teams and arrange for appropriate resource allocations as needed in constrained situations.


If the following describes you, then you could benefit from this white paper:

You are a project manager with all of the responsibility and accountability for projects but with no authority to assign appropriately skilled resources as needed. Functional managers control all of the resources and won't let them work on your project when you need them because of “other” priorities. You have the answer to a vexing problem, but nobody wants to listen to you to solve the issue(s). Other, less capable individuals (as perceived by you) are getting ahead and you're not. Maybe you've had discussions about how no one is doing what you want them to do and your projects are always in trouble. It seems that the whole world is against you and it's everyone else's fault that you are not getting the resources or the cooperation that you need. However, could it be that you are your own nemesis? How can you find out if it's really “them” and not you? How do others perceive you compared with how you see yourself?

Several different factors related to the organizational culture, organizational structure, reporting relationships, leadership styles and approaches, project management maturity, and so on, influence whether a project manager has sufficient authority levels to assure successful project outcomes. Individual project manager background, education, and experience also have a bearing on team collaboration and project success. This paper addresses a six-step approach that might assist project managers to become more effective and efficient in completing projects successfully and obtaining resources with the appropriate skills when needed. Although this approach is not a “silver bullet” or panacea, it will help project managers identify the political landscape in organizations, the players and their styles, the steps that should be considered for improving one's own style and approach, and will provide project managers with a roadmap to achieving influence greater success and influence in one's project leadership approach. Finally, it will provide some hints for further personal development.


The first objective is to set the context and assist the project manager in understanding his or her current situation within the context of an organizational framework and identify the gap between the level of authority that the project manager perceives himself or herself to have and the level of authority that the project manager actually does have. The second objective is to identify what needs to be done to correct the perception that a project manager has no authority yet is responsible and accountable for project results and success. This step provides the impetus for change and identifies the necessary gaps and details providing a baseline from which improvements can then be planned.

The last objective, albeit the most important one, is to provide the tools for the project manager to perform a self-evaluation, gain input from peers, coworkers, and superiors, and gain an understanding of perceptions versus reality. A roadmap for significant improvements is then suggested. References are provided at the end of the presentation. Let's get started with the six-step process to improve your potential for project and career success.

Step 1: Assessing the Current Situation

Before we can identify any steps for improvement, we need to understand what the current situation is in terms of organizational culture---in very basic terms, the personality of the organization. Organizational culture is comprised of the assumptions, values, standards, norms, and other signs of the organization's members and their behaviors. The Project Management Institute defines organizational culture within the context of enterprise environmental factors. Next we need to identify the organizational structure---departments/silos/reporting relationships. This exercise is helpful in understanding where the boundaries are, who the decision makers are, who needs to be involved in what decisions affecting your project, and what sort of approach may be needed to influence resource allocations for your project. In short, we need to identify all of the critical stakeholders and what part they would play for your project to be a success.

Identifying the organizational focus/strategy/future direction/profitability outlook and how your project fits into this strategic mix is important, allowing you to gauge stakeholder perceptions about your project's priority and visibility within the organizational context. If you are leading a high-priority and high-visibility project, you may have no problems in assuring that appropriate resources are allocated and assigned as needed. However, if your project is lower on the visibility and priority scale, you may not get the sort of cooperation needed to assure timely and successful completion.

Understanding the project failure/success ratio will also help you in assessing corporate culture in terms of project management. If the failure rate of projects is fairly high, then the organization's maturity level in terms of project management may not be very conducive to a structured approach and you may need to be more flexible in your project leadership style to accomplish successful project outcomes. This implies that your success as a project manager is highly dependent on your relationship with senior management rather than on the priority or strategic fit of your particular project. Conversely, if the failure rate is very low, then you can assume that the organization has a mature project management approach and your ability to be successful depends more on your ability to collaborate and lead project teams, rather than on relationships. On a side note: relationships are dependent on people; if your success depends more on the people you know than on what you can accomplish, then it is more likely that you might ultimately fail, as people invariably move on to other organizations. In the long term, it is better to have great skills and leadership abilities than to rely solely on relationships. This is not to say that you do not need to build relationships; to be successful as a project manager, you must have skills, credibility, and the ability to forge long-lasting relationships among all stakeholders.

Be aware of “shining stars”---people who have made a name for themselves and are more likely to influence various stakeholders to gain the necessary cooperation and collaboration to succeed in their project endeavors. It may be helpful to forge partnerships with the rising stars to assist you in your efforts. Be aware of the various roles and responsibilities that others have---who has influence over what. Pay special attention to informal influences: it isn't always the person in the position of authority who actually exercises authority; sometimes it is the person that sits back and nods in agreement or shakes his head in disagreement without ever saying a word. Next, consider your personal effectiveness in achieving project success and your leadership style. If your style of leadership is contrary to success in accomplishing quality work, then you might have to look inward to evaluate whether to change your approach.. Your ability to work with various teams is another factor that needs to be considered. Whom can you work with well how will you handle a problem when it seems the whole world is against you and it's everyone else's fault that you are not getting the resources or cooperation you need. Once you have a solid assessment of the current situation, you can then prepare a plan that will improve the situation and your ability to be successful.

Step 2: Identify the Problem

Once you have assessed the current situation in terms of organizational culture and philosophy, it is necessary to focus on identifying the problem(s) as perceived by you. This assessment phase is by nature a bit tainted with the goggles you may be wearing and may not be a reflection of reality. To gain a better understanding of actuality, you might consider obtaining an outside assessment. However, this may be beyond the budgetary resources available and should be considered only when the situation is dire and the consequences of inaction are worse than the cost of an independent assessment.

The following is a partial list of observations commonly made by project managers who perceive themselves as having little or no influence or authority:


▪ Nobody listens to you

▪ Every meeting turns into a “fight” – nobody is doing what they should be

▪ Situation always turns explosive

▪ Misinterpretation/Miscommunication

▪ No mutual understanding

▪ No common goals and objectives

▪ You juggle too many activities and you're drowning

▪ The project doesn't meet organizational strategy and you don't want to tell anyone for fear of losing your job

▪ You can't get any cooperation from anybody – they all have their own work and your project isn't on their priority list

▪ Are you behind the proverbial 8-ball?

▪ You can't…….{name it here}

▪ You have no authority – yet you are responsible and accountable for meeting project objectives and goals

▪ Are you whining?

The last entry on this list seems to be endemic of project managers who have not yet learned the art of leadership or diplomacy and who therefore have a difficult time establishing meaningful business relationships based on mutual trust, respect, and credibility. “Whining” is often a defense mechanism that is used as an excuse for poor performance and/or results. “It's not me, the team is uncooperative and doesn't want to work on this project because [insert excuse here].” It is important to be as objective as possible when defining the various problems; most of the time we wind up identifying symptoms, rather than their cause, and we must be careful that we distinguish between them. The more objective our assessment, the better we will be able to find solutions.

Step 3: Identifying What Needs to be Done

The next step is to identify what we can do about the problems. Obviously, if we identify only the symptoms, we may not be able to find solutions. It seems that all too often, project managers who have difficulty in obtaining resources have developed project plans in isolation of all other projects within the organization and did not include any resource dependencies in their schedule. Contingencies are generally insufficient to mitigate the omission. Scarce resources are frequently over-committed and have very little in terms of flexibility to accommodate the multiple project requirements. If this is not taken into consideration, then resources will not be available and no amount of “whining” will get them assigned. Often, project requirements are in apparent conflict, with various stakeholders demanding priority attention. This situation is something project managers need to learn to live with. Project managers must learn the art of diplomacy and negotiation, working collaboratively with their colleagues to “think outside the box” in terms of scarce resource assignments. Resource sharing could be one solution---often scarce and highly skilled resources do have the ability to multitask, especially when we have the good sense to also include resource development as part of project planning. With resource sharing, we are able to assign lesser-skilled individuals who have shown promise to work under the direction of the highly skilled and scarce resources. When this is done, more can be accomplished with fewer resources.

Of course, first we must identify what resources and skills are needed. This does not necessarily mean that these are going to be people we like to work with. We must be objective and stick to objective facts. If someone has the skills, whether or not we “like” them should be irrelevant. Although it can be argued that more gets done with people we like to work with, the counterargument is simply that we must get things done regardless of whom we are working with, and the people we like are not available. Therefore we must make the effort to work with people whom we don't necessarily “like” and to forge a relationship with them. After all, we are all working toward the same organizational goals.

Once you've established resource availability, you need to make sure that a common vision is shared. You need to relate to the project team and stakeholders the expected outcome and process to achieve those outcomes, so that everyone is “on the same page.” You want to make certain to ask people to work with you in a common endeavor; you don't want to be required to tell them what to do or how to do it (i.e., micromanage).

If you have people on the team who are not quite up to par, you want to make sure that you develop their expertise and not criticize their shortcomings. According to A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)---Third edition (Project Management Institute, 2004, Section 9.2), we are responsible for team development and must ensure that appropriate time and budgets are allocated to accomplish this. Some organizations do not believe in this approach, but if we get our facts straight and let them know that it is more cost-effective over the long term to develop the team than to outsource, there is a chance to improve the maturity level of the organization relative to managing projects and have a better project/success ratio.

Some of the key aspects of identifying what needs to be done are performing a self assessment to understand how we, as project managers, establish and maintain relationships; how we identify and communicate mutual benefits; and how we find people's “hot button”---the alignment of our common vision for the project with people's abilities and agreement.

Step 4: Identify Who is the Problem

In many cases it's not what is the problem but who is the problem. Many project managers express their frustration by identifying the departmental managers as the source of the problem (saying “They won't give me [fill in the blank]” or “They won't support me”). Others claim that it's the executives (“They are unreasonable” or “They want it yesterday”). Still others blame the team.

But could it be that you are your own nemesis? Have you looked at yourself lately? Do any of the following characteristics describe you?

▪ You are overly concerned with documenting the plan.

▪ You criticize, complain, and/or whine---frequently

▪ The only time that time people see you is at the team meeting

▪ You warn team members “You're on this project and you'd better deliver…”

▪ Everything is always someone else's fault

▪ Project status is always good…but only because you don't want to be the bearer of bad news!

If so, then it's time that you take a different approach.

Step 5: Self-Evaluation

A self-evaluation is probably one of the most painful things that you can do, especially if you are brutally honest with yourself. It requires a sincere desire to succeed and may require leaving your current organization to avoid being labeled or “typecast.” Often when one makes a drastic change in approach, it is simply not believable because of the person's past behavior and reputation. In this case, a change in “venue” may become necessary.

A self-evaluation begins with a look into the mirror to find out:

▪ Who are you and what do you stand for?

▪ What is your credibility?

▪ What are your credentials?

▪ What is your leadership style?

▪ What is your communication style and ability?

▪ What are your collaboration/coaching abilities?

▪ What is your Emotional Quotient?

(Note: These questions are only suggestions and should by no means be considered an exhaustive list.) It is insufficient to take your own word on this subject; you need to get input from others (friends, family, peers, bosses, co-workers), as well. The key to getting honest input from others is assuring anonymity and confidentiality. If you ask people directly for input yourself, most often they will tell you only what you want to hear. Therefore you must set up an environment where people can speak confidentially and where they can be assured that there is no chance that you may find out what was said and by whom. Questions they should be asked in their evaluation of you (the “360-Degree Feedback”) are:

▪ Who are you and what do you stand for?

▪ What is your credibility?

▪ What is your leadership style?

▪ What is your communication style and ability?

▪ What are your Collaboration/Coaching abilities?

▪ What is your EQ?

You'll notice that these are the same questions you asked yourself. It is important to be consistent in your questions so that the answers are relevant and provide for a consistency in evaluation---akin to comparing oranges to oranges rather than to apples. Once this step has been completed, you are ready for the first step to become the new and improved “you.”

Step 6: Change Roadmap

Using the self-assessment in concert with the other assessments you performed, you can gain a very good understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. You may find it advantageous to take a Myers-Briggs assessment along with other assessments that provide a baseline for your leadership style, coaching style, emotional maturity level, and personality. A few sources are included in the appendix to this document. The assessments may not be 100% accurate in terms of who you are, but they should provide a fairly accurate picture and allow you to determine where you are in relation to others and what improvements you should be striving to make.

Next, review the “360-Degree Feedback” results and evaluate them objectively; keep in mind that the evaluation presents only the views of the people who assessed you. Perception is 100% reality to the individual evaluating you and if you believe it to be wrong you need to find ways to make appropriate changes that will result in a different perception over time. Don't get angry---their assessment is probably true, and you need to come to terms with that.

To start yourself on the road to improving your overall effectiveness, begin by identifying your strengths and weaknesses, prioritize them, and then develop a plan to mitigate the areas that will provide the biggest impact. (As we have mentioned, however, in some cases it may be additionally necessary to leave your organization and start at another---that is, to make a change in “venue”.) The improvement process is not a destination, but a journey---to paraphrase the famous quote by A. R. Ashe given at the beginning of this paper (Ashe, no date).

The steps involved in the process of improvement are illustrated by Exhibit 1.

Improvement Process

Exhibit 1--Improvement Process

The very top (1) is your baseline as identified by the various assessment instruments and feedback. Your baseline provides you with an understanding of your shortcomings and gives you the motivation to change (2). The acquisition of new knowledge (3) is followed by its application to the work environment (4), which then culminates in new capabilities (5). This is then followed by the next iteration, as you will continually need to reevaluate your capabilities and weaknesses to ensure that you maintain a competitive edge.

Another suggestion for a continuing improvement approach when managing (leading) project teams is to start with the Action-Observation-Reflection (AOR) Model, which provides a way to conceptualize how one can enhance leadership development (Hughes, Ginnet, & Curphy, 2006). It is recommended that you start a journal and refer back to it periodically in terms of:

Action-Observation-Reflection (AOR) Model

Exhibit 2—Action-Observation-Reflection (AOR) Model

The AOR approach will help you to develop a record that you can reflect upon (e.g., what should have been done versus what was done). The periodic review of the journal within the context of the AOR model should produce better results over time and assist you in making better decisions.

A highly recommended approach to changing your leadership approach is to take the Leadership Challenge (Kouzes & Posner, 2007). In essence, the Leadership Challenge prepares you for success when leading teams and establishing appropriate organizational relationships.

The main aspects of the Leadership Challenge are as follows:

  • Model the way

    ▪ You must have credibility

    ▪ Consistency of action and behavior

    ▪ Dual focus on values: the way to do things and the way to get there

    ▪ Set the example---every day

  • Inspire a shared vision

    ▪ Envision the end result

    ▪ Share that vision

    ▪ Paint a positive picture of the future

    ▪ Enlist the team in realizing that vision by appealing to shared aspirations

  • Challenge the process

    ▪ Look and step outside of the box

    ▪ Challenge assumptions

    ▪ Step forward to get things done

    ▪ Search for opportunities to do things other than the way things have always been done

    ▪ Remove the NIH syndrome

  • Enable others to act

    ▪ Build relationships with everyone

    ▪ Empower people to act! (and not just give lip service)

    ▪ Share power

    ▪ Create a sense of ownership

  • Encourage the heart

    ▪ Recognize contribution, and reward excellence

    ▪ Celebrate victories

    ▪ Create a sense of community (“We're all in this together”)

    ▪ Have fun

It is highly recommended that, at the very least, you obtain a copy of the Leadership Challenge (Kouzes & Posner, 2006) along with the workbook and work through the various sections to gain a better understanding of approaches to leadership that are effective over the long term. We recommend taking the Leadership Challenge course that is offered by various organizations.


The myth that a project manager has no influence or authority is just that---a myth! Project managers usually have themselves to blame if they do not believe that they have the authority to lead projects from initiation to closure. The project charter provides the authority, signed by members of the executive committee or executives themselves, indicating that this project is worth doing and by assigning you to be the project manager. The most prevalent dilemma is that project managers rarely have the right training and interpersonal relationship skills to maneuver through corporate politics to achieve project success. This presentation has provided a roadmap for evaluating your current state as well as the state of the organization and for identifying problems and determining what needs to be done. We have also provided some suggestions for self-evaluation to determine how you are perceived. Next, we described an improvement process that should culminate in new skills for leading projects to expected outcomes within ever-present organizational constraints.

The Appendix (below) offers several suggestions for your reading enjoyment and some sites for accessing self assessment instruments. We recommend go to a local library and start reading ---or better yet, obtain the books for your own library. Good luck on your journey to success!


Obtain The Leadership Practices Inventory to establish a baseline for yourself:

Take the Jung Typology Test (this is a Meyers-Briggs--type test):

International Personality Item Pool (you can take either the long version or the short version of the assessment):

(An explanation of this personality test can be found at

▪ The assessments are designed for you to find out about YOU!

▪ The better your picture of yourself, the better your chances of making the appropriate changes to get you from where you are to where you want to go….

▪ These are just a few of the instruments available for you get a baseline reading of yourself and allow you start on the road to a better career

A Leadership Challenge course is available through


References and books you may want to read NOW!

  • The Leadership Challenge (4th Ed.) by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner (2006).
  • Leadership–Enhancing the Lessons of Experience, by Richard L. Hughes, Robert C. Ginnett, and Gordon J. Curphy (2006).
  • Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, By Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler (2002).
  • Influencer: The Power to Change Anything by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, and Ron McMillan (2007).
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey (2004).
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick M. Lencioni (2002).
  • Silos, Politics and Turf Wars: A Leadership Fable About Destroying the Barriers That Turn Colleagues into Competitors by Patrick M. Lencioni (2006).
  • Hardwiring Excellence: Purpose, Worthwhile Work, Making a Difference by Quint Studer.
  • The 21 Indispensible Qualities of a Leader by John C. Maxwell.
  • The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive by Patrick Lencioni.
  • Learning to Lead by Warren Bennis and Joan Goldsmith.
  • The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook by Peter Senge, Art Kleiner, Charlotte Roberts, Rick Ross, and Bryan Smith.
  • A Leader's Legacy by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner (2006).
  • Emotional Intelligence and Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman.


Ashe, A. R. Retrieved August 1, 2008, from

Hughes R. L., Ginnett, R. C., & Curphy, G. J. (2006)._Leadership – Enhancing the Lessons of Experience._New York: Irwin-McGraw-Hill.

Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2007). The leadership challenge (4th Ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

©2008, W. Don Gottwald
Originally published as part of 2008 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Denver, Colorado, USA



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