Navigating the political minefield





to a team member hogging the credit, internal politics are an inevitable part of the day-to-day project environment.

While this political minefield can lead to a toxic atmosphere that affects an entire team's performance, project professionals can take steps to not only mitigate its effects, but also capitalize on it.

“You can ignore internal politics, but internal politics will not ignore you,” says Ralf Friedrich, PMP, CEO of virtual teams specialist German Project Solutions, Dieburg, Germany. “Rather than seeing internal politics as a threat, you can see them as a fact of life you need to live with.”

Live with—or take advantage of: 56 percent of respondents to a February 2012 Robert Half International survey of U.S. workers said that involvement in office politics is at least somewhat necessary to get ahead.

Knowing how to navigate the political minefield can be the difference between a project's success and failure. Diving too deep into the politics pool—or, conversely, not taking the plunge at all—can cost project managers funding, executive and sponsor support, even their jobs.

“Because projects are temporary by nature, many fail due to internal politics rather than technological problems,” Mr. Friedrich says. “Projects are cross-functional and bring together many different interests of the organization in a short amount of time.”

Given the omnipotence of such politics, project professionals must learn how to spot politics at play and how to negotiate around them. Here's how to effectively handle three common political scenarios that likely ring familiar for project professionals:

Colleagues may present an idea as their own when, in fact, it wasn't. As infuriating as it sounds, Brian Irwin, PMI-ACP, PMP, project management team leader for marketing technology firm Acxiom Corporation, Little Rock, Arkansas, USA, says one way to deal with an idea thief is to give the colleague credit, knowing that he will also have to take the blame if the effort fails. “Congratulate him on presenting a great idea, especially if he's aware that you know it wasn't his idea,” Mr. Irwin says. “He may be called upon to implement that idea, and this will be his downfall.”
Remember the teacher's pet in school? Executives, sponsors and stakeholders play favorites too, which gives someone inside unfair access to the source of power. One solution: Befriend the favored one, Mr. Irwin says. Allying with the preferred project manager or team member can lead to joining him or her on the inside track.
Some project leaders might shy away from delivering bad news so as not to be associated with failure. That's a flat-out no-no. “Project managers simply must report accurately, regardless of whether management wants to hear bad news or not,” Mr. Irwin says. While there might be some short-term fallout, ultimately the honesty should pay off, particularly if the project turns around.

“You can ignore internal politics, but internal politics will not ignore you.”

—Ralf Friedrich, PMP, German Project Solutions, Dieburg, Germany

Though the vagaries of internal politics may create day-to-day frustrations, they also have deep, far-reaching negative consequences. The damage can be particularly harsh when gaining support from sponsors and other project managers in the organization.

“A politically charged work environment can hinder productivity, erode trust, and lead to morale and retention issues,” says Renan Silva, PMP, corporate project management office specialist for Serasa Experian, a credit bureau in São Paulo, Brazil.

Negative politicking, such as favoring the input of one stakeholder group over another because they are providing more project funding, can ultimately result in some of the money being pulled by the snubbed party, says Mr. Irwin.


“A politically charged work environment can hinder productivity, erode trust, and lead to morale and retention issues.”

—Renan Silva, PMP, Serasa Experian, São Paulo, Brazil

Sponsors may be skeptical of anyone who isn't on their list of personal favorites, and convincing a snubbed sponsor that a project is worthwhile means having to work even harder—or having to prove oneself as a great project manager.

“If they're skeptical about your ability as a project manager, ask them specifically what they need to see to provide a more acceptable comfort and confidence level,” says Mr. Irwin.

Mr. Silva says swaying skeptical sponsors means first understanding their preferred means of communication.

“Sometimes small talk is more important than formal meetings and status updates in order to capture their concerns about the project in question,” he says.


On the flip side, positive politicking—for example, favoring the inclusion of competing stakeholder groups to make critical decisions over allowing one group to dominate—can result in greater project visibility across the organization. That might mean more money, executive support or personnel to work with.


When it comes to winning over other project managers in the organization, the challenges may be a bit more personal. They might be reluctant to offer support because they've been outshone in the past, they feel stuck in their position as others ascend or there's simply a personality clash. Regardless of the “why,” gaining the trust of fellow project managers creates a productive working environment.

In such cases, Mr. Silva says he does what any decent human being would do: He's nice to the person.

“I‘m friendly, share credit for positive outcomes and pitch in when an extra hand is needed,” he says. “These behaviors can create a collaborative environment, and you never know whose help or support you will need in the future.”

A little quid pro quo helps, too. Mr. Friedrich uses his organizational currency—the professional and career incentives he can offer—to gain support from peers.


Internal politics don't only affect those who physically share the same space—virtual teams often face their own set of political challenges.

The most common issue for virtual teams is when team members who work remotely feel that colleagues who are not virtual receive more “face time” with an organization's management.

“It's unfortunate, but virtual team members can some-times feel that they are discounted because they are not on site with easier access to management,” says Brian Irwin, Acxiom Corporation, Little Rock, Arkansas, USA.

Mr. Irwin recommends kicking off all projects with a face-to-face meeting, which will build relationships and humanize the voices on the phone. If that's not feasible, consider video conferencing.

“Even though we live in the 21st century, with easy access to video conferencing and web cameras, many companies simply have not yet made the investment and commitment to provide those tools to their workforce,” Mr. Irwin says.

To improve communication, in addition to video conferencing, virtual teams should use productive technology, such as instant messaging, and share presentations and documents through a common communication platform, recommends Johanna Johansson, PMP, manager of the group project management office at construction company NCC AB, Solna, Sweden.

But whenever possible, meet face to face.

“No technology can replace the encounters between people,” Ms. Johansson says. That personal connection can, in turn, help level the playing field in the political games that can derail even remote teams.


“If another project manager needs support, I think about how I can give them support; if another one needs visibility, then I think about how I can give them visibility in the organization,” he says. “Eventually, those people will come directly to me.”

Though internal politics inevitably involve people vying for each other's positions, a little competition isn't necessarily a bad thing, says Mr. Friedrich.

“I always want to have someone else taking over my job,” he says. “If I do not develop the people on my team, then I will never be able to go on vacation.”

If someone is underhandedly campaigning for a job, however, Mr. Friedrich says the worst thing to do is to get angry. Instead, have a talk with them, remind them of their current duties and find out why they feel unfulfilled in their role. Understanding their motives could not only defuse an uncomfortable—even toxic—situation, but also increase the proactive project manager's position of influence.

Rising above internal politics means truly knowing the players involved. “What are their career aspirations? What are their hobbies? What is their education? What are their priorities?” Mr. Friedrich asks. “Knowing the answers to these questions will allow you to not play into the politics, and instead become an influencer in your organization.”

Project managers also need to know when to sit out the political game for a while. A March 2012 study by the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business found that paranoia about negative gossip causes people to seek out information to confirm their fears, increasing the likelihood they will be [ejected or subverted.

“It is not possible to avoid internal politics. Whenever there are two or more people working together, politics will be present in some form or fashion,” Mr. Irwin says. “We must acknowledge their existence.” PM


“Whenever there are two or more people working together, politics will be present in some form or fashion.”

—Brian Irwin, PMI-ACP, PMP, Acxiom Corporation, Little Rock, Arkansas, USA




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