Project Management Institute

Successful project management

do you know your politics?

Concerns of Project Managers


Jeffrey K. Pinto, The Behrend College, Erie, Pennsylvania

Politics is the science of how who gets what, when and why.

Sidney Hillman

Few topics generate as much heat and passionate feelings as a discussion of political behavior. Most organizational personnel are quick to condemn politics and their chief practitioners—company “politicians”—as predatory and counter to the interests of the overall organization. In fact, it is almost impossible to find individuals with even minimal organizational experience who have not had some bad experiences with office politics in their careers. On the other hand, most canny project managers will quickly point out that it is often through the effective use of organizational politics they are able to successfully complete their projects. In fact, one could pose the argument that without an understanding of the role that politics plays in project implementation, the likelihood of managing a successful project will be significantly diminished.

Project managers often feel as though they are forced to operate with one hand tied behind their back: they are given all the responsibility and little of the authority necessary to successfully manage their projects. They do not have formal links to the traditional hierarchy and departmental managers, they may have relatively low status, and they may not even have the ability to complete performance evaluations on their team members. They are, in effect, people without reliable power bases and so they must learn to develop and use influence skills to their best ability. It is through exercising the influence process that project managers come to deal with the political side of organizations.


One of the biggest problems with discussing politics is that it is so difficult to get any agreement on what politics really is. Most of us find that we cannot even agree on a uniform definition of politics, let alone acknowledge the role of politics in organizational life. When one sifts through the material on power and politics, a number of definitions are suggested. These definitions usually are based on two opposing views of organizational politics: the negative and the neutral.

The Negative School

The negative school argues that politics is a self-serving, predatory process that is harmful to the long-term stability and success of a company. They view political behavior as the equivalent of organizational anarchy; every member of the company actively and even cheerfully pursuing ways in which to gain their own advantage while doing everything possible to harm other members [1]. Definitions of the “negative school” of politics generally characterize political behavior as essentially malevolent, conflict-laden, self-aggrandizing, and unhealthy. The basic attitude can be summed up by the following arguments, suggesting that politics is:

  1. Behavior designed to benefit the individual or group at the organization's expense. This idea suggests that political behavior is entirely self. serving, predicated on getting ahead in spite of the possible side effects to the organization as a whole.
  2. The displacement of legitimate power. Politics can displace legitimate power through mechanizations designed to circumvent the legitimate authority structure of the organization. For example, consider a situation in which a three-person chain of command exists: Sue is at the top, Bob is her subordinate, and Allen is Bob's subordinate. Allen would be exercising a political approach if he habitually found ways to “end-run” Bob's authority by going directly to Sue to mediate disagreements, solve problems, or offer advice.
  3. The use of means not sanctioned by the organization to attain sanctioned ends or the use of sanctioned means to obtain un-sanctioned ends. This proposition has two elements: first, it suggests that political behavior might actually be used in the interests of the organization. The second aspect of this proposition suggests that political behavior may involve using acceptable means to obtain unacceptable ends. Again, the issue here has to do with the degree to which politicians are willing to “bend” moral and ethical codes to gain an advantage.

Editor's Note: This article is condensed from Chapter 6 of the forthcoming book by Dr. Pinto, Successful Information System Implementation: The Human Side, to be published by PMI. This chapter is characteristic of the practitioner-oriented prescriptions, backed by a thorough review of literature, that is the basis of the entire book.

The Neutral School

The neutral school of organizational politics takes a more pragmatic approach to this topic. True, they note, politics can be a self-serving and conflict-laden process. However, their basic counter-argument is that while it might be nice to believe that, with enough training, politics can be eradicated from organizational life, the reality of people operating in “resource scarce” organizations is that they will continue to do what is necessary to pursue their ends and the ends of their particular groups [2]. That, in effect, is the way the game is played and the sooner people wake up to the fact, the sooner they can begin operating more effectively as well.

It is true that groups differ. Even while operating within the same project team, Marketing may have a very different agenda than does Engineering or Production. This is the nature of organizations. Because of the essential differences and contradictions that exist across personalities and departments, conflict is not simply a side-effect of peoples' interaction, it is a natural and self-perpetuating state. Likewise, political behavior cannot be characterized as malevolent and deviant, but must be seen as a natural consequence of the interaction between organizational subsystems. This “natural” view of politics does not condemn the use of political tactics among organizational members as it views these behaviors as an expected side effect of company life.

Figure 1. Characteristics of Political Behaviors

Characteristics of Political Behaviors

PROJECT POLITICS: Avoiding the Dark Side

In presenting both the “negative” and “neutral” sides of the debate on the nature of corporate politics, it is important to point out that readers need to come to their own conclusions about the role of politics in organizational life. There are usually three distinct positions regarding political behavior that are taken by people as they manage projects for the first time: two of these positions are equally inappropriate but for entirely different reasons.

The first approach can be best termed the “naive” attitude regarding politics. Naive project managers view politics as unappealing at the outset and make a firm resolution never to engage in any type of behavior that could resemble political activity. Their goal is, in effect, to remain above the fray, not allowing politics in any form to influence their conduct. They refuse to “make deals” with anyone, will avoid networking, and expect other department managers to support their projects for the good of the company.

The second, and exact opposite, approach is undertaken by individuals who believe in using politics and aggressive manipulation to reach the top. I tend to regard these people as “sharks.” While actually few in number, this type readily embraces political behavior in its most virulent form. Their loyalty is entirely to themselves and their own objectives. Work with them and one is likely to be used and manipulated; get between them and their goal and their behavior may become utterly amoral. The only cause these individuals espouse is their own. When running project teams they offer a two-faced approach to subordinates: as long as the project is running smoothly they are quick to take credit. When problems occur, they immediately seek a scapegoat. Trust levels among team members tend to be rock-bottom as everyone adopts a “survival mode” attitude.

Both the “naive” and “shark” are wrong-minded about politics but for completely different reasons. Their attitudes underscore the awareness of the third type of project manager: the “politically sensible.”

Politically sensible individuals run their projects with few illusions about how many decisions are made. They understand, often through their own past experiences and mistakes, that politics is simply another side, albeit an unattractive one, of the behavior in which one must engage in order for their projects to succeed. While not shunning politics, neither do they embrace the practice. Rather, the politically sensible is apt to state that this behavior is at times necessary because “that is the way the game is played.” It is also important to point out that politically sensible individuals generally do not play politics of a predatory nature, as in the case of the sharks who are seeking to advance their own careers in any way possible. Politically sensible individuals use politics as a way of making contacts, cutting deals, and gaining power and resources for their departments in order to further project, rather than entirely personal, ends.

Everyone must make up their own minds regarding the efficacy and morality of engaging in corporate politics. However, talking with successful project managers will show that it is almost impossible to be successful managing projects without a basic understanding of and willingness to employ organizational politics.


An understanding of the often intensely political nature of project management gives rise to the concomitant need to develop appropriate attitudes and strategies that help project managers operate effectively within the system. What are some steps that project managers can take to become politically astute, if this approach is so necessary to effective project implementation?

  1. Understand and acknowledge the political nature of most organizations. Before managers are able to learn to utilize politics in a manner that is supportive of project implementation, they must first acknowledge: (1) their existence, and (2) their impact on project success. Once we have created a collective basis of understanding regarding the political nature of organizations, it is possible to begin to develop some action steps that will aid in better managing our projects.
  2. Learn to cultivate “appropriate” political tactics. The manner in which organizational actors use politics is the determinant of whether or not the political arena is a healthy or unhealthy one. As is shown in Figure 1, there are appropriate and inappropriate methods for using politics. Since the purpose of all political behavior is to develop and keep power, both the politically naive and shark personalities are equally misguided and, perhaps surprisingly, equally damaging to the likelihood of project success. A project manager who, either through naiveté or stubbornness, refuses to exploit the political arena is destined to be not nearly as effective in completing a project as is a manager who knows how to use politics effectively; that is, to promote the organization's overall goals through the development of the project. On the other hand, project managers who are so politicized as to appear predatory and aggressive to their colleagues and team members are doomed to create an atmosphere of such distrust and personal animus that there is also little chance for project success.
  3. Understand and accept “WIIFM.” One of the hardest lessons for new project managers to internalize is the consistently expressed and displayed primacy of departmental loyalties and self-interest over organization-wide concerns. There are many times when novice managers will feel frustrated at the “foot-dragging” of other departments and individuals to accept new ideas or innovations that are “good for them.” These managers must understand that the beauty of a new project is truly in the eyes of the beholder. One may be absolutely convinced that the project will be beneficial to the organization. However, convincing members of other departments of this truth is a different matter altogether.

We must understand that other departments are not likely to offer their help and support of the project unless they perceive that it is in their interests to do so. Simply assuming that these departments understand the value of a project is simplistic and usually wrong. My colleague, Bob Graham, likes to refer to the principle of “WIIFM” when describing the reactions of stakeholder groups to new innovations. “WIIFM” is an acronym that means “What's In It For Me?” This is the question most often asked by individuals and departments when presented with requests for their aid. They are asking why they should help ease the transition period to developing and introducing a new project. The worst response project managers can make is to assume that the stakeholders will automatically appreciate and value the project as much as they themselves do. Graham's point is that time and care must be taken to use politics effectively, to cultivate a relationship with power holders, and make the deals that need to be made to bring the system on-line. This is the essence of political sensibility: being level-headed enough to have few illusions about the difficulties one is likely to encounter in attempting to implement a new project.


Politics is a process that few project managers, even those who are adept at it, enjoy. We do not enjoy having to cut deals, to negotiate for extra resources, and to constantly mollify departmental heads who are suspicious of our project. Nevertheless, the realities of modern organizations are such that successful project managers must learn to use the political process for their own purposes; it is simply wishful thinking to assume otherwise.


1. Mayes, B.T and R.W. Allen. 1977. Toward a Definition of Organizational Politics. Academy of Management Review, 2,675.

2. Beeman, D.R. and T.W. Sharkey. 1987. The Use and Abuse of Corporate Politics. Business Horizens, 36 (2), 26-30. ❑


Jeffrey K. Pinto is assistant professor of management at Penn State-Erie, The Behrend College. He received both his Ph.D. and M.B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh and holds a B.A. in history and a B.S. in business administration from the University of Maryland. His research interests include the study of project management and the processes by which organizations implement innovations and advanced technologies. He is a member of the Project Management Institute, the Academy of Management, and the Engineering Management Society. Dr. Pinto has also served as editor of the Project Management Journal since 1990.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PMNETwork • July 1994



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