From the beginning of history, people have been coming together to work towards common goals. And for probably just as long, conflicts have arisen in the process of those collaborations. It’s human nature. Project stakeholders are no different than the rest of humanity, and project politics can create real threats to the success of your project.
Problems arise when there’s disagreement about who has power over which elements of the project. These disagreements can be the result of genuine confusion or of individual stakeholder’s self-interests. Whatever the cause, it’s up to you as the project manager to handle project politics well and guide your project to a successful finish.
"Effective teamwork will not take the place of knowing how to do the job or how to manage the work. Poor teamwork, however, can prevent effective final performance. And it can also prevent team members from gaining satisfaction in being a member of a team and the organization." -Robert F. Bales
However, with skilled leadership, a project manager can put out those fires, escape the smoke-filled room, and get the team back to safety while also promoting the goals of your project.
So how do you become the hero that saves her team members from the inferno instead of falling victim to smoke inhalation yourself? First, you need to understand the dynamics of project politics. Then you need strategies to navigate them well.
The Two Sources of Conflict in Project Politics
Broadly speaking, political conflict can arise from two types of sources: internal and external. Internal sources are those closely working on the project–team members and managers, and external sources are other stakeholders–clients and end users for example.
Internal Sources of Conflict
There are sitcoms about office politics for good reason: everyone can relate. Sometimes project politics result from unclear leadership structures or poorly defined goals. When team members have differing interpretations of the project vision, they’re going to work towards different end results, making conflicts inevitable. That kind of politics is innocent enough in its origin but can still prove fatal to your project.
Less innocent are the intentional power struggles that often spring up among team members. This is most likely to happen when a team was assembled for a project without personality and working strengths being taken into consideration. When incompatible individuals are forced to work closely together, it’s understandable that conflict would ensue.
Long-standing teams aren’t immune from conflict. In fact, unresolved political tensions that build under the surface can ignite suddenly. If you’re unaware of these building tensions as a manager, you’ll be caught off guard, putting your project is in serious danger.
- Signs of Internal Conflict
Constant criticism– Constructive criticism is beneficial, but if a team member is constantly critical, either of everyone who disagrees with him or of just one other team member, you may have trouble ahead.
Passive-aggressive behavior– As the manager, it may be hard to spot passive-aggressive behavior because, by its very definition, it is an indirect expression of hostility. But keep your eye out if it appears a team member is undermining the project by silence, inaction, or subtle attempts to provoke coworkers.
Defensiveness – If one or more members of your team gets defensive when you ask questions, there may be more going on than just a bad day.
Delays – Sometimes things run behind, but if your team is consistently behind schedule, it could be a sign that office politics are getting out of hand and conflicts are slowing things down.
Turnover – People move on. They move or get new opportunities. But if you’re seeing an uptick in turnover or someone you know was happy suddenly departs the team with no explanation, there could be conflict of which you aren’t aware.
These are just some of the signs that project politics are starting to cause trouble on your team. By working closely with your team and maintaining good communication with all members, you’re more likely to recognize unhealthy office politics before the fire ignites.
External Sources of Conflict
External political pressure presents its own challenges to your project and is especially difficult when your client is the source of the problem. Sometimes clients attempt to demand additional work, shorter timelines, or lower costs than were agreed upon when the project began.
Flatly refusing to comply with your clients’ changing wishes can be detrimental to your business. A client who is influential in your sector or your community may threaten bad publicity, which can be disastrous. In the age of online reviews, even the loud displeasure of a small customer can hurt your business.
Clients who threaten to speak poorly of your company if you fail to meet their changing demands are playing politics. It’s not fair, but it’s a fact of life in the business world. As project manager, you have to deal with external sources of conflict very carefully. It’s challenging but not impossible!
How to Deal with Project Politics
Project politics are a fact of life, and as the project manager, it’s your job to set the tone for those interactions and intervene when the politics get ugly. Here’s how you can prepare for project politics and even use them to create a healthy dynamic on your team.
Set Clear Expectations with a Good Project Plan
As a project manager, you probably know there are many reasons to create a project plan, but you might not have considered the impact a clear plan can have on project politics. Your project plan sets all the expectations for the project: goals, timelines, resource uses, communication patterns. Setting expectations with a good project plan reduces the points of conflict in project politics. If disagreements arise, everyone involved can refer back to the plan to settle disputes.
Be a Good Listener
As project manager, both team members and clients will come to you with issues. If you cultivate your listening skills before those issues arise, all stakeholders will trust you to hear them out and address the problem. On the other hand, if your team or clients feel you’re a poor listener, they may try to go around you and manipulate project politics to serve their own ends.
Consider Both Sides
When members of your team (or your client and the team) are in conflict with one another, make sure to hear out both sides of the argument. Employ your listening skills and try to understand what’s at stake for each individual as well as for the project as a whole. Not only are you more likely to reach a better solution when considering both sides, you’ll also prevent further unhealthy project politics that can result when team members feel you’re playing favorites.
Get Down to the Basics
Project politics can make simple situations complicated. When analyzing a conflict in your project, get back to the basics. Don’t get distracted with irrelevant details, and don’t entertain gossipy accounts of office drama. Keep your project plan in view and use measurable benchmarks to evaluate the legitimacy of a request, suggestion, or complaint.
Look for a Win-Win
Whenever possible, look for a win-win solution. When project politics become unhealthy, people forget you’re all on the same team working toward the same goals. In the midst of conflict, remind your team of those shared goals and try to find a resolution to the conflict that satisfies all parties involved. By helping all parties walk away satisfied, you’ll be benefiting the project, the individuals, and the long-term health of your team.
Leverage Technology to Improve Project Politics
In the digital age, technology can help with many things, even project politics. There are many project management software applications available in the market that make life easier. With an automated approval system, team members have clear channels to follow for requests and alterations, which reduces the likelihood of rogue activities. The main feature required in a strong tool is to have a clear transparent view. When everyone is utilizing the same system to track tasks and make changes, there’s greater transparency on the project. That transparency can reduce the friction that often ignites political fires.
Don’t just Escape the Fire, be the Hero!
Project politics may be inevitable but getting burned isn’t. Project politics are just one part of project management, and with the right tools, you can navigate them well. You may not be able to prevent every fire, but you can put them out quickly and lead your team back to safety. Create a clear project plan, communicate it well, develop your listening skills, and implement technology to your advantage. With these tools in place, you can manage project politics and lead your team to project success!
Dinesh Varadharajan is the Vice President at Kissflow. He leads the product management team at Kissflow, the first unified digital workplace for organizations to manage all of their work on a single, unified platform. Dinesh is a hands-on executive with a wide range of experience working with bleeding-edge technologies, developing great products and mentoring highly productive teams. He has profound knowledge in design and technical implementation of BPM solutions.