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Tackling Office Politics in Projects

Paul Naybour Paul Naybour

Published: 10th August 2012

Many a project has been initiated because of a marketing drive – the company want to offer a product not already available in the marketplace or they want to beat a competitor to market with a similar product. Invariably a deadline has already been discussed by the marketing group before the team expected to deliver the product are even aware of the project taking shape. And perhaps that is nothing out of the ordinary for a project – even when a deadline is imposed before the project has been properly scoped many experienced project managers will know how to deal with this situation effectively even though they might not like it. They will typically scale back on features and functionality to be delivered and perhaps, if they are fortunate, obtain extra temporary staff to work on the project.
None of these issues will faze an experienced project manager who is likely to be well aware of marketing strategies used to outsmart competitors and used to the fact that a marketing team might sell something that only partially exists or doesn’t exist at all yet. This is hardly the perfect project but what is?
But what can cause real problems in projects, ones that even experienced project managers can struggle to deal with effectively, are office politics. Different members of the same company with different agendas that can threaten to de-rail a project that could otherwise be a success.
Office politics in projects can crop up for all sorts of reasons, such as someone being overlooked for a promotion and now determined to get revenge by being un-cooperative. It’s hard to define exactly what office politics are but it is usually an individual or team seeking an advantage over another individual or team to the other’s disadvantage. And sometimes the downside is more than simply a disadvantage – in its extreme it can result in someone losing their job altogether.
Whatever the reason, office politics cannot be avoided or ignored and need to be dealt with if they are not to adversely affect the outcome of a project. Attempting to avoid the confrontations resulting from politicking is never a good strategy as it can result in your project failing and you taking the blame or, worse, your project succeeding and someone else taking the credit. So even if your natural inclination is to ignore the warning signs and hope for the best – don’t. Tackle the problem and you are more likely to deliver a successful project and not damage your reputation as a good project manager. That said, engaging in behaviour to disadvantage someone else is not the solution but you should know how to take advantage of opportunities presented to you for your own benefit and that of your team.
So just what are office politics and how can you tackle them within a project?
Politics occur because of various reasons, including:
• Different levels of power and influence because of organisational hierarchy or individual traits.
• A desire to gain promotion.
• Individuals with a highly competitive nature
• Individual objectives that are not the same as the team objectives.
• Team competition for limited resources or greater recognition and reward.
There are a range of effective methods for tackling these situations – the key being to understand the cause of the negative behaviour associated with office politics. Start by observing the behaviour of those involved, and those affected, to determine who has the respect of others (these individuals are unlikley to be involved in negative office politics), who has influence and who has authority (surprisingly these are not always who you might expect).
Try to get an understanding of the personal relationships that are not based on authority or the organisational hierarchy: which people have good working realtionships with others and which do not; look out for personality clashes (a polite way to describe people who simply dislike each other) and look out for cliques within teams or departments involved in the project.
Once you have a better understanding of where the problems lie then you can begin to tackle the causes by building relationships that will counteract negative behaviour. Create an informal focus group that include individuals from different sides of the “political divide” and that prevents any opportunity for cliqueyness – think carefully about who you include in the focus group so that you can build your own informal network of those with influence within the organisation and also those who wish to advantage themselves to the detriment of others. Including them in this way will enable you to keep a close eye on their behaviour and counteract the effect of their negative politics. You will also be able to use that network to improve working relationships between individuals and to positively promote your achievements and your team’s achievements to those with influence.
And remember that if you are polite and courteous to people it is difficult for them to be impolite and discourteous in return without drawing undue attention to their behaviour. Try to avoid getting drawn into personal disagreements or rivalries: always be positive and discourage politics within your projects through leading by example.
Many of the skills required to deal with office politics in projects are similar to those a project manager would use to manage stakeholders so they should not be unfamiliar strategies to an experienced project manager.
Why not share with us your own examples of how to deal with politics in projects?

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