Company politics are an unfortunate reality in many workplaces, but there are steps you can take to reduce the pervasiveness, its impact on projects, and improve your company culture.
Workplace politics are ultimately types of behaviors or actions injected into business situations that can complicate, impede, or derail progress altogether. Politics and its impact are often underestimated until it’s too late. However you can mitigate the risk, and the first step is to identify the type and level of political behaviors that might curtail the efforts of a project, program, portfolio, or even an entire organization.
Political games can stem from one individual to multiple areas within an organization and can have a devastating impact. Some forms of politics are blatant and obvious, while others can be more passive and even go completely undetected. The nature and severity of politics can range depending on the level within the organization and motivations, but make no mistake even the most seemingly minor politics can have a far-reaching effect on morale, trust, and the project outcome. Further, the outcome rarely plays out only at the project level; it more often than not has a negative consequence to a business as a whole. Sometimes the effects of political behaviors may not be felt until they snowball and become a larger problem that can jeopardize long-term strategic goals.
If unaddressed, workplace politics becomes interwoven in the overall culture and typically intertwines itself throughout the executive, sponsor, middle management, project team, support staff, and stakeholder ranks, and could potentially degrade vendors relationships as well.
Here are just some of the political behavior employees, stakeholders, team members, sponsors, or even leaders engage in, and some things you as a PM can do to minimize their impact.
1. Constantly blaming others for problems
At the beginning of any project or initiative, the tone needs to be set and clearly communicated by, portfolio, program, and project leaders to reduce senseless finger-pointing. While accountability for mistakes is an important factor, pointing fingers and laying blame rarely results in improvements; it often instead leads to embarrassment, mistrust, and future cover-ups.
2. Seeking to develop relationships only with senior level employees/management who can help career advancement
Business and project professionals need to lead by example by demonstrating they value the contributions of employees at all levels. It’s simply not enough to lend lip service; project leaders are also relationship management professionals who can work alongside executives to set the culture by fostering positive, supportive relationships regardless of hierarchy.
3. Seeking to create barriers between upper management and other employees
In order for employees at all levels to be fully vested in the success of all projects, the executive, program, portfolio, and project leaders should encourage the flow of great ideas from bottom to top, regardless of where they originate. It may also be beneficial to the success of a project if a PM can facilitate meetings between applicable business leaders and other employees. As I’ve said before, “a great idea is a great idea, regardless of where it comes from.” Barriers are not in the best interest of stakeholders and instead set companies up for larger deficiencies later.
4. Creating conflict at every turn without being part of the solution.
At the start of each project, a PM should communicate expectations and convey that prior to bringing up any problems, an individual must also come prepared with potential solutions. This creates teams of critical thinkers always thinking forward and focusing on project success rather than failure.
5. Supporting or advancing only those employees who align with self-serving views or goals.
It’s human nature to gravitate towards those whose views and opinions align with our own, but as a business or project leader, this should not be the case. A project manager should not inject personal bias, nor impact progress. Often real progress and innovation come about through the differing experience or views.
A project professional should encourage and explore diversity in approaches in order to find the best solutions for stakeholder interest. This may involve entering into difficult discussions with senior management about the benefits of views from different vantage points. The focus should always remain solely on the stakeholders.
6. Inappropriately leveraging personal influence.
This is a significant problem in the workplace, and often undermines the valuable efforts of others, while serving the needs of only a few. Being an effective project manager isn’t just about using your technical, job-related skills and knowledge, it’s employing other softer skills such as the ability to recognize hidden problems.
Project leaders should keep close tabs on the progress of initiatives, as things can take a sudden turn in the wrong direction. When this happens for no apparent reason, misguided, and often self-serving influence may be at the root. A PM has a responsibility, to continually remind all parties to limit influence towards furthering stakeholder needs only, and not their own agendas.
PM leadership at all levels should work diligently to pay attention to these and other more subtle destructive behaviors that can compromise relationships and project tasks. Once these behaviors have been uncovered a PM professional should work with sponsors/executives to address them directly, immediately, and fully before moving on. Unresolved issues like subtle sabotage and cover-ups can be highly damaging at every level of business and destroy project gains.
7. Seeking ways to leverage the knowledge of others without reciprocating.
Sharing of knowledge in of itself is an educational process. A PM should strive to convey to all project participants the benefits of knowledge sharing as well as the risks to project objectives of not doing so. Project leaders can also help to alleviate individual fear and insecurities as they arise since this is usually at the root of withholding knowledge. By helping in this regard, it creates a more cohesive environment for team members and makes it easier to share knowledge and collaborate more openly.
8. Spreading gossip or lies about others.
This particular issue is very difficult to get around, as chatter is a natural part of human nature to some extent (when not destructive). It is important for project management professionals to lead by example and set expectations about appropriate behavior right out of the gate. A PM should convey they expect mutual respect and support among team members and others, and that gossip and lies will not be accepted. Sometimes it may be a simple matter of explaining how damaging gossip is to peers and how it influences everyone’s morale and productivity.
9. Taking credit for the work, effort or ideas of subordinates and others.
Credit grabbing is another area that can prove highly problematic for project managers everywhere. No employee appreciates another employee or leader undeservedly taking credit for his or her work. As a project manager make it your business to keep abreast of the work being done, recognizing, disclosing, and where possible rewarding the appropriate individuals, not just their superiors. Very often, management receives the credit or takes the credit for the work of their employees. This can lead to a lack of trust by employees and ultimately sabotage future efforts. Recognition should go directly to the individual who made the contribution; most employees don’t mind sharing some of the credit when they are fairly recognized and compensated for their own hard work. Furthermore, if employees believe their contributions are not valued or recognized, they often withdraw or reduce participation, and eventually withhold information.
Project leaders need to work on improving morale throughout every stage by remaining transparent, fair and open, along with regular communication. A project manager who keeps two-way communication flowing and is respectful to everyone is more likely to catch gaps in participation faster.
While there are many other motivations for political behavior in the workplace and projects, many of these can be addressed by PM professionals with the help of business leaders. The key is being expedient and sincere in seeking the best solution to help project teams, functional leaders, and sponsors achieve stakeholder goals, without compromising their value in the process.
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Moira Alexander, PMP, I.S.P., ITCP/IP3P, is a recognized project management influencer, thought leader, a regular correspondent for PMI’s Projectified podcast, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of PMWorld 360 Magazine, Founder of Lead-Her-Ship Group, and author of “LEAD or LAG: Linking Strategic Project Management & Thought Leadership”. Moira has over 25 years of experience in business (IS&T) and project management for small to large businesses in the US and Canada and has been quoted in various publications including Forbes. She writes thought leadership content for top-tier publications and business blogs and oversees or writes sponsored content and software reviews on PMWorld 360 Magazine.