How your organizational culture could be hindering project success

by Dr. Mark Bojeun

Is your organizational culture dragging down project success? Peter Drucker says that “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast,” and when it comes to project management, this can be too true. Project managers develop a project strategy, vision, and culture within their teams to achieve success for their initiative, but organizational culture plays a critical role in the ability of the team to meet its objectives.  

The attributes of organizational culture such as power base, communication channels, organizational toxicity, and general employee morale can all be critical contributors to project success. To be effective, project managers need to gain a clear understanding of the organization and how it functions to be able to develop effective strategies to overcome organizational obstacles and achieve buy-in, support, and acceptance of initiatives. Project managers who misdiagnose, or miss these factors entirely are often surprised by unknown risks in resistance to the pursuit of objectives. Two of the more painful organizational obstacles include:   

  1. Organizational toxicity – The negative emotion/environment that decreases employee morale, significant infighting and drama, and an environment where personal battles result in harm to productivity. It is demonstrated through decreased employee morale, negative impact on the personal health and well-being of employees, increased hostility, silo creation, and rumor-mongering. Organizational toxicity is generally reported on a scale ranging from healthy to very toxic.  
  2. Backchannel communication – Communication channels can be formal, or informal, and have a tremendous impact on how initiatives, obstacles, risks, and issues are perceived, more than expected.  Formal communication channels are announcements, reports, emails, and memorandum which are generally produced by individuals with formal authority.

However, the informal channels can be of huge concern and are the back channels that information flows through organizations. These back channels can be “water cooler talk,” rumor mills, informal discussions between colleagues and co-workers. It is generally the informal communication channels that shape the perception of initiatives rather than formal.  

These critical contributors to negativity are regular obstacles that project managers face and must work to overcome as they pursue project objectives. To be successful, a project manager will need to not only have a clear understanding of their project needs, the objectives, and the business needs being served but will also have to recognize the cultural environment that the project is being performed in and develop strategies to overcome organizational hurdles.  

To overcome organizational and cultural hurdles project managers need to recognize the culture and develop intentional strategies. Approaches that can be effective include:

 1. Consciously and purposely build project teams

As a leader, you have a tremendous opportunity to set the tone for the initiative you manage.  Communication approaches, conflict resolutions, healthy environments, transparency are all tools that you can leverage to create an environment of success. The creation of a project team is an opportunity to build a project culture. This culture is often a “bubble” within an organization and can be created based on how you demonstrate behaviors.  

2. Shut down backchanneling

While backchannel communication can be inviting and seem like an opportunity to be “the person with all the information,” backchannels hinder effective communication and operate more on perception than fact. Avoid participating and shut down any attempts to deliver information from back channels. Ensure that meetings provide for open dialog and encourage participation through facilitation, conflict management, and building a healthy and safe environment.

3. Operate with inclusion

Silos operate in a vacuum without sufficient information to be successful. Initiatives created from silos will most often fail as excluding critical components and processes is a recipe for disaster. Inclusion is a mindset,  knowing that success comes from information. If key individuals are not involved in the process, that information may not available. Ensure that all discussions, meetings, and collaboration include participants from all cross-functional areas that are impacted. When meetings don’t include the proper personnel, suggest that they be rescheduled until all necessary personnel can be involved.  

4. Communicate a clear vision for the future

A clear, concise vision is a crucial element of cross-functional collaboration and ensuring inclusion across team members. Every team member has a clear and consistent understanding of how a solution will function, what the environment will operate as, and how the process will work when a single vision is communicated, understood, accepted, and pursued by cross-functional project teams.  

5. Model a healthy environment

Team members will follow a leader’s actions more than the words communicated. To truly excel as a project manager in a toxic culture, consistently model the behavior that is acceptable in all interactions and hold others accountable for those behaviors. Team members that are harsh in their interactions, or participate in backchannel gossip need to be constrained, while those who are positive and healthy publicly recognized and rewarded.  

These few approaches will help in consciously creating a positive, healthy, and collaborative project environment even when operating in a toxic, gossipy, and silo-driven culture. By recognizing the culture, project managers develop strategies to overcome and achieve success in a positive manner that empowers their team and builds a bubble of project culture within the organization. Leaders demonstrate the actions they would like to see in their teams and with conscious, intentional approaches they can overcome even the most difficult situations.   


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