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Five tips to manage project politics

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‘Politics’ is not a dirty word, but it does carry a lot of weight. It can have many meanings, from the art of government to dishonest practices. On an emotional level, it can carry a negative connotation, associated with playing games, being duplicitous or trying to manipulate situations for our own benefit. Politics is also however, inevitable. In our personal and professional environments, the word captures the existence of groups and individuals with their own sets of interests. In a work context, this is simply the reality of what happens when you bring different teams together.

There is a genuine power in understanding the politics happening around us, without letting it distract and eat up our time. Thinking back over my 20 years’ experience working in the technology sector, here are five tips on how to navigate one of the most complex subject matter areas within project delivery: politics.

1. Use the Power of Insight

In an era of data-driven decision making, too often when determining our next course of action, we overlook taking time to gather the information that can help us make the best choices. This is critical when navigating politics within our project delivery or roles, as the insight of relationships, stakeholders and past experiences can be pivotal in guiding the next best move.

Most of us wouldn’t buy a car or a house without doing our research beforehand, and it’s important to apply that logic to stakeholder engagement. This translates into performing our due diligence on key players, their key interests and effective ways to communicate with them. Doing so can elicit priceless intelligence on what works and what doesn’t in terms of influencing them and using that to help you identify traps to avoid and templates for success. 

2. Evaluate Emotions

At the heart of politics are people and at the heart of people are emotions. Learning to recognise the outward indicators of stress, discomfort, or disinterest, can influence interactions inside and outside our teams to the benefit of our goals.

Likewise, self-analysis during periods of pressure can help us to develop the skills to evaluate our emotional state, understand how it impacts us and the techniques to regulate them. Understanding this and building our emotional intelligence can pay dividends, when navigating the complex environments that projects typically are.

3. Focus on the Outcomes

By focusing on the outcomes, you can help your organisation elevate above personal dynamics and maintain focus on what the collective group is trying to achieve. Key questions to ask include:

  • What are we trying to fix?
  • Who are we trying to help?
  • How might what we do impact people?
  • Why are we making these changes?

Maintaining focus on what you are trying to accomplish and to whose benefit can act as a lodestar and move the path away from distractions that compromise progress. Clarity of focus can also feed into the preparation, communication and rationale that bolster our stakeholder engagement strategies. Navigating politics in our projects is a key component of stakeholder management. It's not the only element of it, however when we disregard how ‘politics’ may influence our projects, it can very easily spiral to consume a disproportionate amount of effort.

Being aware of this and tackling this with the rigour that you would manage financials, resources, or communications, mitigates that risk.

4. Manage Conflict Healthily

Enabling conflict to be managed in a healthy way provides tangible business benefits. This is easier said than done, however on a practical level, a good place to start is by drawing upon the strong body of evidence that exists on how to recognise, strategise and respond to conflict when it happens.

A great resource is the Thomas-Killman Conflict Model Instrument (TKI). The TKI is a highly regarded framework for conflict management and can help in multiple ways. It can help to highlight when “assertive” or “cooperative” approaches could be adopted when dealing with the situation of conflict. There isn’t a right or wrong, simply what is effective based on the situation itself.

It sets out five broad modes for Conflict Management: Competing, Avoiding, Accommodating, Collaborating and Compromising. Alongside frameworks such as this, I would encourage assessing the culture of your work environment and how you can help to embed healthy ways of addressing conflict. Environments that discourage blame apportion, provide forums to air differences in opinion and celebrate people who collaborate well, are most likely to undertake healthy conflict. 

5. The Right Person at the Right Level

When it comes to navigating politics, there are times when the ‘who’ does matter. As is universally recognised in stakeholder management, relationships matter. As is recognised in projects, roles and responsibilities matter. Finally, as is recognised in business, accountability matters.

If you find yourself trying to traverse a politically sensitive situation, take a step back and analyse the parties involved. Challenge your team and organisation. Who is the best placed person to take whatever action is required to resolve the impasse? In my experience, pragmatic analysis like this can reduce effort and more swiftly steer you to the best outcome. 


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