I grew up years ago as a computer manager, and I fell into project management accidentally. I realized I needed some help, so I got some formal training and pursued by PMP. Eventually one day, I had the opportunity to run a PMO, then I decided that I wanted to do something in a more helping capacity, so now I’m all about the training and development of project managers. My goal in life is to help people become the best project managers that they can be.
How did you get interested in politics at work? What are politics at work?
I became interested because I was the person who made the mistake of thinking I could stay out of politics, and I had a negative idea of what politics were. One day, when I was creating a course for some of my students on leadership, I realized this was a topic we needed to delve into. When I researched some of the materials, I began to develop a personal understanding of why politics are important and that there’s such a thing as positive politics.
I would define them a couple of different ways. A formal definition would be politics are the activities that relate to influencing actions and policies of a government, or getting and keeping power. For us in the workplace, it’s really about the activities that relate to influencing the actions and policies of working and keeping power at work.
Power, leadership, and influence
It’s about leadership and influence. When we choose to use influence, admit it or not, we involve ourselves in politics. That’s something I didn’t understand. I would say no I don’t play politics and that was not true.
There was a time when I had ideas around power when I worked with people who used their power in a way that I do not appreciate. One of the things I like to say is, “Let’s use our powers for good.” Power is just a thing. It’s not wrong or bad; it’s how I wield that power.
For example, when we have natural disasters, when a group of people comes together, organize and help, they draw on their power to bring people together. You can say that those are projects and using power for good.
Politics are necessary, but not necessarily evil.
I changed my mind with the understanding that if I want to say that I won’t play politics and I stay out of it completely, then I am hurting my team. My job as a project manager is to protect my
team and my project. It’s to help us meet our objectives, clear obstacles, and I can’t do that if I withdraw from politics.
Let’s say your project gets a 30% budget cut, and you lose your strongest team members to another project because the other project manager went to request more funding and resources. You didn't do anything because you thought you’d let them build them empire by asking for more--I’m not going to play that game. What is the result? The result is because you didn’t stand up and say my project is important as well and we’re high in the overall prioritization for the company. If you don’t do that and speak up, you’ve now made it more difficult for your team.
Getting rid of or acknowledging politics
I don’t know if we’re getting rid of the word. I hope that in some more evolved organizations we’re understanding the nature of positive politics. There’s another definition that I find a little more helpful. Politics is the science of who gets what, when, and why. I find that to be a little more neutral, especially regarding our projects. Now it’s about what resources I get, when do I get them, and why do I get them?
Behind that, I could be that person who lies and saying they need specific resources to build my own empire or I could have an honest business conversation, which is this project is number three, so compared to the first two they are the most important, but if this is the third most important and you want it by this date, then this is what we need to do. At this point, it becomes a conversation about who gets what, when, and why.
What kind of professional relationships do project managers need to be successful ‘politicians?’
We need sections of our network and to think about people who need operations. By operations I mean who’s inheriting the product or service that your team is creating and who is contributing resources to help you get the project completed. We might think of this as your operational network.
It’s about building those relationships with those people who are going to have to take care of it after you release it or help you create it. You need them to be apart of your network. These can be good, healthy relationships that come together positively to decide who gets what, when, and why. There’s your strategic network, who are the people who know what’s going on in the environment or the company culture. These are the people who understand or can give you a heads up.
You also want to think about your developmental network. Who’s your mentor? Who helps you grow? Who you can you go to as your trusted confidant? That’s your trusted network. We think about our political network in these three terms--the operational, the strategic, and the developmental. They’re all really about building good relationships.
Do project managers have power?
You have a lot more power than you think, but many of us live in that world where we run projects in the matrix organization. We share power and resources, but we have influence and leadership.
Power is the ability to influence others regarding their decisions, behaviors, and actions.
Leadership is using your power to mobilize followers. Power includes influence. As a project manager, you are a leader, and you have power because you have influence.
Influence is how we do it. It’s the process of how we obtain our power to control events. Nobody follows you unless they want to follow you. That’s why we see those people with titles that are given no regard, and others with no titles that everyone turns to for advice and knowledge.
Is there a time where we should not play politics?
Absolutely. When your playing politics or working with someone, who is not being ethical, when you can’t participate without them bringing you down to their level, stay away. Stay away from someone who is trying to manipulate you and aren’t using their powers for good. Don’t try to out-politics someone who is above you. You shouldn’t play politics when it doesn’t matter and when your involvement is not needed. Ask yourself if you should be in the middle of this, and if the answer is no, get out.
The golden rule for project management.
Aside from using your powers for good, take the high road. Always take the high road. If you err on the side of anything, err on the side of being too good to someone. When you determine that someone is a slacker, handle them professionally, but never let yourself treat someone as less than a human being. Take that high road. It’s better to be sorry for thinking you were too kind than the opposite.
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