Politics and Project Management. It’s only a game, right?

politics of project management

I guess the answer to that depends on whether you see the game through the prism of the agitator or the agitated.

Are there ways to win the game of politics and if so what are they? You can play fair. Will you win? To be honest I don’t like your odds. You can play dirty. Will you win? You might. Will you feel good about yourself afterwards? I suppose it depends how many times you have been to war. “God hardens the heart of several kings to they would make war” (Joshua 11:20)


It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.” (Sun Tzu’s The Art of War).


Ok, so politics isn’t war or it shouldn’t have to be. War is exhausting not to mention destructive. Politics is not really a game either but it is something that we, as project managers, need to be aware of and manage.

Before we think about winning the game of politics I’d like to bring your attention to Eight Leadership Lessons From Bad Politicians (Thom S. Rainer). Using Thom’s words “Let’s be fair. Many politicians are good and strong leaders. They have a high ethical standard… but some politicians are bad. They put self first. They seek power first.” Thom asks: “can we learn anything from bad politicians?” Before you answer can I re-phrase Thom’s question slightly and ask can we, as project managers, learn anything from bad politicians? Forget, for a moment, about winning games? Can we learn anything to help us deliver success for our organisations and value for our customers? Really isn’t that the name of the game?


Let’s look at the eight lessons we can learn from bad politicians according to Thom S. Rainer:

  1. Tell the truth. True leaders tell the truth. No matter what. No matter the cost.
  2. Don’t deflect responsibility. Great leaders take responsibility for that which they can lead.
  3. Don’t lead by placing blame. Great leaders are more concerned about what they can do well than what someone else does poorly.
  4. Communicate clearly. They make certain that the truth is communicated in such a way that others understand it clearly.
  5. Be aware of the lure of power. Great leaders are servants. Their motive is first to serve others.
  6. Be willing to sacrifice yourself. Leaders who make a difference will put their careers… before the good of those they serve.
  7. Lead by conviction, not by popularity. Great leaders will do what they sense is right rather than trying to win… popularity.
  8. Don’t sacrifice the needs of the future for the convenience of the present. Great leaders will make courageous decisions today, even if they aren’t popular decisions.

Now “here’s your moment of Zen” (Jon Stewart). Do these traits remind you of people you work with or should work with? If these are the traits of the good politician then if you are like me you work with or have worked with this good politician’s evil (doppelganger) twin.

So how can you defeat the evil twin and win the war between good versus evil? For starters you have to recognise you are in a game of sorts and you need to learn how to play it.

Mindful of traits of individuals who practice bad politics (the opposite of those outlined above) you need to work within the system and play (the game) by the rules. Check out Corporate Politics for Project Managers 101 (Dale Myers’ blog) because I’m about to use his recommendations for beating that evil twin:

  • Learn the political landscape of your organisation.
  • Actively manage your reputation.
  • Keep your options open / don’t take sides.
  • Don’t badmouth others.
  • Focus on your circle of influence.
  • Keep your friends close, your enemies closer.
  • Remember it’s not personal.
  • Think and look for “win-win” solutions.
  • Consult your core values.
  • Expect betrayal.

Dale calls corporate politics an “ugly game”. He’s right but it’s a game nonetheless that we, as project managers, have to play. It is just a question of how we play it.

Great people have great values and great ethics.” (Jeffrey Gitomer)