1 July, 2024

Political Acumen: How to Win the Game of Project Politics

Any seasoned Project Manager will quickly learn that there’s no escaping project politics. We’d like to think ourselves above it. But, whenever two people are together; there’s politics. So, among your toolkit of scheduling and risk management tools, you also need political acumen. Let’s take a look at some of the tools and ideas that will help you play the Game of Project Politics.

Political Acumen: How to Win the Game of Project Politics

What We Will Cover

in this article, I will talk about:

Does Politics Really Affect Project Managers?

Here is a fact of life, adapted from a popular book/TV franchise*:

When you play a game of projects you deliver or you fail.’

But you may find yourself tempted to say something like: ‘Hang on a moment… I’m a project manager: not a politician.’

That would be nice, wouldn’t it? You could spend your days focusing on the basic management principles.

* In case you missed it, I’m referring to the A Song of Ice and Fire books and the Game of Thrones TV series.

Except, what are the Basic Project Management Principles?

Well, pretty near the top is… Stakeholder Engagement. And what’s that all about? Politics.

And something else near the top is getting your team to do their work. Often, however, Project Managers don’t have formal authority over the people working on our projects. We need to influence without authority. That needs soft power – which is just a part of… politics.

So, you’ll always come back to the political dimension.

The Game of Projects: You Deliver or You Fail

Project Politics: Learn to Love it

Because it’s always there in real life. No matter how much you may want to; you cannot escape project politics. So you do need to understand the basics. To paraphrase another famous book**:

‘You can’t go over it. You can’t go around it. So, you’ll have to go through it.’

In this guide, we’ll help you out with some of the best tools and techniques to help you navigate the pitfalls of project politics.

** In case you missed it, I’m referring to the children’s book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.

To Introduce the Topic of Project Politics…

Here is a short video:

Understanding the Political Landscape

Your first step is to reveal the political dimensions of your project. You’ll need to create some form of map of your stakeholders. There are two tools I particularly recommend:

  1. Proximity Map
  2. Sociogram

Proximity Map

The first tool is a Proximity Map. This helps you understand your project politics from the perspective of how close each stakeholder is to the heart of your project.

Start by drawing concentric circles, and putting your project in the middle. Each circle represents a set of stakeholders at a distance from your project. So, the innermost circle is your project team – or maybe just your core team. Subsequent circles represent stakeholders at greater distances from your project. For example:

  • colleagues and other departments of your organization
  • business partners and parts of your supply chain
  • customers and the public
  • regulators and pressure groups

Place each stakeholder into the right concentric circle. You can also put stakeholders on the left or right of a center line. This can represent different levels of opposition or support to your project. Or you can use positioning from top to bottom to denote strength of influence. This is a quick and easy chart to create.

Proximity Chart / Proximity Map for Stakeholder Mapping and Project Politics


A sociogram will take you longer to produce. But it’s a more powerful tool for understanding the political dimension of your project. It reveals patterns of political influence among your stakeholders.

Here’s how you create a sociogram:

  1. Identify influential stakeholders
  2. Place them as points on a large sheet of paper
  3. Draw lines between them representing connections
  4. Where one primarily influences the other, add an arrow to the line
  5. If the influence is both ways, add two arrows
  6. If influence is just (in your understanding) a social connection, use no arrows.
  7. You can also use strong and fine lines to denote the strength of the connection or influence
  8. Add other stakeholders to your chart, building out the web of influence.
Basic Sociogram for Stakeholder Mapping and Project Politics

This social network diagram will start to reveal what the natural grouping and alliances are likely to be. So, you’ll see who the powerful political players are, at the hubs of those groups. And which individuals span groups and link them together, and who are the outliers.

With this diagram, you’ll be well-placed to navigate your project’s political dimension.

Combing a Sociogram with a Proximity Map

I have never tried this, but you could overlay a network onto a proximity map. You would start by arranging your stakeholders in concentric circles. Then you’d draw the linkages to see how influences connect up. It will reveal the ways your core stakeholders connect with more distant stakeholders.

Understanding Political Power

‘Life is a search for power.’

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Next, you will want to understand the source of your stakeholders’ political power.

There are many types of power. Back in the 1950s, John French and Bertram Raven did the key work on documenting this. They described ‘social power bases’. Their use of the word ‘social‘ refers to their observation that power stems from our relationships.

French & Raven: Power Bases for Stakeholder Assessment and Project Politics

To help us, let’s compare your project to international politics.

The Appointed Leaders

Some people have power because their role or status grants it to them. The system gives them the power to make decisions and expect others to comply. Heads of state and senior officials have this. On your project, so too do bosses, project sponsors, and Boards.

Economic Power

Some nations and corporations have the resources they need to exert power. Anyone who can grant or withhold money or favors has this kind of reward power.

How does this work on your project? The project board, grant-giving bodies, and your gateway review panel can ‘reward’ the project in this way.

Hard Power

If you have a big stick and are prepared to use it, people are likely to comply. Coercion or promises of protection are powerful political tools. But fear will not build strong long-term relationships. Some nations invest heavily in military aggression or state power to coerce their citizens.

You can see this as the opposite of the ability to reward, which I labeled as economic power. But this form of coercion has little integrity. So, avoid flexing your muscles and giving shows of strength. And be wary of corporate bullies – either organizations or individuals.

Hidden Power

Some politicians are particularly astute at influence and persuasion. And in organizations, some people are gatekeepers, with relatively low-status roles. On the face of it, these stakeholders have little power. But their ability to influence, or to say yes or no to your requests, gives them power. You just don’t always see it at first. So charm them. And don’t let their formal status mislead you.

The Power of Alliances

Among the most powerful political operators are those with a wide network of alliances. On the international stage, think:

  • NATO,
  • European Union,
  • Trans-Pacific Partnership
  • African Union

This is a model I recommend for serious project managers who want to build a long-term career. Build up a network of high-trust relationships within and beyond your organization. Join professional groups, business networks, and social clubs. Take a longer view than the one project you are working on today. This will help you to create a valuable personal and professional asset.

Knowledge as Power

Access to information is a form of resource power. Nation states (and many corporations) invest heavily in gathering data. It is therefore linked to economic power. But knowledge is such a vital asset in projects, that it is worth separating it out.

That said, the ability to use that information is quite different. It confers another form of power…

Expert Power

Information and knowledge are nothing without experts who can interpret them and put them to work. These individuals need to feel your respect.

But, beware of the trap of trusting experts beyond their domain of expertise. This is known as the ‘halo effect’. Also, note that experts have a habit of being more certain than the evidence warrants. This is especially so in unfamiliar contexts. And that’s what projects often are.

Personal Power

The ultimate political power base is the respect and trust that others have for you.

This comes from your character, personality, and intellectual authority. And of course, the necessary anchor for this is integrity.

Building a personal reputation for integrity, wisdom, dependability… This is the biggest professional investment you can make. The more you grow your personal power; the more successful your career will be.

Building Political Capital

In the last section, we looked at the power of alliances, and personal power. If you want to negotiate project politics easily, these need to be a deliberate strategy on your part.

So, you want to know… How can you develop long-term professional alliances?

How to Build Long-term Professional Alliances

This is the process I describe in my book, Powerhouse. It has four steps:

1. Understand the power structure

2. Attract people to you

3. Create your reputation

4. Build alliances

Since I have already discussed step 1, let’s look at steps 2, 3, and 4.

Attract People to You

What are the characteristics that will attract people to you? As a project manager, you should already have:

  • Enthusiasm
  • Confidence
  • A reciprocal mindset (you’re helpful to the people around you)

But we’re also attracted to people who inspire us and make us feel good about ourselves.

But being inspirational does not mean isolating yourself. A project leader that sets themself apart from the people around them, makes it harder for people to get to know them. This will reduce their tendency to like and trust you.

So, a leadership style that will attract people to you is a generous one. Be open and give unreservedly: your time, your support, and your advice.

Craft Your Reputation

‘You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do’

Henry Ford

We build our reputations on achievements. So, there is nothing sustainable that you can do through talk alone. Actions speak louder than boasts.

So, create the reputation you want by choosing the things you do. And then, do them exceptionally well. Whether you are an implementer, a leader, a thinker, a creator, or a listener…

Plan your long-term influencing campaign by starting with the reputation you would like to have. And then, set out to build a substantial track record of excellence in that arena.

Build Alliances

Long-term professional alliances take time to build. So, do it in stages.

  1. Jumpstart them by agreeing on some shared goals and values. And make the deliberate presumption that the other person is worthy of your trust. Then, focus your relationship on action and progress.
  2. Next, deepen your relationship by exchanging favors.
  3. Look for new areas to work together, to collaborate in ways that are valuable to both of you.
  4. Finally, harness your growing alliance by partnering to make new connections. These will let you share each other’s reputational capital.

Choose What Kind of Operator You want to Be

If you like the ideas in this article, the next step is to do what it takes to understand your political landscape. I have based this model on the work of Simon Baddeley and Kim James.

What kind of Political Animal are you? Baddeley & James: Political Animals

Wise Political Operators

If you like the ideas in this article, you will commit to do what it takes to become highly aware of your political landscape. And you will also want to commit to investing in long-term relationships. You’ll recognize that quick wins alone can compromise your long-term political status. This will move you towards the category of a ‘Wise’ political operator.

Smart Political Operators

But, I’ve seen that not every project manager manages (or even tries) to achieve this. Some focus far more on short-term project politics and today’s opportunities. They target their stakeholder engagement on immediate project concerns. And they do so, ruthlessly looking for political advantage.

Implicitly, they prefer to worry about tomorrow when it comes. So, these project managers often come across as savvy and street-wise. But, they are rarely aware of the risks to their long-term reputations. These are ‘Smart’ political operators.

Inept Political Operators

Of course, we have all met people who aspire to be smart like this. But they fail.

They fail because they aren’t aware enough of what is going on. They don’t read the project politics. So, they can’t tell who really has the power, and how to influence effectively. We can describe these project managers as ‘Inept’ political operators.

Innocent Political Operators

Finally, far too many project managers take the purist attitude I described above.

Hang on, I’m a project manager: not a politician.’

They like the comfort of focusing on the technical aspects of project management. They don’t want to acknowledge the project politics. And they certainly prefer not to have to get involved in it.

Their awareness of project politics is low; although their intentions are pure. Their concern is for their long-term reputation, of course. But they don’t see that politics is just as important as their project professionalism and skills.

These are the ‘Innocent’ political operators. They can manage a project well, but only in a vacuum. They need to either learn the political craft or access shrewd political leadership from their sponsor or a trusted colleague.

Does this sound a little like you? If so, my concern is simple. You may continue to deliver technically excellent projects. But, you will fail to achieve all the recognition you think you deserve.

Because, ultimately, project management and politics are inextricably linked. They always have been and, like it or not, they always will be.

Ultimately, #project management and politics are inextricably linked Share on X

What’s your Attitude to and Experience of Project Politics?

I’d love to hear your opinions and anecdotes. Please share them in the comments below, and we’ll respond to every contribution.

'When you play a game of projects you deliver or you fail.' Share on X

Mike first published a version of this article at ProjectManager.com.

Learn More…

Andy Kaufman, of The People and Projects Podcast, interviewed me about Politics and Stakeholders. You can listen to it here.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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