The Adaptive Project Manager Skills Series: How to work politically

08 November

The word politics has negative connotations for most people. It conjures up scenes of back-stabbing, double-dealing, entrenched positions and just generally duplicitous behavior. But working “politically” doesn’t have to include any of those things. In fact, learning how to recognise and deal with political situations can often be your best tool for getting things done while at the same time advancing your career.

Let’s start by defining what it means to work politically.

Working politically means understanding three things:

  1. Motivation
  2. Interconnection
  3. Communication



Discovering what motivates people or groups lies at the heart of working politically. Those motivations are what people use, not just to form their positions, but as touchstones (conscious or subconscious) when it comes to making decisions. Knowing what motivates someone can allow you to develop solutions that will be met with enthusiasm. Ignoring motivations can result in an outright rejection of any idea or ask, regardless of its validity or benefit.

Many opportunities present themselves to determine motivation. Conscious observation of behavior is perhaps the easiest; direct inquiry the most complicated. Regardless of the method, great care should be taken to validate any conclusions before any action based on those conclusions is taken.



Decisions and actions in work settings rarely affect single individuals. So how people are interconnected is very important. Through the lense of motivation, people’s connections can influence their responses in ways that may not be immediately apparent.  For example, a supervisor whose primary motivation is their children, may subconsciously treat their connected childless reports differently than those with kids when it comes to approving personal time off.

How motivation manifests itself through interconnections can often be observed when initially looking for motivation itself. Watch behavior in meetings and note how it changes depending on the participants.



Finally, how and when things are communicated when trying to act politically can often mean the difference between success and failure. Here, communication styles of both the transmitter (you) and the receiver (them) must be factored in when trying to make a point or persuade the other party. And don’t forget about timing. Mistimed communication can easily derail the best of intentions.

Frustration quickly occurs when two people with different communication styles are put in a situation where they must reach a unanimous decision, regardless of how aligned their motivations are. It is incumbent on you to determine what communication style and approach will yield the result you are after and adapt accordingly. If you think your communication style doesn’t need to change depending on your audience and message, you will never be successful at working politically.



For the adaptive project manager, working politically means actively and continuously thinking about who you are interacting with. Taking their motivations and connections into consideration when you communicate with them will dramatically increase your chances of a successful interaction. And regardless of how small or seemingly innocuous, establishing common ground or interests always increases your chances for success.

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