Dealing With the Project Saboteur

There is a presentation I have given where I talk about a “Supportive” stakeholder. These stakeholders understand WHY a project is important and will assist in its execution and completion. These “Supportive” stakeholders may not have wanted this project to be approved in the first place or see it as a burden during execution. But, because they understand why it’s important, they will not make an attempt to delay or sabotage the project in any way.

However, there are those that are so upset, egotistical, or just assholes that they want you and the project to fail. They’re cunning and smart. Sabotage itself is usually very calculated, methodical and strategic. They pretend they don’t know they’re slowing progress, but you know better. They’ll find ways to discredit you and the team, make the project look like it’s off the rails, and withhold resources and information.

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Sometimes, your train gets set on fire before someone knocks it off the rails!

This is, the Project Saboteur!

Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, once wrote “‘Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”

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When you say Ian Fleming, you need the original 007!

Let me give you an example. I was a PMO leader and one of our projects kicked off immediately after governance approved as it was deemed “urgent”. One of the departmental managers was not present in the stakeholder kickoff but acknowledged getting the deck and had read it. When asked if there were any questions or concerns, the immediate answer was NO.

The first happenstance came when this person delayed allocating key people to the project. OK, we get it, your department is very busy. Let it slide, but it’s noted.

The second coincidence came when personnel were pulled off the project to deal with an issue directly impacting a client. Interestingly enough, the personnel pulled said the issue was minor and could have been handled by one person with a couple hours effort. At that point, the rest of the project team was denied access to equipment until the issue was resolved and personnel were allowed back on the project. OK, issues come up and maybe you were concerned other project team members would not handle equipment properly. Let it slide, but it’s noted.

The third, and defining moment, came with a phone call from another stakeholder, who was a VP. They asked why the project was so far off track and when was the PMO going to report it as such. Well, this was news to me so called the project manager leading the effort. She said outside of a couple hang-ups with getting people from the stakeholder in questions department, tasks were progressing. After some digging, turns out this stakeholder was telling other leaders the project was a mess and was destined to fail.

Enemy action!

I wish I can say this was a first, but it wasn’t. I’ve had a saboteur a handful of times in my 20+ years try to kill my project and in the process, discredit me. Though rare, it happens. Here are some tips in dealing with this type of enemy action.

Don’t always assume bad intentions, initially that is. Don’t assume bad intentions from the start. Maybe this person is having a bad day. Or, some of the employees they were going to allocate to the project have been very busy and possibly behind in their “day job.” Give them the benefit of the doubt and look deeper before you come to the conclusion they’re trying to sabotage your project.

Stay vigilant and take detailed notes. If your Spidey Senses (you Spiderman fans know what this is) are kicking in when interacting with this person or see negative reactions to discussions around your project, it might be time to pay special attention to that person and start taking notes. If you’re noticing more “you-centric” or “project-centric” gossip or rumors, then you know something’s off. If resources are being withheld, ask questions. Listen. Take notes. Ask more questions and take more notes. Information will help you later, so stay vigilant and take notes now.

Ask a trusted trusted confidant; Am I crazy? Talk to someone you trust. It could be another PM, the sponsor, or someone at a different company all together. Without vilifying the possible project saboteur, factually explain scenarios. Then, ask for their opinion. Maybe they’ll have some suggestions or a different point of view. NOTE: don’t talk to someone who always agrees with you; talk to someone who will listen, ask questions, and challenge you.

Engage the sponsor and note an issue or concern on your status. You’ve documented concerns, seen issues, verified you’re not crazy, and now it’s time to talk to the sponsor and update your status report (if you haven’t already). Maybe the sponsor can help in having a discussion with the saboteur. It’s possible they have a relationship with them already and can help in a resolution. Worst case, the sponsor will want to avoid conflict at all costs and not get engaged. In any case, note on your status report that is an issue without necessarily calling the person out by name. It may also be time to confront!

Confront, but don’t be confrontational. Once you’ve come to the conclusion your project is the target of sabotage, confront the saboteur without being confrontational. What I mean by that is don’t come out of the gate saying “You’re an asshole and I know what you’re doing!!” You’re fixin’ for a fight. Instead, ask them, “I feel like you’re not on board with this project. Can I address any questions or concerns? Is everything OK? Is there anything I can be doing to help you?” This may sound weak, but it’s not. Keep your enemies close. Listen to their response and continue to ask clarifying questions. Be sure to stress the importance of the project for the company, not how it impacts you. After the conversation, note it and maybe follow-up with an email.

Talk to your boss, governance group, or possibly HR. You may have done this before confronting the saboteur or, depending on the outcome of that conversation, talk about it after. If you’ve talked with your sponsor and reported issues in the status, it may now be at the point to engage your immediate boss, any project or portfolio governance (depending on if the company has this or not), and possibly HR. Because not only is the project at risk but also your reputation in the company, be proactive and take action before it gets out of hand any further.

Don’t retaliate. If someone is trying to sabotage your project, be the bigger person and don’t try to sabotage them in retaliation. Be the “helper” regardless of how they treat you. You don’t need to be their BFF, but don’t try to ruin their career because they wanted to kill your project. Chances are, you won’t succeed and others (especially management) will see your intentions, which can have negative implications.

Get the hell outta Dodge! If the situation remains toxic and not improving, you probably shouldn’t be there. Sure, you want to see the project through to completion because you take pride in your work and you care for your team. But, update your resume. Put some feelers out to former coworkers or contacts. Maybe apply for a couple jobs that spark your interest. Prepare yourself for a future move.

Get the Hell Out of Dodge - English Idioms & Slang Dictionary

Project saboteurs are out there. Maybe you’ve experienced them. Maybe you haven’t…yet. But when you do, remember these tips to help get it sorted out and resolved quickly, before enemy action derails your project!

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