How to handle conflicts with project sponsors

When there is conflict with a project sponsor, what should you do? Follow this advice for dealing with four common types of project sponsor conflicts.

Conflict.

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Conflict is a common element in all projects, and it can be an unenviable position to be in if a project manager is faced with sponsor conflict. Knowing the best way to broach issues and find a resolution can be tricky.

In general project terms, conflict occurs when any of the stakeholders, including sponsors, become aware of any incompatibility of future outcomes and maintain a position that contrasts with the interests of the other stakeholders. Regardless of the nature of the conflict, these situations have the potential to result in a variety of implications; this can impact stakeholders, the project, or deliverables.  

SEE: How to build a successful project manager career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Potential implications of conflict with a sponsor

There can be a plethora of implications that result from conflict with project sponsors, including these common ones:

  • Grinding down the progress of the project;
  • reducing decision-making effectiveness and timeline;
  • jeopardizing team cohesiveness;
  • undermining the authority of a project manager;
  • creating animosity and encouraging uncooperativeness;
  • generating an environment of anxiety for other stakeholders; and
  • obscuring vision for the project. 

Strategies to handle common types of project sponsor conflicts 

Project managers can use different approaches to address conflict with sponsors depending upon the varying nature of conflicts. Different methods of dealing with conflict are confronting, compromising, smoothing, forcing, and avoiding. The way sponsor-related conflict is handled will depend on the areas where the conflict originated. Here are four common types of project sponsor conflicts and tips on how to resolve the issues.

Departmental goals vs. corporate strategy 

Although the sponsors typically understand the strategic value of a project, much can be forgotten when focusing on departmental goals. Within a multi-sponsor project, if the interests of only one or a few sponsors are met, it risks the overall success of that project. In this situation, a project manager should regularly meet with all department sponsors to ensure that the strategic alignment takes precedence over individual departmental goals. 

A project manager can resolve conflict and gain trust by reaffirming that all sponsors have a continued understanding of the company-wide risks if all departmental needs are not met. By holding a multi-sponsor meeting to discuss potential roadblocks, opportunities exist to leverage consensus to help drive a point across without animosity. It's important to work through sponsor expectations and drive home the importance and benefits of compromise within the context of company-wide strategy.

Prioritization of goals 

Conflict can arise when sponsors have differing opinions on how specific goals should be prioritized. Sponsors rely heavily on project managers for guidance regarding project planning, execution, and scope. Project sponsors shouldn't be directly involved in the day-to-day setting of priorities; however, this might be easier said than done if he or she has been a project manager previously. The sponsor may be tempted to get into the weeds with their project manager and team instead of playing their intended role. 

If this is the case, it's your responsibility as a project manager to subtly remind the sponsor of their role and assure them that you have things under control. If they express their uncertainty about why certain tasks have been prioritized differently, take a few moments to share your views to reassure them of your confidence in your abilities. While you need to maintain a solid relationship with a project sponsor, it's your responsibility to deliver on the project requirements as expected. 

Resourcing conflicts 

In many phases of a project, the conflict between sponsors and a project manager can arise due to resource constraints. This may look simple at first sight, but it might have the tendency to develop into a significant power struggle. This is when it becomes essential for a project manager to win the confidence of the sponsor(s) and provide details regarding how the resources will be most effectively deployed and managed. The project manager must stay on top of monitoring, scheduling, and allocating resources at all times. 

Resources are seldom in large supply, making it necessary for you as a project manager to assert your reasons for why you have chosen to allocate resources in the manner that you have. Explain your rationale and remind the sponsor about why they chose you for the project. Ultimately, it's the project manager who will be held accountable to all stakeholders, including the sponsor, for how resources are utilized.

Personality clashes

From time to time, personal battles may crop up between a sponsor and a project manager due to individual bias; when these situations occur, things can get particularly tense. Your role as a project manager should include practicing diplomacy, professionalism, and respect for the opinions of others in a way that does not risk the project. 

The goal is to refocus the sponsor's interest back to company and project goals. Remain neutral about the personal conflicts of sponsors. It may be necessary to involve a mediator to defuse issues and get back to managing the project as quickly as possible. 

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By Moira Alexander

Moira Alexander is the Founder of PMWorld 360 Magazine and Lead-Her-Ship Group, and a project management and digital workplace columnist for various publications. Moira has 20+ years in business (IS&T) and project management for small to large busine...