How I Dealt with a Difficult Project Manager

This is a story about how my relationship with a “difficult person” was improved considerably and unexpectedly by a very simple change.

A while ago I was working on a project. Things were going well. Elaboration was proceeding nicely, and I had a good relationship with my stakeholders. In order to ensure close working with the stakeholders I had found myself a desk in their area so I could immerse myself in their business area.

A Typical Discussion with my Project Manager

A Typical Discussion with my Project Manager

There was just one problem: my project manager. We just weren’t getting on. He’d only recently joined the project and I didn’t rate him that highly. He didn’t seem to be doing the things I expected him to do – like creating a plan, chasing me for deliverables, managing risks and issues – you know the sorts of things PMs like to do. Conversely, he did seem to be doing the sorts of things I was supposed to be doing – like understanding the business problem and finding an appropriate solution. In project meetings he would be constantly coming up with solution ideas, often seemingly quite random ones to me, based on his previous experience, but not really relating to the current project. After a while he started driving me up the wall.

I have to say I don’t suffer fools gladly – I’m not especially tolerant if I don’t think someone’s pulling their weight or playing their proper part. It all came to a head in a meeting one day involving me, said project manager, our senior manager and a number of senior stakeholders. I was explaining some of the key design options and the PM chipped in with a massive and random curveball idea which was something we hadn’t discussed before and completely threw me. One of the stakeholders latched on to it and the whole meeting slewed in a direction I really hadn’t anticipated. I was visibly irritated with the PM and this was pretty clear to everyone in the room, managers and stakeholders included.

I was fuming after the meeting. That really was the last straw. My poor wife bore the brunt of my rants and expletives that evening (sorry dear).

To make matters worse, the next morning, my senior manager sent me a message. Clearly, he said, I wasn’t “lined up” with my project manager. His suggested remedy was for me to re-locate myself out of the stakeholders’ business unit and to go and sit next to my PM, effective immediately. You can imagine my reaction. A double-whammy! Moving away from the business, thus reducing the quality of the collaboration with them, and having to go and sit next to my jerk of a PM. But my senior manager wouldn’t relent. No arguments, just get moved.

Orders are orders, and off I went, cursing all the way. This was quite possibly the worst decision my senior manager (who, by the way, I highly respected) had made.

Time passed with me in my new location. The relationship with the stakeholders wasn’t strained too much. Because I’d already spent quite a few weeks sitting in their area, the relationships were strong enough to endure the separation. I still spent plenty of time with them, just not all the time.

The most unexpected result, though, was how my relationship with the PM changed. Sitting next to him, we started to develop a rapport – the sort of rapport you only really get when you can have casual conversations with people whilst working on other things, rather than the sort of focussed discussions you get in meetings. Also, I started to experience all the other crap he was having to deal with, and realised that part of his behaviour was driven by external factors that I hadn’t been aware of.

It’s difficult to put my finger on exactly what happened, but in summary, we ended up getting on a whole lot better, after just a few days of sitting together. Because he had better visibility of the work I was doing, he didn’t feel the need to throw random curveballs at me in meetings. He did make a few “helpful” suggestions here and there, but I was able to deal with them calmly and objectively because our relationship was better.

After a week or so I had learned three valuable lessons:

  1. My PM wasn’t as bad as I thought.
  2. My senior manager was very smart, and quickly regained my respect!
  3. Next time I’m having trouble with a “difficult person”, I’m going to go and sit next to them for a week!

And, interestingly, the Agile Manifesto comes up trumps again – it’s all about valuing the importance of individuals and interaction.

7 thoughts on “How I Dealt with a Difficult Project Manager

  1. Adriana Beal

    “In project meetings he would be constantly coming up with solution ideas, often seemingly quite random ones to me, based on his previous experience, but not really relating to the current project.”

    Tony, it’s obviously much easier to see things like that in hindsight, but I think there is another lesson that can be extracted from your (successful) transformation of a difficult relationship into a positive one:

    Speak up earlier. In this type of situation, the second time the PM started to come up with random ideas, ideally the BA would approach the PM after the meeting, to have a one-on-one conversation. The BA could then explain to the PM his/her concerns regarding their roles, and suggest how the two of them could collaborate more effectively to ensure they presented an unified front to the business stakeholders.

    Reply
  2. Tony Heap Post author

    Thanks for your comment Adriana.

    We did have a few conversations along those lines, but it didn’t seem to be helping. Basically I had this guy pegged as an idiot, and I’d decided I was going to have to work round him rather than with him. It was only when sat next to him for a while that the relationship changed fundamentally. My hunch is that no amount of pep-talking would have achieved the same result. I was genuinely shocked by the power of co-location – enough to want to write an article about it.

    Reply
  3. Tracy Novak

    Hi Tony,

    Thanks so much for sharing this. What a tremendous lesson learned! In situations like this, I think it’s natural for many of us to get extremely frustrated and want to stay as far away from the person as possible. But it’s true that in the end, we’re all “just people.” Meaning, we’re all human and we all have different motivators and things we deal with each day. Thanks again, I’ll definitely remember this!

    Reply
    1. Tony Heap Post author

      You’re absolutely right Tracy. The deeper lesson for me was that the solution to a problem is not always obvious – sometimes it’s the opposite of the obvious approach. It’s taught me that in future I need to think outside the box more. And trust my senior managers more :) All very humbling.

      Reply
  4. Adriana B.

    Tony,

    I think your story is a great example of how to change a negative relationship by developing a rapport with the person. The point I was trying to make though is that in most cases the option of co-location is not possible, but creating opportunities to meet one-on-one may be equally effective for this purpose.

    What is important is to try to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes (rather than just assume they are incompetent or clueless when they don’t act the way we expect), and develop a rapport by creating opportunities to talk, have lunch together, etc. This is how we can start seeing things from thee other person’s perspective, and working together to resolve the differences. Even if moving to seat next to the person is not feasible, these efforts will definitely help improve the relationship (as opposed to just deciding to work round the person, which doesn’t help create the type of collaborative environment that projects need to succeed ;-)).

    Reply
  5. Bridget

    Tony —

    I found a great many things valuable about your experience! Sometimes first impressions can be wrong. Sometimes the people we have to work with will annoy us before we’ve established a good relationship. Never burn bridges by lashing out at someone who we need to get along with. Find the common denominator. Don’t define a relationship as ‘poor’ too soon. Don’t feel that you have to ‘react’ immediately if someone is establishing their role, and happens to overlap what you’ve defined as your accountabilities. Learn to (if not love) tolerate diversity!

    Reply
  6. Yuri Domnikov

    I can definitely relate to this. When some communications gaps emerged between my PM and me we decided that we should sit at adjacent desks and asked the management to co-locate us. And it does help a big deal. Some casual chat can go a long way to build a good working relationship.

    Reply

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