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6 ways to cope with a resistant sponsor

Bart Perkins | Feb. 23, 2015
An executive sponsor who is out to undermine a project can be very dangerous.

Resistant sponsors can have extremely negative effects on project success and can demoralize even the most confident project teams. Insecure team members sometimes depart rather than work in a toxic project atmosphere. Others may respond by asking the sponsor to make every decision, copying the sponsor on every email and making disparaging remarks behind the sponsor's back. While these coping mechanisms may help team members feel better, they don't help solve the underlying problem.

When dealing with a resistant sponsor, try these strategies:

  • Engage allies. Ask supporters across the organization to communicate the project's value. Even the most stubbornly resistant sponsor finds it hard to continue destructive behavior in the face of enterprisewide support.
  • Maintain professionalism. When responses are personal, the situation often spins out of control and leaves little or no room for compromise. Although it is easy to blame an unreasonable or incompetent individual, it is much more useful to blame the process and seek or offer solutions.
  • Engage the resistant sponsor informally. Find someone outside the project team whom the resistant sponsor respects. Have that person ask the sponsor pertinent questions about the project. If asked enough penetrating questions, the sponsor may modify her participation or approach.
  • Document carefully. Resistant sponsors may disguise themselves as supporters who simply want additional information. Good project management practices require the project team to document agreements, open issues, action items, etc. With a resistant sponsor, make sure that all documentation is timely and overly thorough.
  • Keep the resistant sponsor informed. Never blindside a resistant sponsor — your job may be on the line. When difficult decisions are needed, seek the resistant sponsor's advice privately, prior to the formal meeting. Previewing issues privately makes the resistant sponsor feel important and may result in less time being wasted during project team meetings.
  • Let the resistant sponsor self-destruct. This is a risky, last-ditch effort, based on the hope that the rest of the organization will recognize the resistant sponsor's substandard efforts and poor decisions, culminating in removing the culprit either temporarily or permanently.

Resistant sponsors are all too common in corporate life. Nobody wants to work with them, fearing their project may be killed by the sponsor's stranglehold. Make every effort to minimize the damage a resistant sponsor can do, but don't expect to see a lot of change in commitment or participation. It is highly unlikely a resistant sponsor will ever become enthusiastic, but if you can maneuver your sponsor from resistant to minimally involved, it may be enough to allow your project, and your project team, to get enough oxygen to survive.


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