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What should a PM do if he has sound reasons not to trust his sponsor? And if the sponsor openly acknowledges that he doesn't trust the PM?

This is a challenge found all too often (and migrated from another site).

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The actual reason can greatly inform the required approach.

In my experience, as a PM I can typically identify the reasons for mistrust very early in a project. Either I've done something to harm the sponsor, I've been put in place over the sponsor's "favorite", I'm perceived as a threat to the sponsor's agenda in some way, or previous PM's and projects have led to situations where the sponsor won't trust anybody in a PM role.

In any of these situations, my role is typically to focus on regaining the respect and trust of the sponsor as quickly as possible. Usually, this is through delivering early and often, being transparent with both successes and failures, and helping the team gain a reputation for excellence in delivery during the first weeks and months of a project. I also focus on ways to improve the sponsor's "project experience," ensuring that the team isn't wasting the sponsor's time or money with pointless meeting, teaching and mentoring good facilitation approaches, and generally helping the sponsor slowly realize that he greatly enjoys working with this team.

On the other hand, if the "sound reason" is that the sponsor has a proven history of actively sabotaging projects or that the PM is joining deep in crisis mode and doesn't have a chance of success, then there's not much to be done and I recommend the PM focus on advancing his career elsewhere.

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Most of the answers on the "other site" were clear: if the relationship is deteriorated as such, then the best and professional thing to do is to propose a replacement.

Things may go fine when everything is ok, but once issues come up (and they always come up), a bad relationship may result in blaming the other side, or worse, the sponsor taking action behind the PM's back. Things may escalate very quickly, the team may find it difficult to continue optimally in such conditions. Sometimes they will be forced to choose sides ...

Now, when you don't get along, you better end it. It is trust that helps you work together when things are not going well; without it, there will be no cooperation possible.

When you realise you are part of the problem that may endanger the project, you have to do something about it. So either you can work it out, or you propose to leave with sufficient transition time.

  • 1
    I would say that trust is pretty substantial a prerequisite for all professional relationships, including PM - sponsor. – bonifaz Mar 21 '11 at 20:20
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How do you get the right executive support for your project in this situation. The PM and the Sponsor need to work together to deliver a successful project. Even if this lack of trust is well founded, they need to try to put it aside and find a working relationship. If this can't happen, then the sponsor needs a new PM - not the other way around.

I've worked on projects where I've needed to work on the relationship with the sponsor. The only way I know to make it work is to remind myself that the project belongs to the sponsor and my job is to get it done.

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I'd say that this situation is good for the project. Without trust both parties will be focused much more on objectively verifiable results instead of promises (they just don't trust them). The project manager knows that every report, every decision, and every milestone will be double checked - it's good. The sponsor knows that his every "yes" has to be confirmed with a signature on paper - it's good.

I'm not saying that lack of trust is what a project has to go after. But very often too much trust is what ruins good projects.

  • +1 I don't agree with the answer but it is an interesting perspective that brings out the need for objective metrics. – Mark Phillips Mar 21 '11 at 17:44
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    When there is no trust, it is not a matter of double checking reports, it is about finding fault for every possible (real or imagined) glitch. – Stephan Mar 21 '11 at 19:20
  • when there is no trust, people won't work for the project success, they will work to cover their own a**. No matter the relationships between the other teams, the PM and Sponsor need to trust each other. – Perry Wilson Mar 26 '11 at 18:34
  • A lack of trust can easily damage a project beyond repair, leading to a lot of wasted money and damaged reputations and careers behind. – Eric Willeke Apr 25 '11 at 2:36
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@yegor256 makes a good point, but not a convincing one. Whenever there is too much trust between certain project stakeholders then shortcuts will be taken. Documents will be ill-defined and omit detail, specifications will be deemed wish lists and so on.

If there is little or no trust then the paperwork seems more likely to be in place so that the project success metrics will be well defined. But decent paperwork seems to be the only benefit from an incredibly stressful situation.

If there is a lack of trust then the stress levels on the project will not be helpful - especially if key project members will be constantly on the lookout for a knife in the dark.

Creative tension is good - not taking short-cuts because of personal relationships is good - lack of trust between key people has the smell of a project that is doomed. One or other of the conflicting people needs to move on.

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It's a situational question and does require an instant reaction. There is no such relationship exits without trust, whether it is a professional or personal world. Well, you need to think from the different perspective on analyzing why he is not trusting PM (or vice versa) instead of what to do when it happen. As I said, that this is a situational scenario and may not have an specific answer. The worst case in this is to include the third party for neutral results. But yes, that is the third party involvement and it is doing the same thing which I want to suggest to PM/sponsor, i.e. negotiation. So, it’s always a better strategy to resolve the conflicts ASAP as they may appear as a major risk in your project.

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