Negotiation Skills for Project Managers

Project Managers As Negotiators

In a lot of ways, a project manager’s success is tied to their abilities as a negotiator. Projects start out so nebulous that even when they go smoothly, it will involve negotiating a lot of gray area. But it’s when the plan doesn’t easily become reality—when things aren’t going as expected—when negotiation skills are truly necessary. There’s a triple constraint of time, cost and scope, so when something has to give, it takes a good bargainer to find a compromise that keep everyone happy.

Two Tips for Effective Negotiations 

1) You have more power than you think.

This is a common phrase in the world of negotiations, and it’s especially applicable for project management. People are naturally so caught up in their own fears and expectations that they often lose sight of the fact that the other side also has something to lose.

In the project manager’s case, the business sponsors have a vested interest in the project succeeding. They might not like the news that the project won’t be able to make its original estimates, but you will often be surprised how far they’re willing to go to assure that a project will get completed

2) Understand each other’s sides.

Whenever you go into a negotiation, the other side has a unique set of circumstances and priorities that will make them more flexible in certain areas. What you want to avoid is solving the other person’s problems for them. If you put everything out on the table, your own priorities as well as the other side’s, then you can simply negotiate with yourself.

Oftentimes, this solves the issue on the spot. For example, the business sponsors may express no concern whatsoever for how you solve the problems, just so long as the budget doesn’t increase. If adding a month to the project resolves the issue, then it will be a very pain-free process.

But even if the solution isn’t as easy as that example, having a solid understanding of each others’ flexibilities and deal breakers can lead to creative solutions. Once you know what is completely off the table, you can stop wasting your time with pipe dreams and focus on the areas where you might be able to meet in the middle. These sorts of understandings tend to organize the discussion, so that when both sides bend on all the areas they’re willing to bend and the resolution still doesn’t seem viable, then each side can understand what further compromises they will need to make.


One of the most important aspects of a project manager’s job is dealing with delivering bad news to business sponsors. This often leads to a negotiation-like scenario where both sides have to navigate what aspects of the triple constraint will have to give in order to resolve project issues.

The first thing to keep in mind in these “negotiations” is that you have more power than you think, since the sponsors are monetarily vested in the interest of the project’s success. Then, it is a matter of both sides explicitly putting their priorities on the table so that the malleable areas can be compromised and the deal breakers can be left out of discussion.

Our white paper Leadership Is Taken, Not Given goes into much greater detail on how to establish leadership in a project environment.

For more help on navigating the challenges of project management, contact our experts today.