Strategies for Dealing with Difficult Stakeholders

Stakeholder Management is key to Success of any Project. It is said that stakeholder management is like a Juggler’s Act. As a Project Manager one has to deal with many stakeholders on a Project. One might come across a very difficult stakeholder. This stakeholder can become impediment to the Success of Project.

If you haven’t dealt with a difficult stakeholder yet, don’t worry. You will soon. Hence, it is important to plan for strategies to deal with such difficult stakeholders and continue working on the project despite possible roadblocks.

Reminder: Don’t Burn Bridges

The most important thing to remember is that stakeholders also want the project to succeed. However, the way they present themselves and express this desire may change over the course of the project. One day they’ll support you, and the next day they’ll place a big argument if work isn’t done a particular way which they wanted. But they’re not “switching sides”—their side is project success. Please remember, It’s not you vs. them.

As a Project Manager, one must act very professionally and don’t take it personally. Don’t take resistance personally, and remember: Project is Project. Burning bridges is detrimental to one’s career success. You can’t dismiss difficult stakeholders. One must find a way to work with them (or around them) and defuse the situation. One must know that it is not right to control stakeholder, it is important to control the engagement of stakeholder.

Here are some proven ways to deal with even the most difficult stakeholders and ensure the projects move forward.

Strategies for Dealing with Difficult Stakeholders

1. Identify and watch them closely.

A stakeholder is one individual or group or an organization who is affected by the decision of a project, project activities or the outcome of a project. The first step is to clearly identify your stakeholders and figure out what is the real motivation behind them. It is also important to find out the influence, interest and power of a stakeholder. Let’s look at example of stakeholders on a airport project. There may be many.

Each group has different interests, objectives, and agendas—many are competing. It is important to identify and classify the stakeholders according to their power and interest. Following is the simple matrix which can give lot of inputs for planning strategy for stakeholder engagement.

  • High-power, highly interested people (Manage Closely): These people have high interest in your work and the power to help project succeed. It is very important to fully engage with these stakeholders and ensure that they are engaged and satisfied. Provide them a regular feedback and close out the queries raised by them immediately. Give attention to their input and implement their ideas when possible. Keep them informed when someone else’s ideas are chosen and let them know why.
  • High-power, less interested people (Keep Satisfied): These stakeholders have little involvement or vested interest in project, but are very powerful. Make sure to keep them satisfied, but don’t take up too much of their time. Seek their insights around big decisions and make sure they understand how your work will positively affect them. These stakeholders can be converted into champions and supporters if you are able to engage them effectively.
  • Low-power, highly interested people (Keep Informed): These stakeholders are passionate about the project and voice their support to others, but have less power or influence. Keep them in the loop and inform them of any major developments. Your work may directly impact these people, so they are usually more than willing to roll up their sleeves and help you out. If these are not engaged effectively, they can become roadblock to a project. These stakeholder with low power, high interest, if get an external power can become stakeholder with high interest and high power. NANO project was a great example. Hence, it is important to monitor them closely.
  • Low-power, less interested people (Monitor): The most apathetic of the bunch, these stakeholders are the least affected by your work and should take up little time and attention. Don’t try and ruffle their feathers and they’ll stay out of your way.

Above matrix to can help in quickly identifying champions and potential detractors. But be advised: An active champion might become a roadblock overnight. Monitor stakeholders’ status review emails or comments to anticipate the tide turning. Always keep communication channels open to head off any growing negativity. Communication plays critical role.

2. Listen to Stakeholders.

Listening is a very important part of effective communication. Project Manager has to be a very good communicator and hence he must be a good listener. There is difference between hearing and listening. Listening is knowing the untold message by the other side. Going beyond and understand the unspoken words. It is important to not to close communication channels because you don’t like what you hear. Listen, and try to see where difficult stakeholders are coming from and put yourself in their shoes to better understand their side.

Always, make an effort to understand their point of view. If what they’re saying is frustrating, please put the project at the centre and ask yourself: Do their needs align with your project’s objectives? Do they simply want things done a different way? With the answer to these questions, you can find and come to a common ground.

Above all else, people want to feel understood and feel that their opinions matter and their opinions are heard. There are following few ways to show stakeholders they matter:

  • Find people project roles that best match their interests and talents
  • Always treat people with respect, even when tempers rise. Remain calm
  • Always praise when you find a positive behaviour
  • Give people opportunities to share their insights and opinions with the group and help make decisions.

3. Meeting one on one.

Schedule time to meet with difficult stakeholders individually. Meeting one to one without any other stakeholders in the room takes the pressure off and makes them feel more comfortable. This leads to more meaningful, clear and calm conversations.

When you meet one to one, you listen the other side without any noise. Find out the point of views from other side. However, don’t blatantly ask why they don’t like your plan. Always, ask open-ended questions about their opinions and ask how they feel the project is progressing. Try and get their support and affirmations.

4. Determine Stakeholder’s motivation.

Always find the root cause of any situation where a stakeholder come with sudden resistance? What is the real reason? What is their interest in the project. What role they are playing. Connect the dots and get to the ream motivation behind their behaviour.

Addressing the motivation underlying their resistance will help you spot strategies to deal , create a win/win solution, and finish the project.

Ask yourself the following questions to get to the bottom of their motivations:

  • What is the role and interest in the project?
  • What are their most pressing business needs?
  • What is the best way to communicate with them?
  • What information or details do they want or need? & when they need?
  • Are there any mis understanding in what you want to convey to them?
  • Who influences them?
  • Who do they influence?

Ask these questions directly to the stakeholders and get an answer directly from them.

Keep People Moving Forward

Always listen to your stakeholders and strive to meet their needs—difficult or not. Ensure that they’re feeling heard, valued, and appreciated grows trust and support. Building relationships and understanding motivation takes time and effort but will make your job easier in the long run. It’s a long journey but it is worth for the success of the project. Projects are more successful when everyone is on board and on the same page! This is the art part of project management which is extremely critical for project success.


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