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  • Rick Ktorides

5 Tips - How to work with difficult stakeholders

Updated: Apr 18, 2021

If there's one sure thing you can bet on in project management - it's the fact that you will eventually have to deal with difficult stakeholders.

How to work with Difficult Stakeholders

It's arguably the single most difficult aspect of being a project manager.


For the purpose of this article, I'm defining a 'difficult stakeholder' as someone that either has an influence or will be impacted by your project, that you perceive as being:


  • Against certain aspects of your project such as its approach, how it's being managed, the change it represents, what the project is doing, etc

  • Not agreeing that your project is doing enough in certain areas or as a whole

  • Reluctant to work or collaborate with either yourself or members of your project team for whatever reason

  • Being demanding and high maintenance

Failing to work effectively with difficult stakeholders could easily be the undoing of both the project and its project manager.


Here are my top 5 tips to help you work with difficult stakeholders:



Tip # 1 - Truly believe you can work through it


It may sound like an old cliché, but it will get you 50% of the way there.


You must truly believe you have it within yourself to work through the problems and issues you have with your difficult stakeholder.


If you don’t really believe you can and have given up - your very own negative actions and reactions will be the cause of your failure.


Think self-fulfilling prophecy.


If you're still not convinced, think of the most successful person you admire for some inspiration and ask yourself this one question:


Would they have overcome difficult obstacles, beat extreme odds and achieve great heights of success...if they were nothing but persistent and truly believed they had it within themselves to make it ?


It really does start with you.



Tip # 2 - Change how you perceive them


It’s very easy to have the negative perception that your difficult stakeholder is out to cause disruption to your project with no regard but to themselves or, even worse that they are out to get you personally.

Instead, change your negativity and emotional bias towards the stakeholder to a more positive perception.


View the stakeholder as a GOOD INTENTIONED CHALLENGER who believes that they are doing the right thing and are making a case for it the best way they know how !


This is a much better basis for you to start planning how to resolve issues and to move forward with your stakeholder.


I know this can be extremely difficult in some circumstances however you will be much better for it.


The positive perception you have towards the difficult stakeholder will also be seen as more professional, pragmatic and constructive by all the other stakeholders.



Tip # 3 - Don’t ignore them - do the opposite


One of the worst things that you can do is to ignore stakeholders that are challenging you and your project - especially when they have high influence.

It’s tempting to believe that if you retreat and ignore them that somehow, they will just soften their stance or simply forget it over time.


In reality, this very rarely ever happens, if ever.


Instead make it a primary focus to maximise your stakeholder engagement with both High Influence Champions and especially High Influence Challengers.



Tip # 4 - Never take it personally - ever


The moment you start taking whatever problems your stakeholders are throwing at you personally – it’s time to stop and ask yourself if you are really fit to continue running the project.


You will constantly be put off from providing your objective best and it’s a downward emotional spiral that can be very difficult to recover from once you get sucked in.


Try to master the art of rising above it all and gain the distinct advantage of remaining calm, collected and in full emotional control in confrontational, irrational or chaotic situations.



Tip # 5 - Separate the PERSON from the problem


When you are dealing with an issue, don't make the mistake of associating the person with the problem.


Your goal here is to reach the point where you and your stakeholder feel as part of the same team - whilst both working together towards solving that common problem without trying to dig each other out of entrenched positions.


Here are some ways to help you get there:


Engage:

  • Continually engage and communicate frequently with the stakeholder

  • Meet face to face whenever possible > or have a phone call - only use email to confirm positions agreed

Listen:

  • Listen to what they say rather than how they say it

  • Don’t discredit or play down their emotions and opinions

  • Always be respectful, even if you feel they are trying to aggravate you

  • Confirm your understanding of the issues by repeating back your understanding – this enables you to pull the facts from what is being expressed


Discover:

  • Establish what you are both in agreement of, as well as what the sticking points are

  • A good starting point is to agree that the problem or issue your stakeholder has needs to be resolved

  • Bring it down to basic elements, specifics and facts where possible

  • Keep the business objectives in focus

Establish Trust:

  • Establish trust by being truthful, admitting instances you have been wrong and following up on things you agreed to do on time

  • Seek to maintain and continue a good working relationship regardless of any unresolved differences that may remain

Action:

  • Involve them in the resolution process appropriately and clearly define their role and responsibility

  • Document and share your meeting minutes with particular focus on what was agreed, the required action items and time-frames

  • Recognise and communicate good outcomes as they are being achieved to the broader team and stakeholders

Post- Resolution:

  • Maintain frequent communication with your stakeholder regarding the status of the project - this will make them feel as part of the team

  • Recognise their efforts in the success of your project - this will make it much easier to work together in the future


In Closing...


The ability to work with difficult stakeholders is as much about you as it is about them.


The first part is about changing your own thinking and perceptions so that you will have the right attributes to execute the second part which entails the actual strategy and processes needed to resolve your difficult stakeholder issues.

 

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