4 ways to deal with difficult stakeholders


Business projects almost always create change, which can also bring about significant disruption, stress and fear. That anxiety can translate into difficult project stakeholders – not to mention at-risk projects and unmet goals. Knowing how to turn these problematic partners into committed collaborators is essential skill all project managers should master.
There is a strong correlation between stakeholder management and risk management. Without the buy-in and full commitment from stakeholders, projects, regardless of their success factors, are at high risk for failure. To increase the chance of successful project outcomes, we’ve identified four considerations and actions that can be taken to reduce the chance of unwanted behavior.
The first step is to clearly identify your stakeholders and figure out what motivates them. A stakeholder is anyone who is affected by your work, has influence or power over it, or has an interest in its success. Here are some common example of stakeholder individuals or group.
You can separate stakeholders into three main categories:
Primary Stakeholders – People directly affected by the work. Primary stakeholders are usually project beneficiaries. Customers often fall into this category.
Secondary Stakeholders – People indirectly affected by the work. Secondary stakeholders include teams supporting the project and/or those impacted by its outcome.
Key Stakeholders – People with a strong influence over the work and a vested interest in its success. This group includes executives.

Types of stakeholder behaviors
The passive aggressive stakeholder may say they are in support of the project, yet object or create obstacles to derail or delay it at every opportunity. They may consistently and unnecessarily find issue with other stakeholder’s input or contributions; creating additional unnecessary work all the while verbalizing their commitment to the project.
The antagonist or intimidator may initiate arguments with other stakeholders or subtly or overtly put down their contributions, creating an environment of animosity and mistrust among team members.
The saboteur can be just as devastating, if not more because the damage is done behind the scenes and it’s harder to isolate and resolve. Stakeholders can be quietly manipulated long before the effects are noticed and identified.
The victim of circumstance may look to blame others for work not completed or missed deadlines and unsuccessful outcomes. It is important to note, that there may be times where missed outcomes can be due to the fault of others, but it’s important to know when this is really the case.
Ignoring difficult stakeholder behavior is not a strategy that will work; this is not the time to be indirect either. The behavior may be a sign of bigger underlying issues may have existed from the beginning and may snowball later. Take the time to immediately and directly determine the cause with the stakeholder, find an appropriate resolution and move ahead. Remain fair, respectful, objective, and professional, and remember to keep the project objectives within focus.

Make an effort to understand their point of view. If what they’re saying is frustrating, ask yourself: Do their needs align with your project’s objectives? Do they simply want things done a different way? Try to find common ground.
Above all else, people want to feel understood and feel that their opinions matter. Here are a 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
-Give praise often, especially when you notice positive behavior
-Provide training and coaching to all involved
-Give people opportunities to share their insights and opinions with the group and help make decisions

Schedule time to meet with difficult stakeholders individually. Meeting without other stakeholders in the room takes the pressure off and makes them feel more comfortable. This leads to more clear and calm conversations.
Take this time to explore their viewpoint and preferred solutions. However, don’t blatantly ask why they don’t like your plan. Instead ask open-ended questions about their opinions and ask how they feel the project is progressing.
In order for a resolution to be successful, the stakeholder will need to be accountable for their past and future behavior and actions, in relation to their contributions, and how they impact the team and the project. Have the stakeholder assist you in coming up with some solutions that will enable them to re-establish buy-in and commitment to the project.  It will also be important to ensure the solutions are implemented and measured, and do not change the desired goals and objectives of the business.
Without understanding why a stakeholder has become difficult or why buy-in has been lost, it’s impossible to successfully proceed with a project without continued friction. That said, there may be times when despite all efforts by a PM to resolve issues, the stakeholder may simply have no intention of working cohesively with the team. In situations like this, difficult decisions may need to be made.
As projects generally create change, and that change can bring about stress, fear, and significant disruption, organizations will increasingly rely on project managers to know how to transform difficult stakeholders into engaged and committed stakeholders for successful projects and business results.