"This isn't what we wanted!"
"No, you have to do it this way."
"When this project fails, don't say I didn't warn you."
If you haven't dealt with a difficult stakeholder yet, don't worry. You will soon. This just means you have to be ready with strategies for dealing amicably with them, and for continuing to work on the project despite possible roadblocks.
We want to help you out. Here is an important reminder and four tips to help you survive difficult stakeholders in the future — no matter what they do — and turn the situation around for the good of the project.
An Important Reminder: Don't Burn Bridges
The thing to remember is that stakeholders also want the project to succeed. However, their stance may change during the course of the project. One day they'll support you, and the next day they'll argue when work isn't being done in a particular way. They are not "switching sides" — their side is project success, not you vs. them.
Don't take resistance personally and remember that business is business. No matter what, you cannot burn your bridges and dismiss the difficult ones just because they like they're blocking your work from getting done. You will have to find a way to work with them (or around them) and defuse the situation.
Now with that important bit over, let's get to the tips for dealing with those people you love to hate.
4 Strategies for Dealing with Difficult Stakeholders
1. Identify them and watch them closely.
This should be an ongoing action on your part. Like I said, an active champion might become a roadblock overnight. But if you're monitoring your stakeholders' email messages or comments on the latest status reviews, you'll know when the tide is turning. In fact, ensuring communication channels are always open may even serve to head off some possible negativity.
2. Listen to what they're saying.
Don't close off communication channels just because you don't like what you're hearing. Try to see where they're coming from and put yourself in their shoes. This way, you can better understand their motivation and goals.
Really put effort into understanding their point of view. And if what they're saying is frustrating, ask yourself: Are their needs opposed to your project's objectives? Do they simply want things done a different way? See if you can meet on common ground.
3. Meet them one on one.
Find a way to meet with difficult stakeholders individually. This way they don't feel like they're being put on the spot with other stakeholders as an audience — it might help take them off the defensive so you can communicate calmly. It's important to take this time to get their viewpoint and what they feel could be a solution to the problem. Note: don't just come out and ask why they aren't supportive of your plan. Instead, ask an open-ended question about their opinion and how they feel the project is coming along.
4. Determine their motivations.
The only way to come to a solution or even just to contain the situation is to figure out what's causing their sudden resistance. Are they worried about going over the budget? Anxious that the project isn't turning out exactly how they envisioned it? Are they answering to a board of directors perhaps, who may have a different point of view on the project? If you can help address the underlying motivations behind their resistance you might be able to create a win/win situation and continue, despite difficulties.
When you are able to successfully manage your stakeholders by listening to them and meeting their needs along the course of a project, then they will feel more comfortable being trusting and supportive of your methods. Your job then is to determine their motivations and expectations to create the best situation for everyone involved.
Have you ever dealt with a difficult project stakeholder? What did you do to diffuse the situation? Hit the comments and tell us your tales! We'd love to learn from you.