Stakeholder management is a critical aspect of any project or business initiative. It involves identifying, understanding, and effectively managing relationships with individuals or groups who have a vested interest in the project’s outcome. In any given project, this will include investors, employees, suppliers, and the community at large. 

In this article, we will explore the concept of stakeholder management, why it is important, red flags that can signal that stakeholder management is on rocky ground, and four strategies for managing difficult stakeholders.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of dealing with difficult stakeholders yet, don’t worry. You will soon. This means you must arm yourself with strategies to manage them amicably and continue working on the project despite possible roadblocks.

We want to help. In this article, we’ll provide you with four tips for dealing with difficult stakeholders. We’ll discuss how to identify them, how to manage their expectations, and how to effectively communicate with them. 

If you want to ensure that stakeholders have visibility into project progress and status updates, check out Wrike’s project schedule template. This pre-built template allows you to plan, track, and manage project tasks effectively, providing stakeholders with clear visibility into project timelines and deliverables.

Try Wrike’s template

What is stakeholder management?

Stakeholder management refers to the systematic process of identifying individuals or groups with an interest in a project or business initiative, gaining an understanding of their expectations and likely impacts, and strategically managing their involvement and communication. 

As stated above, stakeholders can range from customers and employees to investors, suppliers, and members of the community. Identifying the stakeholders who will be impacted by your project is the first step in the stakeholder management process. Managing the needs and expectations of stakeholders is the key to the success of a project. It’s critical that you invest time in identifying, prioritizing, and assessing your project stakeholders to build a strong stakeholder management plan. This will help ensure that your goals align with those of your stakeholders so that your project can move forward smoothly.

Wrike Gantt chart example

Whose role is it to manage stakeholders on a project?

With so many individuals and teams involved in the success of a project, you might be wondering whose job it is to manage stakeholders. That responsibility typically falls on a project manager.

Project managers need to provide leadership and guidance, as well as act as the bridge between stakeholders’ expectations and the project management team’s ability to meet them. While stakeholder alignment is the goal, it’s not always the reality.

According to research conducted by Geneca, just 23% of stakeholders and project managers are in agreement when the project is done. 

A good project manager should work closely with the team to accomplish tasks but also communicate and practice project stakeholder management to build rapport with senior leadership.

Why is stakeholder management important?

If you think of a project like an engine, stakeholder management functions are the oil that keeps the wheels spinning. Without someone who can manage stakeholders’ different personalities, expectations, or communication styles, a project can be upended. Someone who is skilled in stakeholder management will be able to sort out situations that can derail or delay projects throughout their life cycles, and can adjust elements to ensure their success stays on track. 

Stakeholder management is so important for a range of reasons. For instance, stakeholder management fosters clear communication between the project team and the project’s stakeholders. Proper stakeholder management involves regularly updating stakeholders on project progress, discussing any obstacles or changes that do arise so expectations can be managed, and handling misunderstandings with expectations or timelines — all of which contribute to positive stakeholder relationships. 

Effective stakeholder management also enables better decision making because getting a clearer picture of stakeholder interests can lead to more effective strategies for project execution. It can also increase stakeholder engagement by making them feel heard and valued, bringing in stakeholders who might not otherwise take ownership over their piece of the project. Those involved in stakeholder management will likely find that this creates more positive feelings about the project overall. 

For many project managers, stakeholder management extends beyond a single project. Building long-term relationships with stakeholders is yet another benefit of the process that can bear fruit into the future.

Try Wrike’s template

Red flags that signify a stakeholder may become difficult

Creating and developing a strategy for project stakeholder management is much easier said than done. Managing stakeholders can be a challenge, especially if they take actions that undermine the common cause.  

To help you identify problematic stakeholders, weve put together some telltale signs that indicate you may be dealing with one:

They communicate poorly

Poor communication is one of the first signs of rough seas ahead. If a stakeholder isn’t communicating well, it might mean that their expectations aren’t in line with how the project is progressing. Or if they aren’t responding in a timely manner when asked for information or feedback, the project management team might not receive what they need to drive the project forward. 

Without effective communication, stakeholders aren’t going to be up to date on the latest project information, like a change in delivery date, which can lead to major frustration as the project comes to a close. It can also be a sign that the stakeholder doesn’t have interest or confidence in the project, which can lead to issues with approvals or funding down the road.

They only share critical remarks

Do your stakeholders only contribute negative comments when they give their opinions? This is yet another warning sign that youre dealing with difficult stakeholders: Youre more likely to hear negative comments from stakeholder meetings during your project.  

It can be very difficult to figure out how to respond to a client who is unhappy with the project status report. Sure, constructive criticism never harmed anyone — and you could even benefit from bold honesty every once in a while. However, some stakeholders might be rude and uncooperative for no actual reason. 

They don’t share a sense of urgency

Your stakeholders should share the same sense of urgency from start to finish. After all, the sooner you finish, the more dollars in your pocket! If stakeholders seem to be pumping the brakes on your project or giving delayed feedback, this can hint that there is no longer a sense of urgency in their minds. Stakeholders that fail to convey a sense of urgency are a major red flag. 

Stakeholders that fail to convey a sense of urgency are a major red flag because they may cause you to not hit scheduled milestones. If you’re waiting on a stakeholder’s approval or feedback because they don’t have a sense of urgency for finishing the project, your entire project timeline could be impacted.

They pull resources from the project prematurely

If functional managers and other stakeholders refuse to release the resources required to initiate the project, they may not necessarily see the value in the project. 

Consequently, your project can suffer quality issues and delays. Your best bet here is to aim for complete campaign transparency, which can help build stakeholderstrust in the project.  

Four strategies for dealing with difficult stakeholders

Dealing with difficult stakeholders is a critical component of stakeholder management, and there are various strategies you can employ to deal with stakeholders who are negatively impacting a project.

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

Don’t take resistance personally, and remember: Business is business. Burning bridges is detrimental to career success. You can’t dismiss difficult stakeholders. You must find a way to work with them (or around them) and defuse the situation. One sure-fire way to create a solid foundation for working with stakeholders is to invest in effective work management software that will help you deal with alignment issues that may come up. Work management software, such as Wrike, enhances visibility and transparency, allowing for a 360-degree view of potential roadblocks. 

Use Wrike’s template

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

1. Identify them and watch them closely

The first step is to 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 examples of stakeholder individuals or groups:

Your boss Analysts Investors
Shareholders Future recruits Coworkers
Government The press Trade associations
Senior executives Suppliers Interest groups
Your team Customers Your family
Prospects Key contributors The public
Alliance partners Advisors The community

You can separate stakeholders into three main categories:

Primary stakeholders

Primary stakeholders are people directly affected by the work. Theyre usually project beneficiaries. Customers often fall into this category.

Secondary stakeholders

Secondary stakeholders are people who are indirectly affected by the work. Secondary stakeholders include teams supporting the project and those impacted by its outcome.

Key stakeholders

Key stakeholders are people with a strong influence over the work and a vested interest in its success. This group includes executives.

Each group has different interests, objectives, and agendas — many are competing. Identify and rank their influence and interest to keep projects moving and avoid getting pulled in every direction. Not all stakeholders are created equal, so figuring out who holds sway and is your best champion saves you a lot of stress. 

You can further classify stakeholders using this simple matrix:

High-power, highly interested people — manage closely

These people have great interest in your work and the power to help you succeed. Its critical to engage these people and ensure theyre satisfied. Consult them before starting a new project, pay attention to their input, and implement their ideas when possible. Keep them in the loop when someone else’s ideas are chosen, and let them know why.

High-power, less interested people — keep satisfied

These people have little involvement or vested interest in your work but are very powerful. Do your best to keep them satisfied, but dont 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 folks make powerful champions once you win them over.

Low-power, highly interested people — keep informed

These people are passionate about the project and voice their support to others but have little 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. 

Low-power, less interested people — monitor

The most apathetic of the bunch, these people are the least affected by your work and should take up little time and attention. Dont ruffle their feathers, and theyll stay out of your way.

Use the above matrix to identify your champions and potential detractors quickly. But be advised: An active champion might become a roadblock overnight. Manage stakeholders and monitor their status review emails or comments to anticipate the tide turning. Keep communication channels open to head off any growing negativity.

2. Listen to what they say

Dont close communication channels because you dont like what you hear. Try to see where difficult stakeholders are coming from and put yourself in their shoes to understand their motivation and goals. 

Make an effort to understand their point of view. If what theyre saying is frustrating, ask yourself: Do their needs align with your projects objectives? Do they simply want things done a different way? Try to find common ground. 

Above all else, people want to feel understood and that their opinions are valued. Here are a few ways to manage stakeholders and show them 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

3. Meet them one on one

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, dont blatantly ask why they dont like your plan. Instead, ask open-ended questions about their opinions and how they feel the project is progressing. 

Wrike live commenting on tasks

Managing stakeholders one on one also prevents their negative opinions from influencing others on the project. When feedback crosses the line from constructive to pure negativity, its best to isolate the stakeholder and handle the situation privately. 

4. Determine their motivation

Whats causing your stakeholderssudden resistance? Are they worried about going over the budget? Anxious the project isnt turning out the way they envisioned? Are they answering to a board of directors who have their own doubts? 

The key to managing stakeholders is to address the motivation underlying their resistance will help you spot compromises, create a win-win solution, and finish the project.

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

  • 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?
  • Do they fully understand your work, or do they need some extra explanation?
  • Who influences them?
  • Who do they influence?
  • What are they responsible for?
  • Who do they report to?

Detective work will only get you so far: Dont be afraid to ask your stakeholders these questions directly. Keep the lines of communication open to anticipate any resistance and adjust accordingly.

Real-life examples of dealing with difficult stakeholders

Having trouble visualizing how these situations might play out? Here are a few real-life examples of dealing with difficult stakeholders. 

Scenario 1: 

You’re a project manager for a software development company working on a significant upgrade for a client’s system. One of the key stakeholders on the client’s side has become increasingly challenging to work with. This stakeholder is resistant to change, frequently questions your team’s decisions, and often demands changes that are outside the project’s scope. This dynamic is putting your team on edge, forcing them to use valuable time to address outside requests, and requiring that they spend extra time negotiating small changes. 

Here’s how you could overcome these challenges: 

Start by understanding the stakeholder and their concerns by dedicating one-on-one time to discussing their views on the project. This will allow you to strengthen your relationship with them, better understand their expectations, and perhaps discover why they are resisting elements of the project. You should also continue to communicate clearly the project’s scope and limitations so they understand the reasons your team is making particular decisions. When you involve the stakeholder in the decision making process, it can help reduce their resistance to change. Finally, if you continue to experience issues with the stakeholder that are holding up the project, higher management or other influential stakeholders could help address the stakeholder’s concerns. 

Scenario 2: 

You’re working at a digital marketing agency as a project manager, tasked with a major website redesign for a client. One significant stakeholder is an executive at the client’s company and has a frustrating habit of demanding changes at the last minute, many of which contradict previous instructions. This is causing confusion for your team and delays for the project. Without proper stakeholder management strategies, your project is at risk of running over the deadline. 

Here’s how you could overcome these challenges:

The first step in stakeholder management is always to set up time to communicate directly with the difficult stakeholder to help you understand their perspective and expectations, and to clarify any misunderstandings about the project’s scope. Clearly communicate the impact of last-minute change requests on the project’s resources and timeline, so the stakeholder can better understand the trade-offs required when extra requests are made. 

You should also establish a formal change management process whereby the stakeholder can submit change requests with sufficient justification and ample time to complete them. While it might be counterintuitive, giving the stakeholder a larger role in planning or reviewing pieces of the project might help them take responsibility for the project and better gate-keep the timeline and resources. 

These scenarios demonstrate an important lesson in stakeholder management: Listen to your stakeholders and strive to meet their needs — difficult or not. Ensuring 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. Projects are more successful when everyone is on board!

Keep people moving forward

Listen to your stakeholders and strive to meet their needs — difficult or not. Ensuring they feel 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. Projects are more successful when everyone is on board and on the same page! 

How to use Wrike for stakeholder management

Visualizing project deadlines and goals is only one of the many aspects of successful stakeholder management. With Wrike’s advanced reporting tools, project managers can leverage greater visibility into the productivity and workload pressure of their teams.

Automation, real-time reporting, and customizable dashboards allow you to eliminate communication delays and ensure that your team and stakeholders can achieve business goals together. 

Check out Wrike’s project schedule template, which can provide stakeholders with a comprehensive view of your project plan and keep everyone on the same page.

Try Wrike’s template