4 Strategies for Dealing With 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. Here are four tips to help you manage stakeholders and turn a  situation around for the good of the project.

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 falls on none other than the project manager, of course! 

As a project manager, you need to provide leadership and guidance and also act as the bridge between your stakeholder's expectations and your teams' 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 manage stakeholders to build rapport with senior leadership.

Why managing stakeholders is important to the health of a project

An essential aspect of managing a project is to develop positive relationships with its stakeholders. 

By developing a deep understanding of your project stakeholders, project managers can create sound plans to eliminate delays, mitigate risks, and better align projects with wider business goals.

Assessing your stakeholder's interests also provides a strong basis for legal compliance, enabling you to put protocols in place that protect the privacy of stakeholders. 

Red flags that signify a stakeholder may become difficult

Creating and developing a strategy for managing stakeholders 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, we've put together some telltale signs that indicate you may be dealing with a difficult stakeholder:

Poor communication

One of the most critical aspects of managing stakeholders is capturing their expectations and project goals.s. 

At this point during the project, you will have to clarify performance criteria, project constraints, and additional insight into how stakeholders define project success. This is the way to delegate tasks with greater confidence.  

Clear and consistent communication is crucial to an effective organization — regardless of your line of work. With that in mind, stakeholders that fail to return calls or reply to emails on time don't make your job any easier.  This lack of communication can also convey their disinterest in the project as a whole. 

They only share critical remarks

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

Sure, constructive criticism never harmed anyone — and you could even benefit from rather 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 breaks on your project or giving delayed feedback, this can hint that there is no longer a sense of urgency in their mind. 

Therefore, stakeholders that fail to convey a sense of urgency are a major red flag. 

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 to build stakeholders' trust in the project.  

Reminder: Don't burn bridges

The most important thing to remember is that stakeholders also want the project to succeed. However, 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. 

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

Four strategies for dealing with difficult stakeholders

1. Identify them and watch them closely

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 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

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.

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:

4 Strategies for Dealing With Difficult Stakeholders 2
(Source: Researchgate)

High-power, highly interested people — manage closely

These people have great interest in your work and the power to help you succeed. It's critical to fully engage these people and make sure they're 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 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 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. Don't ruffle their feathers and they'll stay out of your way.

Use the above matrix to quickly identify your champions and potential detractors. 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

Don't close communication channels because you don't like what you hear. Try to see where difficult stakeholders are coming from and put yourself in their shoes to better understand their motivation and goals. 

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 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, 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. 

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, it's best to isolate the situation and handle it one-on-one. 

4. Determine their motivation

What's causing your stakeholders' sudden resistance? Are they worried about going over the budget? Anxious the project isn't 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: Don't be afraid to ask your stakeholders these questions directly. Keep the lines of communication open to anticipate any resistance and adjust accordingly.

Keep people moving forward

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 and on the same page! 

How to use Wrike when dealing with difficult stakeholders

Visualizing project deadlines and goals are 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. Centralize project management on a single platform so you and your project stakeholders are always on the same page. 

Interested in learning more? Check out our professional services guide for in-depth resources on everything that goes into managing a professional service. Sign up for a free two-week trial to see how you can start managing stakeholders more effectively and efficiently.

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