Have you ever been stalled in your project just because one of your key stakeholders said “no” to your proposal? Have you ever encountered stakeholders who are always missing when you need them? We’ve all had to deal with difficult stakeholders at some point in our career.

Whether that’s a stakeholder who seems to find nothing but mistakes in your project or a stakeholder who’s always MIA, you need to master effective stakeholder management if you want to succeed. If your head’s about to explode trying to deal with difficult stakeholders, worry not. Get to know our tried and tested strategies for managing difficult stakeholders.

Getting to Know Your Stakeholders in a Project

Before entering into battle, you must know what you’re up against. Now, I don’t mean you need to fight with your stakeholders. What this means is that you understand who and what your stakeholders’ roles are their motivations, and how they can influence your project.

PMI defines a stakeholder as “individuals and organizations who are actively involved in the project, or whose interests may be positively or negatively affected as a result of project execution or successful project completion” (Project Management Institute (PMI®), 1996). This includes a wide group of people – the project manager, project team, project sponsors, steering committee, company executives, and your end-customers, to name a few. Each stakeholder will have a different level of involvement and influence on your project. This is where prioritizing your key project stakeholders becomes handy.

Prioritizing Key Project Stakeholders

Categorizing your project stakeholders helps you plan on how to deal with them. Mendelow’s Power-Interest Grid is a popular tool used specifically for this task.

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Mendelow suggests that we analyze our stakeholders based on their levels of power and interest over the project. Power is described as a stakeholder’s level of authority over the organization and the project as a whole. This includes the ability to influence the organizational strategy, project resources, and outcome. Interest, on the other hand, is how invested a stakeholder is to know and be informed of the project’s progress and completion. Varying levels of power and interest will affect how you communicate and deal with your project stakeholders, especially with difficult ones.

Here are some pointers on how to manage stakeholders depending on where they fall on the power-interest grid.

  • Manage Closely (High Power and High Interest) – These stakeholders have great interest and power to help your project succeed. Make sure you keep them engaged by actively seeking their input, communicating with them regularly, and implementing their suggestions wherever possible. Keep them satisfied and informed. Your project sponsor is a good example of those that you need to manage closely.
  • Keep Satisfied (High Power and Low Interest) – These stakeholders hold great power in the organization but do not need to invest too much time in the nitty-gritty of your project. Don’t take up too much of their time but seek their advice for crucial decisions. Keep them satisfied and happy and you can count on them to be on your side when it matters. Key company executives can fall under this quadrant.
  • Keep Informed (Low Power and High Interest) – These stakeholders don’t have the ability to actively influence the project strategy and outcome but will be one of those greatly affected by it. It’s important that these people are in the loop and engaged. If they aren’t satisfied, they may get the attention of those with enough power to influence your project and raise issues.
  • Monitor (Low Power and Low Interest) – These stakeholders have little to no power to influence your project. Maintain a relationship with them but don’t exert too much effort on it.

It’s important to realize though that your stakeholders can switch quadrants during the course of your project. When they do, you should be quick to change course when it comes to communicating with them more effectively.

Knowing your project stakeholders early on will help you create a communication plan that will keep all parties satisfied according to their profiles. This will also come in handy when the time comes that you have to deal with difficult stakeholders.

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How to Manage Difficult Stakeholders

As you work through your project, you’ll encounter difficult stakeholders. When you do, you can use our 5 tips below to wade through challenging currents.

Keep Your Cool

When dealing with difficult stakeholders, you need to take emotion out of the equation. Don’t take things personally. Be assertive in the face of objection. Staying professional and putting your project goals and objectives above all else will help you see more clearly. You’ll be more open to understand where the other person is coming from and find ways to work it out.

Build Empathy

Habit #5 from Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People prescribes, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” To deal with difficult stakeholders, you need to understand where their negativity is coming from. Why are they being so critical? Why are they being apathetic when they should be involved? You can discuss with them to know their concerns, struggles, and motivations so you can work on how best to manage them.

Tailor Your Communication

Communication is key when it comes to dealing with difficult stakeholders. It’s important to understand that there’s no single way to effectively communicate and engage with all of your stakeholders, especially the difficult ones.

  • How often do they want to receive information and in what form?
  • What is their personality and how does that translate to their communication style?
  • How can you effectively build a working relationship?

These are just some of the questions that can help you formulate your communication plan for each stakeholder. Bombarding a stakeholder with emails when they don’t want to communicate that way can turn them into a difficult stakeholder. While excluding someone when they want to be informed can also have the same effect.

Work With Them

It’s important to make difficult stakeholders feel that you have their best interest at heart and that you are willing to work with them in resolving any issues. More often than not, they’re being difficult for a reason and it’s your goal to let that surface. Engage them in a discussion and get their thoughts. Ask their advice and actively listen. They might just have great suggestions that will surprise you.

Follow Through on Agreements

A difficult stakeholder can see through your true intentions. If you’re just agreeing to what they say to make them feel good but won’t follow through, you can expect they’ll continue to give you a hard time. Follow through helps build trust. Implement their suggestions especially when you’ve agreed to them. But if there comes a time that you’ll have to go a different route, inform them first and explain why you have to do so.

Dealing with Stakeholders

You can expect resistance when dealing with difficult stakeholders. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t soften and smoothen the course. When you stay professional and objective, you become more open to exploring solutions with them than build barriers. Accept their authority but do know how to level and manage their expectations. Use their power-interest profile to plan. At the end of the day, you want your project to succeed and you’ll achieve this by effectively managing your stakeholders.

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About the Author: Lena Boiser

Lena Boiser is an Agile enthusiast. Starting off her career as a Software Business Analyst in 2010, she eventually performed other roles including Project Manager and IT Business Manager. When she was immersed in Agile methodologies in 2014, Lena found her way through honing her craft and eventually became a Certified Scrum Product Owner. In 2017, after 7 years of working in the corporate world, Lena started her own remote consulting practice. Today, she provides project management and Scrum Product Ownership services to various businesses including software development companies, e-Commerce business owners, and small to medium sized companies. She believes that even teams working remotely can harness the benefits of Agile in order to deliver results for their companies. In her free time she likes to write. One day she could be writing about Agile, the next she could be writing anything about fashion or travel.