5 Tips on How to Deal with Challenging Stakeholders

Andy Makar | October 8, 2019

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It is rare to find a project that doesn’t have difficult or challenging stakeholders.  Teams form, storm, normalize, and eventually reach the performing stage. Before teams can normalize and perform, the team will storm as different points of view impact the project’s direction.

Challenging stakeholders and demanding customers are part of a project manager’s day to day work. Disgruntled stakeholders are usually frustrated by the lack of communication or communication style in the project. In other cases, stakeholders can be frustrated by the conflict in roles and responsibilities in a project. The project manager’s purpose is to help anticipate these challenges and find ways to resolve issues quickly.

Several years ago, I was the IT program manager for an HR transformation program, and the HR organization also had an internal HR IT department. The HR IT manager was a stakeholder in the project, and our roles overlapped as her department typically performed system configuration. We had different viewpoints on approach because our department processes were different. Consequently, it took a lot of conversations in the storming phase before reaching the performing stage 

No one said project management was easy! Here are a few tips for dealing with challenging stakeholders and demanding clients.

 

#1 Remain calm and listen

Receiving a disgruntled stakeholder complaint or troubled client’s rant is not fun. It doesn’t do you any good to become defensive or argumentative. Remain calm, listen,  and restate their point of view, so the stakeholder understands you’ve heard them. Becoming argumentative or becoming agitated will only make the problem worse. The stakeholders want to know you’ve listened to their concern. You can’t effectively listen if you’re arguing back and forth.

During a recruiting project, I was the business analyst who became the “messenger” to deliver bad news to the director. The result was a barrage of expletives about the project status and the current team’s direction. I listened, remained calm, and took the feedback to the team for the next steps. The director later apologized for shooting the proverbial messenger.

 

#2 Help me understand…

My go-to phrase to diffuse a confrontational situation with a disgruntled customer is “help me understand …”. This phrase, when added to the context of the problem allows the customer or stakeholder to express their concern further. If you can understand their point of view, you can pinpoint the problem faster and identify potential solutions.

 

#3 Address issues quickly

Time does not heal a disgruntled stakeholder’s concern. If you effectively listen and understand their point of view, then take action to address the issue quickly.  Don’t let too much time slip between the conflict and the resolution. If resolving the concern will take more time, communicate the current status and next steps with the stakeholder. Seemingly impossible tasks may take a little longer to solve but don’t let communicating get in the way.  

A straightforward communication technique is to send a message with a brief status update. If the instant messaging becomes overbearing, call the stakeholder and discuss. Email is good for a formal update, but everyone’s inbox gets overrun with unread messages.

 

#4 Admit fault or forgive the outburst

As project managers, we’re fallible and so are challenging stakeholders. If you made the error, admit fault, and clarify actions to prevent the misunderstanding from occurring in the future.  Apologizing helps to rebuild relationships and further demonstrates we’re all human.

If the client or stakeholder is wrong (even if they don’t admit it), forgive the outburst and seek better ways to communicate and anticipate problems in the future. I’ve had a few stumbles with challenging stakeholders. Despite my best intentions, apologizing for the misunderstanding or forgiving the way a stakeholder communicated, helped to move the project and relationship forward. 

 

#5 Take follow up action to avoid future concerns

Depending on the stakeholder’s power, influence, and interest, you’ll need to adjust your communication accordingly. Consider increasing the frequency of communication, holding weekly 1:1 meetings, or getting feedback from others to ensure the message is adjusted accordingly. You build a stakeholder management plan to outline the concerns, communication approach, and frequency for all the stakeholders in your project.

 

Stakeholder Management Plan
Stakeholder
Power and Influence 
Key Concerns / Area of Interest
Communication Type
Frequency
Joe
High
User Experience
Phone call
Weekly
Cindy
Medium
Contract Status
Text
As needed
Bob
High
Timeline
1:1 Meeting
Weekly

 

John Lydgate said, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all the time.”  If you follow a few of these tips, you can rest assure you tried to appease your troubled stakeholder and can only continue to improve!

 

Dr. Andrew Makar is an IT program manager and is the author of Project Management Interview Questions Made Easy. For more project management advice, visit the website Tactical Project Management.

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