Don’t Let Difficult Project Stakeholders Spoil Your Day. Embrace These Steps.



CEO | Performance Coach | Instructional Design Specialist

Stakeholders management, why it matters?

Have you experienced getting swarmed by conflicting requirements from different project stakeholders? I must say, being pushed around from different directions could be very stressful. The situation will be worse when you have project bosses who are not competent, especially in the area of people skills. I have experienced this and I am seriously glad that it is now a history. That experience I can tell you right now was extremely painful, yet on the hindsight, it was very valuable for me. I realise ‘good medicine hardly tastes good’.

Managing difficult stakeholders is one of the key competencies to survive in projects. Unfortunately, the comfortable environment of college education and professional qualifications like PMP may not prepare you to deal with difficult stakeholders. These stakeholders may have the power to influence your project success and career growth. Anyway, who are these project stakeholders? Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) defines stakeholders as people, group or organisation that could impact or be impacted by a decision, activity or outcome of a project. Project managers will be responsible to identify these stakeholders and determine who are the key stakeholders based on their power and interest towards the project.

Michael Useem, the William and Jacalyn Egan Professor of Management at the Wharton School and the author of Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win says that whether your boss lacks technical or managerial ability, the results are the same: bad bosses sap motivation, kill productivity, and can make you want to run from the job screaming. Do you have bosses like this? Are they your key project stakeholder? If yes, then don’t update your CV and look for a job just yet. Let’s learn to manage them instead.

How to manage difficult project stakeholders?

Before we declare our stakeholders as difficult, we should check our bias perspective first and better understand what their perspectives too. Let me share my experience on this. When I decided to become an entrepreneur, I hired a business coach. Part of my coaching program was personality profiling. The outcome of this profiling helped me to understand that I have a natural tendency to resist authority. No wonder, I took an early retirement from Army. I realised that my tendency to resist authority may have resulted in assuming my bosses as ‘difficult’. That incident reminded that I should work on managing the so-called difficult stakeholders instead of blaming them for everything. These 3 steps could assist you to manage difficult stakeholders.

Ask others for help. Have you heard this quote before by Albert Einstein, that goes something like this – you cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them? People outside our project environment can give us fresh perspective or helpful suggestions to cope with difficult stakeholders. One of my close friends gave one brilliant idea that worked for me all the time. It was very simple and practical idea. He said, when your boss (who I perceived as a difficult stakeholder) is talking, just listen. Listen attentively. Listen to understand his perspective. This was among my first practical experience with empathic listening.

Take it as a challenge and ‘opportunity’ to learn. Many of us are familiar with subjects like Organisational Behaviour and Human Factors in Industry. Perhaps, it is time to apply this knowledge and skill to manage difficult stakeholders. Considering difficult stakeholders as a challenge requires us to re-frame the how we look at our stakeholders. We can replace the question ‘why he is being difficult’ to questions like Am I failing to understand him?, Do I need a better skill set in EQ to manage him? or What should I do differently to gain his support?

Emphatic Listening. Every stakeholder is unique. You may need to customise your approach to influence the stakeholders. You should focus on their hot buttons and preferences. One of my previous project sponsors was a retired Navy First Admiral. Initially, I considered him an extremely difficult stakeholder. Though I was hired as a Subject Matter Expert on the Royal Malaysian Navy Training System (RMNTS), he often treats me like a young cadet. I was lucky to have few experienced people to talk to. One advice that really worked for me was always keeping him in the loop and listen to him.

After some time, I realised that I was wrong in perceiving him as difficult. I was actually a bit arrogant with my perceived expertise on the RMNTS. After some time, I appreciated the feedback and suggestions from him. My project sponsor was very supportive. His support was instrumental for me to lead our team for a business presentation to Royal Navy of Oman in Muscat. Winning this international contract in 2009 to train Royal Navy of Oman’s Engineers and Technicians in Lumut, Perak was an amazing experience.

I believe all stakeholders want the project to succeed. Some of them who we perceive as ‘difficult’ may have different ways to express their concern. I do hope, these ideas may help you to manage your difficult project stakeholders.

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Have you ever dealt with difficult project stakeholders? If yes, please share with me how did you manage them? I’d love to understand and learn your version of the story, and specific experience on this. 

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