How to Engage Difficult Stakeholders

bigstock_Business_DisagreementSometimes, from the very beginning of a workshop, it is evident that the delegates have a common problem with a big powerful stakeholder. As we start to delve into their influencing objectives, “his” name keeps being mentioned.

On a recent occasion when this happened, I noticed was that his name was being used as a code for “don’t even try to influence.” It was also apparent that there was a great deal of bad feeling in the room towards this character.

Who is this guy? Why is he such a problem for everyone in the room? What gives him the right to make honest, hard-working people miserable?

What I realized was that something needed to be done to help this group of individuals to perform better, unblock their projects and speed up their delivery. So, I took them through a process that helped them to think through what was happening, objectively (I call it my Stakeholder Breakthrough Process), and make some clear decisions about what they were going to do.

If you are in a situation where you are up against a tough, unreasonable or even hostile stakeholder, here are five things you can do right now, taken from my process, to help you to start moving forward:

1. Recognize your emotional reaction. Everyone has emotions, even project managers! To deny this is to miss an opportunity to shift negative feelings into a more positive zone. So, notice what is happening inside you, recognize that it is okay to feel that way, and notice that you need to calm them down so you can think clearly.

2. Take some time out. It is extremely difficult to unblock a stalled stakeholder relationship while you are in the throws of a meeting or disagreement. As you realize what is happening, find a way to extricate yourself from the heat of battle, settle your emotions and then do some clear (objective) analysis.

3. Consider many angles and perspectives. Imagine sitting in your stakeholder’s seat. What does the world look like to them? Or maybe, a third party – how would they view the situation? This helps to avoid becoming increasingly trapped by your assumptions. It can also give you access to some amazing ideas that could lead to a solution – that’s why I call the full version the Breakthrough Process.

4. Settle on a clear goal. Wishing and hoping things will be better is unlikely to offer any serious progress. So, based on your clear thinking, exactly what do you want to change? The more quantifiable the better. If you want to gain agreement or support, exactly what does that look like? How will you know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that you have what you need?

5. Make a clear commitment. Especially in the most extreme cases, you have to make a very personal commitment to doing whatever it takes to swing things around. Locking horns with a tough stakeholder isn’t for the feint-hearted, however once the decision is make, the thinking done, you may be very surprised just how easy it can be.

If this is starting to sound like defining deliverables and requirements, yes it is. As a project manger, this is about redeploying many of your existing skills to a new purpose, i.e. winning the support and collaboration of your stakeholders. The more difficult they are, the more you need process to help you win them over.

So, what happened to the group I mentioned above? Six months later one had gained sign-off for a new $62m office building; another increased funding of $2.5m for a beleaguered project and perhaps more importantly, many of the group reported having an excellent working relationship with this lovely stakeholder.

Not a bad morning’s work! All it took was a simple process and the application of alternative perspectives.


Colin Gautrey is a specialist in the practical use of power and influence in the workplace. His latest book, A Project Manager’s Guide to Influence, is aimed at ambitious and forward thinking project managers who are ready to step up to greater success. You can learn more about his Stakeholder Breakthrough Process on his blog.



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