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4 Strategies for Dealing With Difficult Stakeholders

By Daniel Codella, May 30, 2018

"This isn't what we wanted!"
"No, you have to do it this way."
"When this project fails, don't say I didn't warn you."

If you haven't dealt with a difficult stakeholder yet, don't worry, you will soon. This means you must arm yourself with strategies to deal with them amicably and continue working on the project despite possible roadblocks.

We want to help. Here’s an important reminder and four tips to help you survive difficult stakeholders—no matter what they do—and turn the situation around for the good of 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.

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.

Stakeholders Image.png

Here are some common example of stakeholder individuals or groups:

You can separate stakeholders into three main categories:

  1. Primary Stakeholders - People directly affected by the work. Primary stakeholders are usually project beneficiaries. Customers often fall into this category.

  2. Secondary Stakeholders - People indirectly affected by the work. Secondary stakeholders include teams supporting the project and/or those impacted by its outcome.

  3. 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:

  • 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. 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.






(Minimum Effort)



Use the above matrix to quickly identify your champions and potential detractors. But be advised: An active champion might become a roadblock overnight. Monitor your stakeholders' 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 show stakeholders they matter:

  • Find 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.

Meeting with your 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.

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.

Leadership coach Susanne Madsen has many helpful suggestions about how to best deal with different personalities in the video below:

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?

Addressing 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!

Have you ever dealt with a difficult project stakeholder? What did you do to diffuse the situation? Hit the comments below and tell us your tales! We'd love to learn from you.

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