7 tips to transform difficult stakeholders into project partners

Business projects almost always create change, which can also bring about significant disruption, stress and fear. That anxiety can translate into difficult project stakeholders – not to mention at-risk projects and unmet goals. Knowing how to turn these problematic partners into committed collaborators is essential skill all project managers should master. Here’s how.

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According to a report by the Project Management Institute (PMI), Managing Change in Organizations: A Practice Guide, “Trust is identified as particularly important in obtaining support for and participation in change efforts. Executives and employees see change differently: (a) senior managers typically see change as an opportunity for both the business and themselves; and (B) employees typically see change as disruptive, intrusive, and likely to involve loss. When managing change, it’s essential to identify the key issues, such as loss of turf, attachment, meaning, future, competency-based, and/or control.”

There is a strong correlation between stakeholder management and risk management. Without the buy-in and full commitment from stakeholders, projects, regardless of their success factors, are at high risk for failure. To increase the chance of successful project outcomes, we’ve identified seven considerations and actions that can be taken to reduce the chance of unwanted behavior.

1. Timing is everything

At the beginning of the project, identify key stakeholders and identify the “what’s in it for them” proposition in order to gain their buy-in and commitment. Aside from management direction, stakeholders will want to know their contributions and time are of true value to the project success and that they too will derive a benefit from it.

2. Establish trust

Remain accessible and engage in open and frequent communication with stakeholders, allowing them opportunity to voice concerns, be heard, and address important issues in a timely manner. Ensuring ongoing, and inclusive dialog with stakeholders creates an atmosphere of trust and allows for faster identification and resolution to issues as they arise. To gain stakeholder trust, as a project manager (PM) you must demonstrate you are trustworthy, respect stakeholder’s ideas and abilities, and resist the urge to micromanage.

[Related: How to find the perfect project manager]

Remember buy-in can additionally be influenced by secondary parties; allow project leads to convey the project’s purpose and importance to their own teams to ensure ancillary support, as needed, since workloads may also increase indirectly for other team members.

3. Clarify purpose, roles and expectations in advance

Be clear when conveying the purpose and scope of the project, establishing roles and expectations, and identifying deliverables and final outcomes. Provide stakeholders with an awareness of how their contributions directly and indirectly impact the success or failure of the project, and ultimately company goals.

Provide stakeholders with as much information and resources to enable them to be successful. Again, remain available to  them for guidance as needed, and continually solidify objectives, expectations, timing and any changes to the scope of the project.  

4. How to address difficult stakeholders

Despite all efforts to mitigate disputes with difficult stakeholders, there will be times when issues will crop up. In response, there are things that can be done to resolve issues, regain support and buy-in, and move ahead in a positive way.

These may be just a few of the stakeholder behaviors that can be encountered within various stages of the project lifecycle.

Types of stakeholder behaviors

  • The passive aggressive stakeholder may say they are in support of the project, yet object or create obstacles to derail or delay it at every opportunity. They may consistently and unnecessarily find issue with other stakeholder’s input or contributions; creating additional unnecessary work all the while verbalizing their commitment to the project.
  • The antagonist or intimidator may initiate arguments with other stakeholders or subtly or overtly put down their contributions, creating an environment of animosity and mistrust among team members.
  • The saboteur can be just as devastating, if not more because the damage is done behind the scenes and it’s harder to isolate and resolve. Stakeholders can be quietly manipulated long before the effects are noticed and identified.
  • The victim of circumstance may look to blame others for work not completed or missed deadlines and unsuccessful outcomes. It is important to note, that there may be times where missed outcomes can be due to the fault of others, but it’s important to know when this is really the case.

You may have encountered other non-productive behaviors – or even been guilty of some of these yourself at one time or another. It’s important to note that stakeholders often bring valuable knowledge and experience to the table. Some opposition can be a great thing, if the purpose is to offer up different perspectives, present alternatives and mitigate risks for the good of the project. The difficult part is being able to determine the stakeholder’s true intent.

5. Determine the root cause

Identify stakeholder motivations for the difficult behavior. It’s also important to identify the root cause of the issue, discuss it with the stakeholder directly and gain their feedback. Sometimes the cause may be something that impacts only one stakeholder, or it may impact other stakeholders.

[Related: 12 common project management mistakes – and how to avoid them]

Work on a resolution with the stakeholder that does not negatively impact others or impede the success of the project. It is important to note, there will not always be a solution that meets with the approval of a difficult stakeholder, and during those situations it’s critical to respectfully convey the reason for another decision in order to enlist their continued support and commitment to the overall business objectives.

6. Deal with it now, be direct

Ignoring difficult stakeholder behavior is not a strategy that will work; this is not the time to be indirect either. The behavior may be a sign of bigger underlying issues may have existed from the beginning and may snowball later. Take the time to immediately and directly determine the cause with the stakeholder, find an appropriate resolution and move ahead. Remain fair, respectful, objective, and professional, and remember to keep the project objectives within focus.

7. Involve the stakeholder in the resolution

In order for a resolution to be successful, the stakeholder will need to be accountable for their past and future behavior and actions, in relation to their contributions, and how they impact the team and the project. Have the stakeholder assist you in coming up with some solutions that will enable them to re-establish buy-in and commitment to the project.  It will also be important to ensure the solutions are implemented and measured, and do not change the desired goals and objectives of the business.

Without understanding why a stakeholder has become difficult or why buy-in has been lost, it’s impossible to successfully proceed with a project without continued friction. That said, there may be times when despite all efforts by a PM to resolve issues, the stakeholder may simply have no intention of working cohesively with the team. In situations like this, difficult decisions may need to be made.

As projects generally create change, and that change can bring about stress, fear, and significant disruption, organizations will increasingly rely on project managers to know how to transform difficult stakeholders into engaged and committed stakeholders for successful projects and business results.

This story, "7 tips to transform difficult stakeholders into project partners" was originally published by CIO.