Dealing With Stakeholders Who Throw Daggers

“Watch out for Susan. She pretends to be nice then blindsides you every chance she gets. It’s always all about her. Don’t trust her.”

It was my first week at a new company. I was a newly hired IT leader being warned by a colleague about my peer on the Marketing side of the house. My initial meetings with Susan seemed cordial enough, but the warning remained ominous. When would the daggers start flying?

Identifying Your Stakeholders

Identifying project stakeholders is a critically important step in getting from idea to delivery. Assuming your project will deliver real value to people, there will likely be many stakeholders excited about your project. Some will be neutral—neither for nor against your project. And then there will be the Susans. She represents those stakeholders who can be obstacles to your project success.

Some obstacle stakeholders remain in hiding until they sense their opportunity to pounce. Others are right out in the open. Their intentions of derailing your project are clear.

Strategies for Challenging Stakeholders

When a key stakeholder does not support your project, I suggest your goals should be to either Win them or Neutralize their impact. That does not mean neutralize in the sense of employing a mafia hit man! Rather, your goal is to avoid writing them off, so to speak. When someone is an obstacle, it can be tempting to respond in ways that make it even more difficult to gain their support.

Here are some strategies to consider:

Take it as a challenge. How you think about the other person will make all the difference. Since I was warned about Susan before even meeting her, my viewpoint was already painted in a negative light. Taking your equivalent of Susan as a challenge requires us to re-frame how we look at the situation. What if you forced yourself to look at their lack of support as a challenge? What if you could turn them into an ally? This doesn’t mean they need to become a best friend. But getting them off the enemy list could be a great place to start.

At the age of 16 my son Zach had the opportunity to train with a semi-pro soccer team. When Zach showed up for the first practice donning his keeper jersey and gloves, teammates warned him about the starting goalkeeper, Rick. As it turns out, Rick had a reputation for being tough on rookies. When Zach approached the veteran keeper, Rick blurted out, “What are you doing here?” Zach flashed a big smile and replied, “I’m here to learn from you!” Zach made it clear he wasn’t there to diminish Rick’s dominance as the starting keeper. From that moment on, something clicked between the two of them, leading to a season that Zach will never forget.

It may not be possible to change the “Rick” and “Susan” in your project life. But is it possible to look at them differently? The mindset change can provide the extra motivation and positive intent that can fuel the energy to at least try to win them over.

Do your homework. Every stakeholder is unique. Research consistently finds you are more likely to influence someone if you customize your approach to the other person. By doing your homework, you are better aware of what they really need, their hot buttons, and preferences.

Susan liked to be in charge. She liked to sit at the head of the table. She avoided widely swinging emotions. She liked to think of herself as being rather technical. Learning about her preferences informed me on what to expect in meetings and how to best interact with her.

Here’s another example. I once collaborated with an airline executive who had a particular bias that it was unprofessional to show up for a meeting without pen and paper. Despite the near ubiquity of tablets and other electronics for note taking, she strongly felt that you are signaling irresponsibility if you came to a meeting unequipped with a writing instrument and paper. After this bias came out in my homework about her, you can bet I showed up with pen and paper proudly in hand when I met with her!

Some executives look at a polished slide deck as a sign of a well-prepared presentation. Others want you to roll up your sleeves and draw things out on a whiteboard. Some want to see detailed project plans. Others want it on one page.

My point is that if you do your homework, you will gain insights on how to best prepare for your interactions with the stakeholder. Since your access to the stakeholder may be limited, consider soliciting advice and insight from existing allies who might better know the stakeholder.

Keep them in the loop. When dealing with a difficult stakeholder, it can be tempting to spend as little time with them as possible.  We might want to treat them with similar disrespect as they treat us.

But that approach will not likely serve the best interests of you and your project. It can certainly stretch a project manager’s patience to deal with stakeholders who are considered obstacles. However, it’s important to respectfully communicate with intent. Keep them informed. Take the high road, remaining respectful in your interactions regardless of how they treat you. The high road is almost always the path to a successful outcome.

Listen to them. I’m convinced that an enormous amount of conflict is caused by people who are not listening to each other. Donny Ebenstein, author of I Hear Yourecommends you listen so well that you can tell their version of the story as well as they can. There’s a reason behind the behavior. If you listen close enough, you can learn the story they are telling themselves about the project. You don’t have to agree with their version of the story, but if you listen close enough, it might explain some of their obstacle behavior.

Explain the why. It’s possible that our project decisions make perfect sense to us, but we don’t take the time to communicate the rationale to stakeholders. The result can be confusion and conflict. In Robert Cialdini’s book Influence, he suggests that “because” is the most influential word in the English language because people are more likely to comply when they know the basis of a decision.

Stay near. As Sun-tzu wisely said, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Though it’s generally not productive to consider stakeholders as enemies, the point is to stay sufficiently in touch that you aren’t blindsided by them.

Instead of avoiding a meeting because a challenging stakeholder will be there, Dr. Nick Morgan suggests that you show up and sit down right next to the difficult person. Why? People will say things in an e-mail that they won’t say face-to-face (it’s called the online disinhibition effect). Your presence may make them think twice about spewing derogatory statements about your project. But even if the challenging person disparages you or your project during the meeting, you are there to provide perspective.

Escalate when necessary. If the stakeholder issue is causing your project to delay, you may need to escalate. Dr. Allan Cohen, author of Influence Without Authorityrecommends you never blind-side someone by escalating an issue without a warning. For example, “We need to resolve this by Friday. Otherwise the project will slip, which means I will need to escalate it to the sponsor.” Escalation need not be your first strategy, but it may be one you need to employ after unsuccessfully trying to resolve the issues yourself.

Susan never became a great friend. And we certainly had disagreements along the way. But were able to work together once I learned how to manage her. I encourage you to try one or more of these strategies out on your “Susan”. Let me know how it goes!

What additional advice do you have for dealing with stakeholders who are obstacles?

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