16 October, 2023

Engage Difficult Stakeholders: How to Use a Simple 4-step Process


One of the things Project Managers fear most is resistance. When we encounter difficult stakeholders, it triggers deep emotions. It’s easy to feel out of your depth professionally, and challenged, personally.

This is a common problem for all project managers. And it can be unsettling for newer PMs. So we asked an expert in this topic to write an article for you.

This is a refresh of an article written for us by Elise Stevens. Elise ran the FixMyProjectChaos.com website (now gone), with over 100 podcasts for you to listen to. Elise has shifted her business to focus on helping people with their careers. However, you can still browse among over 100 Project Management podcasts and hear Elise’s interview with OnlinePMCourses founder, Mike Clayton.

But, most importantly, Elise has thought deeply about the challenges posed by difficult stakeholders. So, why don’t we turn this article over to Elise, and let her tell her story?

Engage Difficult Stakeholders: How to Use a Simple 4-step Process

Elise will cover:

Over to Elise…

How Hard Could This Be?

I remember when I started my project management career. I had worked my way up from being a graduate programmer:

  • to a senior analyst programmer
  • to team leader and project manager

In my team leadership role, I had significant contact with key business stakeholders. We worked well together and I thought we had a great relationship.

So, delivering projects… I thought:

How hard could this be?

Very quickly it became clear that I had misread the situation… badly.

We still had core respect for each other. However, adding the project delivery responsibilities had created a new level of challenge. At the time I didn’t understand why things had changed and why these people were making my life so difficult.

For me, as a new project manager, it seemed like a trial by fire. And I had to make it all happen by ensuring that we delivered the project and the stakeholders were happy.

Fast-forward

Fast-forward many years and to many stressful projects later…

I had improved my way of dealing with challenging (read: difficult) stakeholders. But, I felt that my approach to these situations was always ad-hoc. I never took the time to understand why I was having trouble with challenging personalities.

As most project managers do, I switched between blaming myself:

‘I must not be a very good project manager’

…to pushing the blame fully onto my stakeholders:

Gee, they are difficult!
I can’t wait for this project to be over so that I can get a break from these people.’

This type of angst takes a lot out of you. It can leave you feeling stressed, with reduced self-confidence, and with a low tolerance for the normal project ebb and flow. So, not a good place to be in.

A New Approach to Difficult Stakeholders

I cycled through this process for a while – more time than I should have. Finally, I decided it was time to change the way I approached these situations.

My new approach was to focus on what I could change. Most of all, this was my own behavior and how I would react to situations.

I realized that I was the one who had to improve and find new ways of dealing with difficult stakeholders. After all, it was unlikely they were going to change.

I identified that I needed to:

  • Remove the emotion from the situation, and
  • Find a systematic approach to dealing with these situations.

This was the only way I could survive these situations with my sanity preserved and my stress levels as low as possible.

Stakeholder Analysis

Step 1: Identify what is going on

My first step is to ensure that I always do a stakeholder analysis. Sometimes I think project managers undervalue this step, but it is crucial. The assessment involves identifying:

  • Who are all the stakeholders in the project?
  • How does the project impact them?
  • What are the most effective engagement approaches?

Step 2: Who is Involved?
How do you identify who your project stakeholders are?

The approach I use to establish my project stakeholders is to:

  • Talk to the project sponsor; who do they think the stakeholders are
  • Talk to the PMO; who do they think the stakeholders are
  • Use the organization chart to identify groups and individuals who may be impacted by the change
  • Use my internal network; ask for other opinions about who could be impacted by the change
  • Ask the known stakeholders for their opinion; who could be impacted by the change?
  • Assess the impact of the change on existing business processes. Contact teams that may be impacted by the change

Talking with your stakeholders and getting their feedback achieves the best results. It continues to astound me how many project managers don’t have a list of their stakeholders and don’t do an impact assessment.

Prioritising your Stakeholders

As a project manager, often you don’t have a lot of time to spend engaging stakeholders. This is even though you know the task is critical to the success of your project. If you are time-poor, you should focus on the stakeholders who are the most important. Find ways to collaborate with them.

Remember, stakeholder engagement is not linear. Stakeholders’ needs change as the project progresses. So, taking one approach for the duration of the project is rarely going to work. Be prepared to adjust and refine throughout the duration of the project.

Mapping-out Your Stakeholders

Once you have identified your stakeholders, it is important to map them on an impact grid. The grid has four quadrants and is a great tool. But it doesn’t help you to identify who your difficult stakeholders are going to be.

Take a look at our videos and articles: 

Difficult Stakeholders

Step 3: Why is it happening?

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if you could sit down and identify, in advance, which person is going to be difficult? Then you’d know who is going to need a different type of engagement.

Perhaps you could develop clairvoyant skills for stakeholders. As a result, you could predict that Chris is going to be a challenge, so you can focus on them.

But things happen throughout the life of a project. So, sometimes stakeholders are on board, and at other times they’re not. This could be due to issues with the project. Equally, it can arise from issues outside it: what’s going on in the organization or in their individual teams.

Your #stakeholder may be difficult for reasons wholly outside your #project Click To Tweet

A stakeholder might be on board with the project one day and the next day they’re not. Therefore, having one approach to a stakeholder throughout the life of your project won’t work. You have to be constantly monitoring and assessing:

  • Where they are,
  • Whether they’re still engaged with the project, or
  • If they’re simply being difficult.

How do you know if a stakeholder is being difficult?

Well, the first step is to look at what’s happening. Ask: ‘Are you…

  • being difficult with me via email? 
  • being difficult with me in meetings?
  • changing your mind about supporting this?

Sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on what’s happening. So, often you will have to work hard to join the dots. Establishing what’s happening will give you some clarity. And, more important, it helps you to remove the emotion from the situation.

Understanding the Difficult Behavior

Once you’ve identified the difficult behavior, you need to understand the person that is being difficult. This can take time. Some things to consider are:

  • Who is this person in the organization?
  • Are they very political?
  • Are they well-connected within the organization?
  • Do they have good allies?
  • Are they on board with this project?
  • Are they engaged with the project or is it being forced upon them?

It is important to put stakeholders into the context of:

  • How much do they really want to do this project or is it being forced on them?
  • Does the project add or subtract from their power or prestige?
  • Are they flexing their power muscle to promote or stop the project?

Engage your Sponsor in Dealing with Difficult Stakeholders

A good way of dealing with this situation is to work with your project sponsor. They may have insights or a relationship that can help to reduce the negative behavior.

But, what if your sponsor is one of your difficult stakeholders?

Well, we have the right article for you: How to Handle a Difficult Project Sponsor [6 Different Types]

Your Role in the Difficult Stakeholders’ Behavior

As with all difficult situations, it is important to examine your own role. Your behavior, language, and actions impact the way others engage with you. Some things to examine are:

  • Am I engaging with this stakeholder in a way that meets their needs?
  • Does my style of engagement fit the situation?
  • Am I communicating too much or too little?
  • Is my message getting lost among other messages I am providing?
  • Are there other things going on that have more ‘noise’ than my message?

You can change your behavior. And you can adapt it to fit the needs of the situation. Sometimes it is just a case of understanding what that is.

Do take a look at our article: Interpersonal Skills for Project Managers – How to Develop Yours

Engaging Your Difficult Stakeholders

The next step is to look at what’s going on in the stakeholder’s world and talk to them about it. It’s great if you are able to have an open discussion about this. However, sometimes it takes work to get the conversation flowing and secure the information you need.

A full-frontal approach rarely works unless you have a trusted relationship. And it can also be challenging to get time in a person’s schedule to chat about these things.

What if they are very guarded about what’s going on?

Stakeholders often keep their cards very close to their chest. This is especially so for some resistant stakeholders. And it’s one thing that makes stakeholders difficult.

In this case, you will have to talk around things in a way that is not going to inflame the situation. You have to be very mindful of which approaches are going to work with different individuals.

I know that could sound wishy-washy. But it’s true.

I’ve had difficult stakeholders where I certainly couldn’t approach them and say, ‘You’re being difficult.’ Not even if I phrased it in a much nicer way than that. I expect you’ve had the same.

So, I’ve often had to gather some intelligence about why they were acting the way they were. I could then use that as a hook for a conversation to get them back on board.

So, therefore…

Step 4: Develop an Action Plan for your difficult stakeholders

I would hope you already have a stakeholder communication plan as part of your own project approach.

For difficult stakeholders, you will need a more detailed plan. And it will need to be more subtle and adaptable too. In particular:

  • Think about scenarios, and how you will respond to them
  • Consider what the difficult stakeholders want, need, and value
  • Weight your communication methods to personal, one-to-one conversations
  • And avoid using email wherever possible
  • Consider who else you can involve

And be absolutely rigorous in keeping your notes on this confidential!

Learning More about Handling Difficult Stakeholders

For project managers, there seems to be little training available on how to manage difficult stakeholders. Being able to talk about these issues and find out what people really think had been trial and error for me. How I developed my skills was (unfortunately) by:

  1. Saying the wrong thing and then
  2. Having to have difficult conversations to repair the damage.

In the past, I would have just blundered along hoping that I was not making the situation worse. But over time, I’ve learned more effective ways to engage people and you can too.

I’ve also come to understand the value of investing in quality relationships. This is especially so, with the important project stakeholders. Now, I make sure I understand who they are, where they’re coming from, and what their issues may be in the organization.

Training and upskilling is an important part of your professional development. Project Management is not a static skillset. If you aren’t continually learning, then you are moving backward.

#Project Management is not a static skillset. If you aren't continually learning; you're moving backwards. Click To Tweet

There are lots of skills to practice:

These are just some of the many skills that you need, to be an effective project manager.

There Are No Difficult Stakeholders

It is important not to write people off as being ‘difficult’.

Never allow that to be where they stay forever in your assumptions. People change. In fact, this is important:

Stakeholders are not difficult.
It is their behavior that is difficult.’

But it’s just as important not to be too quick to think of people as being difficult in the first place. There will be reasons their behavior seems difficult.

For example:

  • They might be having problems with someone in their family
  • Their department might be shrinking
  • There might be things going on in the organization
  • People might be trying to muscle in on their politics.

There’s a whole range of things that might be going on that have nothing to do with your project. But I think that sometimes we are too quick to look at it in the context of:

‘Oh, well, that’s not good for the project. Don’t they know that?’

The project may be the least of their worries.

So, it’s important for you to consider that what they’re saying may have nothing to do with the project.  And maybe it’s the last thing on their mind.

Mike Adds:

I would go even further than Eloise. I learned early on that there are no such people as ‘difficult stakeholders’. There are only project managers who don’t have the skills or patience to understand their behaviors and find ways to accommodate them.

Do I believe this is true? Are there really no people who can set out to be difficult and make your life miserable? Of course there are, sometimes. But this is an attitude that has served me well. I recommend you hold this attitude – at least until the point of extremis!

You may like this video: I Don’t Like You – Trust and how to Deal with the Toughest Form of Resistance.

Managing Difficult Stakeholders is Your Job

Handling difficult stakeholders is an essential part of being an effective project manager. So you need to be able to do it effectively.

We (Mike and Elise) are seeing employers place a greater emphasis on stakeholder engagement. And networking around the organization is growing in importance.  So, the days when you could deliver projects just by implementing the technology are, we believe, disappearing.

For a lot of project managers, that’s quite a challenge. Because dealing with difficult stakeholders is not what they’re used to. And any stakeholder engagement is likely to unearth challenges.

But here’s the truth… You cannot deliver projects without the people. It’s simply not going to work.

Exceptional project managers are ones that embrace the relationships with their stakeholders. They deal with difficult issues, and develop a knack for negotiation and resolving conflict.

Exceptional #project managers embrace the relationships with their #stakeholders Click To Tweet

Are you ready for that challenge?

Tell us about Your Experience and Advice

Mike and Elise look forward to responding to every comment you leave.

More Resources

To learn more, you might like Mike’s interviews with Elizabeth Harrin and Andy Kaufman:

More about understanding and dealing with stakeholder resistance:

More resources to understand change and change management:

And, for maximum impact, we have a full course:

Managing and Leading Change:
A Practical Introduction to Change Management for Project Managers and Change Leaders.


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Elise Stevens

About the Author...

Elise has worked in project and organisational change management for over 20 years. She loves helping project managers empower themselves with more skills and knowledge.

So, she also coaches, mentors, and trains other project managers.

Elise has launched over 100 free podcasts. She interviews experts from around the world about project management and leadership topics. Find her Podcasts and resources at https://elisestevens.co
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