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Engaging “Difficult” Stakeholders

Every project has stakeholders that may be labeled as "difficult." While I’ll acknowledge that some people just choose to be difficult and contrary; many times there is a valid reason for someone being difficult. They are just not expressing themselves in the best way possible. This is not to excuse their behavior; but, look deeper into why they are being difficult.

For example, when I am dealing with “difficult” stakeholders, I listen and ask questions to understand what is going on. Through active listening and asking questions, I have learned of legitimate concerns and worries that were not addressed, such as:

  • How a project would impact a stakeholder’s job and career with the company
  • Whether a stakeholder would be able to learn the new skills and obtain the knowledge required to be successful
  • That there is a perception of too many unknowns and a lack of sufficient information/communications about what was happening and why
  • Too much going on already within the organization (or even personally in the stakeholder’s life) that impacts his/her ability to manage through one more change
  • Stakeholders feeling they are losing control
  • Stakeholders feeling they cannot provide input for changes that impact them directly

These are all very valid concerns and some stakeholders, rather than having a conversation, may dig in their heels and therefore be perceived as difficult.

Let’s not just label stakeholders. Have a conversation with them to understand what is going on. You’ll be better able to address the situation if you have some specifics rather than just trying to manage a “difficult” stakeholder. Each of the issues/concerns in the bulleted list above are far more workable (able to be addressed) than just changing a difficult stakeholder. Address the (perceived) concerns and issues and manage the stakeholder.

Try it out on your next project with a “difficult” stakeholder. You’ll see a difference!

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