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how to deal with difficult stakeholders
7 min read

How to Deal With Difficult Stakeholders

Dealing with stakeholders is an integral part of any project management process, and while some stakeholders can be welcoming to your project and its outcomes, it’s likely some of them will be a bit more challenging to deal with.

Difficult stakeholders can make project management a stressful and challenging task. They may have unrealistic expectations, be uncooperative, or even act in a hostile manner towards the project team.

In this article, we explore what difficult stakeholders are, how you can identify them and provide tips and strategies to help you handle them effectively. We hope these tips can help you navigate through difficult situations and support the success of your project!


Why is it important to deal with difficult stakeholders?

Failing to engage with your stakeholders can lead to a host of issues: project delays, budget overruns, and even team morale problems.

It’s important to handle difficult stakeholders to avoid the negative impact it can have on your project implementation and its outcomes - which in turn can have long-term consequences for your organisation.

It can also help improve communication and collaboration within the team. When project managers successfully handle challenging stakeholders, it creates a sense of teamwork and trust that can improve the overall project performance. 

Identifying difficult stakeholders

What are difficult stakeholders? Difficult stakeholders are those individuals who are challenging to manage, communicate with, and may cause issues or delays in project completion.

These stakeholders can be problematic and create roadblocks for the project, leading to frustration and impacting the project's success.

Identifying them can be challenging, as they may not always make their presence known immediately. You can start by looking for signs of resistance or negativity towards the project, such as:

  • Unresponsive or indifferent: A stakeholder who fails to engage and provide the required information or feedback. This type of stakeholder may not have a clear understanding of the project's importance or may lack the motivation to provide the necessary support, which can impact team morale and project progress;
  • Resistance to change: Some stakeholders may be resistant to changes, preferring to stick to established methods;
  • Unrealistic expectations: Stakeholders who present unrealistic expectations or demand too much are often a challenge for project teams. They may be difficult to please, which can lead to frustration, dissatisfaction, and an increased risk of failure;
  • Negative or aggressive attitudes: Stakeholders who consistently bring a negative attitude to the project or present confrontational behaviour. They may be hostile towards the project team or unwilling to compromise, which can demoralize the team, impede progress and lead to delays.

Also, keep an eye on stakeholders that:

  • Insist on micromanaging the project and make it difficult for the team to work independently;
  • Are consistently late in providing feedback, approvals, or other important information that can delay the project;
  • Control access to critical resources and can make it challenging for the team to complete the project on time;
  • Keep expanding the scope of the project, potentially causing budget overruns and delay in project completion.

Understanding difficult stakeholders

Managing difficult stakeholders requires understanding why they are being difficult in the first place. But why can they be difficult?

Stakeholders can be challenging for a variety of reasons, from personal motivations and conflicting goals to poor communication.

Some stakeholders may have unrealistic expectations, while others may be resistant to change or have different priorities. Additionally, stakeholders may have different perspectives or values and won’t agree with your project’s objectives. 

Engaging with them is the best way to recognise and understand the different reasons why they’re being resistant, so you can work on resolving them. 


Strategies for dealing with difficult stakeholders

Managing difficult stakeholders is a reality in project management, and learning to deal with them is an important skill for project managers and team members.

Establishing clear communication, managing expectations, resolving conflicts, and building positive relationships are a few of the strategies you can adopt. Let’s go over each one of them:


Establish clear communication

Create a communication plan that supports an environment of trust, promotes stakeholder collaboration and sets expectations for how communication will take place:

Be clear and direct

Communicate clearly and directly to avoid misunderstandings or misinterpretations. Use simple and concise language to make your message more accessible and avoid technical jargon.

Listen to your stakeholders

Provide your stakeholders with the tools they need to be heard. Actively listen to difficult stakeholders to understand their perspectives, needs, and concerns.

Leverage different communication channels

Different stakeholders may have different communication preferences, so it's important to use a variety of communication channels to reach them. Some may prefer face-to-face meetings, while others may prefer email or instant messaging.

Focus on solutions

When communicating with difficult stakeholders, focus on solutions rather than problems. This can help build a positive and collaborative environment that facilitates progress.


Manage stakeholder expectations

Managing expectations is another critical factor in dealing with difficult stakeholders. When expectations are not met, stakeholders can become frustrated, which can lead to a loss of trust, a lack of support, and even project failure.

Here's what you can do:

Set clear objectives

Clearly define the project objectives and goals, in a way that is easy to understand. Consider your project's constraints, the available resources, and the needs and priorities of all your stakeholders.

And then make sure all your stakeholders are aware of the project timeline by communicating regularly, keeping them in the loop.

Involve your stakeholders in the process

Include difficult stakeholders in the project planning and decision-making process. By doing so, you can identify their concerns and priorities from the start and incorporate them into the project plan.

Communicate regularly

Provide regular updates on the project progress and keep stakeholders informed of any challenges or changes to the project plan.

Be honest and transparent

Keep communication open and honest. If there are challenges or delays, communicate them clearly and work with your stakeholders to develop solutions.

This will help you build confidence and avoid conflicts that could arise from misunderstandings or unfulfilled promises.


Conflict resolution

Despite your best efforts, conflicts may still arise with difficult stakeholders. When conflicts occur, it's important to remain calm, professional, and open to dialogue.

Focus on finding a solution that meets both your stakeholders’ needs and the project's objectives. Keep an open mind and be flexible during this process, and be willing to make concessions if necessary.

Be proactive

Take a proactive approach to conflict resolution. Address potential conflicts before they escalate, and work to find solutions that meet the needs of all stakeholders.

Focus on the issues

Focus on the issues at hand, rather than the personalities involved. Avoid personal attacks or blaming, and keep the discussion focused on finding a solution.

Demonstrate empathy

Show empathy towards the difficult stakeholder by acknowledging their concerns and demonstrating that you understand their perspective.

Seek common ground

Look for common ground and areas of agreement with the difficult stakeholder. By finding common ground, you can build a foundation for resolving the conflict.

Explore alternatives

Explore alternative solutions to the conflict. Brainstorm with the difficult stakeholder to find creative solutions that meet both their needs and the project's objectives.


Building relationships with your stakeholders

We hope the strategies shared above help you better navigate the sometimes complex stakeholder relationships.

Look for areas where your goals and objectives align with those of the difficult stakeholders and seek to build on these commonalities.

When you seek common ground and show your stakeholders they have a voice, showing you want to work collaboratively with them, you promote a more positive environment and a shared vision for your project.

The case study with National Grid provides a real-life example of the positive impact generated by a change programme to manage expectations and resistance to change related to deploying a new system.


Manage your stakeholders efficiently

Staying on top of your stakeholder communication is key to preventing missing an important email or feedback from that difficult stakeholder you’re striving to improve your relationship with.

Avoid the risk of losing important information fragmented across multiple platforms by centralising all your stakeholder engagement and communication in a single place.

With a tool like Tractivity, you can manage all your stakeholder data, send emails and newsletters, publish surveys and gather feedback, manage events, map your stakeholders, analyse sentiment and categorise issues, create reports and more.

Download our Tractivity Whitepaper to learn more about our complete set of engagement features, or book a free demo with us.

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