8 strategies for dealing with difficult stakeholders that will move your projects forward

Learn expert strategies for dealing with difficult but important people on your project.

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We all had to work with difficult people at some point. But what happens when these people are essential to a project, like a client, key stakeholder, or sponsor?

You can’t ignore them, but you can’t let them derail your planning or stall your project progress. So, what do you do?

In this article, we’ll look at common challenges with stakeholders and some practical strategies for dealing with them, so your project can remain on track.

5 signs of difficult stakeholders

Scope creep, nonresponsiveness, and unrealistic expectations are some of the signs that are dealing with demanding customers.

1. Constantly changing scope, timelines, and budgets

This is the most common challenge project managers face with stakeholders. It’s also often the most difficult to deal with.

When I started managing projects, I would create a specification, project plan, and budget. I’d get all this agreed in writing with stakeholders, and we would begin. I believed the written agreements meant things wouldn’t change.

But this wasn’t the case. Sometimes in the first week of a project, stakeholders would contact me and request a change to scope, timeline, or budget.

2. HIPPO

HIPPO means the ‘Highest Paid Person's Opinion.’

A new face arrives in a random project meeting with these stakeholders, someone clearly of more seniority than the stakeholders. This isn’t necessarily bad, as they may just be there to observe how things are going. Where things get funky is when they start to pull rank and try to make project decisions on the fly.

In an ideal world, a senior person who sits above stakeholders will have been fully briefed on the project’s status, agreements, and constraints. But on multiple occasions, I’ve experienced situations where this is not the case.

As they start to give their opinions (which are really orders), the stakeholders stay quiet, leaving the project manager to defend the project.

3. Limited availability and low engagement

It’s a real challenge for project momentum when stakeholders have limited availability and low engagement.

When the project starts, it is difficult to spot because engagement is high, and stakeholders prioritize availability.

But as the project gets past the kick-off stage, these problems begin to surface. It will manifest as long delays in replies to emails or messages, no-shows to meetings, and constant requests to reschedule. It becomes worse if the stakeholders have specific project critical path tasks to complete themselves and miss the first deadline and then another.

4. Inability to articulate requirements

Some stakeholders don’t know how to explain what they want from the project. This presents a challenge for project managers, whose job is to nail down requirements.

This situation can bed managed if the stakeholder is open to different methods of requirements gathering. But they insist on only communicating the requirements in an ambiguous way. In that case, a project manager must find ways to get clarity, as unclear requirements will only result in problems.

5. Unrealistic expectations

Unrealistic expectations are a prevalent stakeholder challenge, especially when a company hires an external agency to build something they’re not experienced in, e.g., a company that supplies office chairs that wants a website built.

It tends to be less of a problem in larger organizations where internal teams are used to deliver a project because it’s typically a more common occurrence, and expectations are more realistic.

Project manager job descriptions focus on the mechanics of running a project, but in my experience, realistic expectation setting is a big part of the role. Doing it in a way that doesn’t dishearten a stakeholder is a critical skill to develop.

But as we’ll talk about in the next section, it’s not a complex skill to learn, but it does require consistency and courage.

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8 effective strategies for dealing with difficult stakeholders

Here are eight ways to successfully navigate challenges and build productive relationships with stakeholders.

1. Deal with stakeholder challenges immediately

It’s natural to want to tuck tail and run when faced with a difficult person.

However, avoiding dealing with problems does not mean they magically go away. In my experience, problems that were ignored metastasized, causing even more problems than if they’d been dealt with in the beginning.

So, when any problems with stakeholders arise, it is your personal and professional responsibility to meet them head-on. To pluck up the courage to do this, I always took the stance that my job as project manager was to ensure the smooth running of the project. Anything that looks like it could derail that smooth running is my job to manage, regardless of the seniority of the people involved.

This approach has led me to challenge CEOs, CTOs, and even my bosses. Each time, I expected it to backfire and result in being shouted at or fired. Surprisingly, when these senior "scary" people saw my genuine passion for the project's well-being and success, they respected my courage to challenge them and collaborated with me to resolve the underlying issues.

So, don’t hesitate and face those problems today!

2. Embrace change and develop robust processes to manage it

I used to get annoyed when a stakeholder wanted to change a project’s scope or timeline after agreeing to it in writing.

But after years of dreaming of a project that remains the same from day one, you realize something - all projects change, and as a project manager, you need to accept that.

More than just accepting it, you should learn to embrace change.

Agile methodologies make this a more straightforward philosophy to adopt, but you can embrace change even in more traditional waterfall-type projects or programs.

One thing that significantly helps to embrace change is to ensure your projects have a robust change management process. Having a solid change process that is clearly and regularly communicated to your stakeholders means that when (not if) they want to shift the goalposts, it’s not a significant problem. You can follow the change process until the project has new variables and is back on track.

Of course, stakeholders can still try to bypass this process, but this is where project managers need to be strong. Hold the line! It’s tempting to let small changes through that don’t follow a process. In some rare cases, you may do this for political or relationship reasons, but in 99% of other cases, stay strong and insist the process is followed.

3. Carry out thorough stakeholder mapping and RACIs exercises

To address the HIPPO challenge, it’s vital, especially for larger, more complex projects, to conduct a thorough stakeholder mapping and RACI exercise at the start of the project.

Having this documented and agreed upon will enable you to have more effortless conversations in the future if a HIPPO shows up.

When conducting the stakeholder mapping and RACI exercises, always dig deeper with your primary stakeholder contacts on who may show up halfway through a project and start trying to make decisions. You’d be surprised how asking this extra question will unearth potential future risks and put you in a better position to manage them.

4. Set realistic expectations of stakeholder time required

To combat the challenge of low availability and engagement, you need to set expectations about their involvement at the start of the project. Ensure you establish how critical their engagement is to the project's success.

Let’s revisit the previous example of an office chair supplier wanting a new website. There’s a chance that this client doesn’t know that their time and contributions will be needed to achieve project goals. So, it’s our job to educate them.

Give them examples of previous similar-sized successful projects and explain roughly how many hours or days a week the stakeholders committed to and followed through on. It’s often much more than stakeholders imagine they’ll need to dedicate.

Suppose you’re encountering no or long email replies or no-shows to project meetings. Follow the first strategy and don’t hesitate and face that problem. Set up a dedicated session with them and then inform them how their lack of availability and engagement impacts the project.

This alone won’t always solve the problem, but you can complement this using the next strategy, creating weekly status reports.

5. Share weekly status reports

Compiling and sending a weekly project progress report is not revolutionary. All project managers should be familiar with the concept. However, it can also be a powerful tool when dealing with difficult stakeholders causing project issues.

A weekly status report should be simple and include the following:

  • Progress made this week
  • Plans for next week
  • Risks and issues
  • Timeline update
  • Budget update

By being transparent about risks and issues caused by a stakeholder, you begin to drive home that they’re impacting the project. When a risk or issue is cited as being due to the stakeholder, they will notice it.

More so, when a logged issue has a direct impact on the project timeline or budget, that’s when things become real for the stakeholder. Not only will they not want to be on the report again, but it also sends a strong signal that their actions, or lack thereof, can significantly affect a project. It won’t just be swept under the carpet; instead, it will be visible for all to see.

This sounds rather harsh, but if you have tried more subtle and sensitive approaches to change the stakeholder’s behavior but have been unsuccessful, this approach can be a solution.

6. Document everything

When a stakeholder is the type that will forget about verbal conversations, agreements, and decisions made on a project, there is one rule–document everything.

Some stakeholders have so much going on that they forget details or impact. In contrast, others have slightly more ulterior motives and use verbal discussions as a way to pivot at a later date if things are not going right.

So, when dealing with this type of stakeholder, document everything. If you have a one-to-one or group conversation where some important project decisions were made, take notes and send a follow-up summary email with a log of the decisions made and actions for people as discussed.

You may even go as far as having a project decision log document where you keep a spreadsheet that logs all decisions made by any party in a central place for all to see. This could be sent out monthly so people remain aware it exists and that you’re keeping a record.

The number of times a detailed revision log on a functional specification has made difficult conversations easier for me is evident in this documenting everything approach.

7. Understand and empathize with their position

Put your empathy hat on. It is an approach I don’t often see deployed when dealing with difficult stakeholders and one I would try before deploying many of the strategies I’ve discussed here.  

More often than not, a stakeholder doesn’t mean to be complicated. There might be reasons that are causing them to appear as one.

It could be nothing but a workload issue, i.e., they are so busy with their day-to-day job that they’re struggling to keep up with the project, making them appear sloppy.

Or, there could be significant pressure from their bosses. All scope, timeline, and budget change requests and desire to bypass formal processes result from not them but those above them.

Either way, set up a session where you try to understand why they’re struggling before laying down the law and becoming litigious with a difficult stakeholder. If you can form a connection with the stakeholder and genuinely understand their position, you can find different ways of working that may help them.

Sometimes you can’t help, and the situation is just what it is. Still, the mere gesture of reaching out to understand someone’s position on a human level can go a long way with stakeholders, and that alone can sometimes be enough to trigger a change in behavior and focus.

8. Always be honest

Finally, my golden rule for stakeholders and just about anything else regarding work or life is always honesty.

Living by this principle has never backfired. It’s got me into some sticky conversations and has been unexpected by some people. Still, in the long run, I find being always honest yields positive results with stakeholders and, thus, for projects.

A stakeholder who knows you’ll always be honest will respect you, even if they don’t like what you say. This respect earns you trust, and in my experience, trust is the most potent weapon in your arsenal when it comes to being a successful project manager.

Learn more about stakeholder management

Mastering the art of managing difficult stakeholders is a crucial skill for success in any project. By implementing the strategies discussed in this article, you can navigate through challenges, build productive relationships, and ensure the smooth progress of your initiatives.

However, stakeholder management is a multifaceted subject that requires continuous learning. If you want to deepen your understanding of stakeholder management, explore our article on 11 strategies for effective stakeholder management.

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