Get out of bed in the morning, and it is likely you will meet people who challenge you. It is an inevitability of human interaction that you will encounter individuals who actively or obliquely oppose you, have differing ideas, methods, and motivations than you, or who simply hold a contrary view.
Some of these people you can and will ignore, others you will engage with, argue with or discuss and share your views with. Stakeholders, especially difficult ones, present a unique challenge in that you must reconcile any number of differences whilst maintaining an ongoing working relationship in order for you to successfully deliver the required outcome.
Difficult stakeholder behaviour not only causes stress and a poor working environment, but given the success of a project will often hinge on a consultant’s ability to overcome this hurdle, effectively managing challenging stakeholders is a crucial skill for any Business Analyst or Project Manager.
Ideally, a difficult stakeholder interaction results in a stakeholder who is your advocate. This is not always achievable, but it is certainly possible; and there are techniques to achieve the best outcome for the circumstances.
Frequently overlooked but extremely effective, reflecting on your actions and behaviour and an as-objective-as-possible analysis of your own contribution to the circumstances is a veteran consultant’s first stop. Acknowledging and apologising for an error you have made can often be all that is required to overcome an obstacle and re-build rapport with your stakeholder. It also demonstrates that you will put the success of the project before your ego.
Acknowledging even a minor issue gives permission to a stakeholder to also acknowledge any of their mistakes, sets a conciliatory tone, and raises the standard of subsequent communications. It is not the easiest technique, but it is often the simplest and most effective.
The key to effective stakeholder management is an understanding of what is motivating their actions and behaviours.
Lacking a clear understanding of why a stakeholder is behaving the way they are can lead to a breakdown of the working relationship. Even worse, the temptation to make negative assumptions about their motivations leads down a rabbit-hole of misunderstanding, miscommunication and usually, project failure.
Understanding a person’s motivations does not involve laying them down on a couch and delving deep into their psyche, but rather developing a clear contextual appreciation of their role within their organisational structure, the nature of their working relationships, and a willingness to set aside personality conflicts to achieve the goals you need to accomplish. The most effective way to understand a stakeholder’s motivations is…
Effectively communicating with a difficult stakeholder means listening far more than speaking. In fact, you should aim to spend 80-90 percent of the time listening rather than speaking. It is essential that you are clear in your mind about the purpose of your interaction and what you are hoping to achieve. Whether your aim is to understand or elicit a requirement, resolve a dispute, clarify objectives, or any other purpose, the key is to be prepared with relevant and incisive questions that will keep focus on the issue at hand.
Difficult stakeholders often feel they have not been heard or understood, and their behaviour reflects this frustration. The behaviour may manifest itself as passive aggression, lack of motivation, poor attitude, disengagement, and sometimes outright opposition. Meeting with and discussing the stakeholders objections can lead to a clearer understanding of their position and motivation. Asking relevant questions demonstrates your interest in their viewpoint and a genuine willingness to understand it.
Aside from direct communication, casual observation of the stakeholder’s interactions with others can often provide valuable contextual understanding of their viewpoint. This does not suggest stalking them in the hallway or eavesdropping on their conversations, but rather where possible and practical, attending their presentations, meetings, and formal & informal workplace interactions.
Effective communication, especially in the early stages of a project can materially alter the outcome, and can potentially make the difference between a project’s success or failure.
Certain people seem to deal with difficult individuals better than others, and their success stems largely from the mindset with which they approach this challenge – they regard it as an opportunity.
Their mindset is to not see the behaviour as a problem, but rather an opportunity to engage and achieve a mutually beneficial result; to convert an opponent into an ally. They recognise that the stakeholder, despite seemingly opposing them, has the same goal – the success of the project.
By simply acknowledging that both parties are on the same side and desire the same outcome, but differ on the way to accomplish it, they change the tone of the dialogue. It can then be easier to examine the differences and evaluate the merits of each view.
My 7-year-old son enjoys dragging his 8-month-old sister down the stairs. He has difficulty understanding why this is not a good idea, mainly because she giggles the whole way down. From his perspective, this is a win-win situation with both parties gaining mutual benefit.
Sometimes it is easier to consider things from the other person’s perspective rather than have them see it from yours. So rather than dragging him down the stairs to show him my perspective, I explained that although he has the best of intentions, the potential risks outweigh the perceived benefits.
A willingness to set aside your position on an issue and consider it from a stakeholder’s demonstrates not just a maturity of thought, but also that you are willing to critically assess all perspectives, not just your own.