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The Subtle Art of Managing Difficult Stakeholders – 5 Rules of Engagement.

The subtle art of managing difficult stakeholders, or in some cases not so subtle, can be a minefield for both inexperienced and seasoned employees in any field. Whether you are a corporate executive or a young apprentice, we all have stakeholders. Stakeholders that we work beside, work for, or serve as our customers, they all have a stake in what we are doing.

This article isn’t setting out to be a one stop shop or how-to guide, but I will work through my general approach, garnered from my own experience and from the experience of those who I have learned from throughout my career.  When it comes to difficult stakeholders, I’ve generally found the following to be true:

  1. Difficult stakeholders are generally the outlier and not the norm.
  2. There is generally a reason behind their behaviour, though you won’t always establish what this is.
  3. Most times you can overcome the challenges difficult stakeholders present……most times.

Regardless of this I always tend to work from the position that most people are reasonable and can be reasoned with. That is to say they are open to discussion, can evolve their thinking and that as colleagues you can generally find a way to work with each other that produces reasonable outcomes.

My 5 rules of engagement:

  1. Lead with respect and trust – I never walk into a situation tainted by others’ opinions about another person. We’ve all worked in places where we’ve been informed about people in our work environment before we meet them. The trick is to not let those proffered opinions cloud how you intend to engage with them from the beginning. To that end, start from a positive perspective, you’re looking for shared outcomes with your stakeholders, it is not supposed to be an adversarial relationship.

  2. Listen and spend time with my stakeholders – always seek to understand what motivates or is important to your stakeholders if you’re on a project with them and get to understand them; have they faced challenges on the project, what does a successful piece of work look like to them. By spending time with them you’ll be better able to engage with them and respond to them in a manner that builds trust.

  3. Know your audience and tailor your communication for different groups, some will want more, some will want less – different stakeholder groups often want and need different information or information delivered in different ways. Gain an understanding of what works best in your environment. It’s ok to simply ask some stakeholders how they prefer to be communicated with. If you are in charge of a delivery function, it’s important to understand the value of a tailored communications strategy. This will provide a framework for you to work within. Good communications will also assist you in working from the front foot and not putting you in a defensive position where you are fending off more questions than you need to. Good communications help you answer questions before they are asked.

  4. Be transparent – never try to hide information, be that through omission or through creating unnecessary noise that acts as a smoke-screen. By being honest, direct and deliberate in the information you share, you show your stakeholders that you are putting the information there in front of them, so that appropriate decisions can be made (strategic or tactical). If you aren’t giving people the information they need to support you and set direction then frankly you are not doing your job.

  5. Follow through – be responsive, address issues quickly – never let tasks go untended or questions/queries go unanswered. If an email is going to take you less than 2 minutes to respond to, do it then and there. If a question requires some thinking time, let your stakeholder know that you’ve received their query and that you need to think about it. And then commit to a time/date that you’ll come back to them by - this way you set expectations. Similarly, if an issue needs to be resolved, don’t delay and ensure that you implement appropriate measures as soon as possible and that you communicate how the issue has been dealt with or will be dealt with.

By implementing or working within a set of guidelines similar or the same to those above, most stakeholder relationships can be managed. In my mind it’s a bit of a misnomer that a particular stakeholder can often be referred to as difficult, tricky or even deliberately obstructionist, without there being a cause. As I mentioned previously, there is usually a reason that someone got to the point where they are perceived as such.  

In whatever roles we have throughout our careers, we will always need to manage relationships with a variety of stakeholders who come from different experiences and therefore who have different expectations. By acknowledging these two things upfront and laying the groundwork for the relationship, managing expectations and communicating effectively most potential problems in stakeholder relationships can either be remediated or avoided altogether.

Natasha Norton