Article Overview

Stakeholders are critical for any project as they can make or break it depending on their approach to working with your team. Keep reading this article to find out more about the most appropriate approaches to manage difficult stakeholders.

Table of Contents

  1. Defining the Stakeholder 
  2. Preparing for a Stakeholder Meeting 
  3. Preparing the Room for a Stakeholder Meeting
  4. Facilitating the Stakeholder Meeting 
  5. The Follow-Up
  6. The Bottom Line

Defining the Stakeholder

Stakeholders not only do they wield power to make significant decisions that can impact the project, but they’re typically the budget holders and overall decision-makers.

They can also be on the sidelines as they only have a vested interest in the project versus actively being involved in the day to day decision making. 

Being a stakeholder doesn’t just mean it’s the CEO or upper management as a stakeholder could be a 3rd party, your customer. 
The most challenging type of stakeholder, is usually the one who is less engaged, has multiple priorities, and your project may not be one of them. They’re also inconsistent in their communication and throw the classic ‘Curveballs’ every time you meet them for a project review. 

For this article, I’m assuming the stakeholder is a board member or upper management for simplicity as in Project Management; this is more often the case. 

For simplicity, this article assumes the stakeholder is a board member or upper management as this is more often the case.

Preparing for a Stakeholder Meeting 

Preparing for a stakeholder meeting is where you can make or break how successful you’ll be with stakeholder management. 

First, you need to think about how much you know about your stakeholder? Look into what that have been up to on Linkedin or Twitter as you’ll be able to gather information for conversation starters when you meet. 

Ask other team members for insights on what the stakeholder has discussed or raised last time they met them outside of the project. 

How do you they communicate, do you like quick updates, are they technical or do they react well to lots of structure in a meeting?

Next, think about who you need in the room from your project team. Don’t fill it by thinking you need the full team to try and cover every potential question.

If the stakeholder is the budget holder, the last thing they want to see is twenty people in a room and only three of them contributing. 

Have fewer attendees, but make sure they can cover a breadth of information, including crucial decisions made on the project.  

You then need to look at your meeting approach based on the information gathered on the stakeholder so you can shape it around these insights. 

Preparing the Room for a Stakeholder Meeting

How you set up the meeting room can define how well your meeting will go. 

How you set up the meeting room is a critical part of how well your meeting will go. 

You need to put in the effort into preparing the room as small things like not having clear eye contact with your stakeholder because of where they’re sat, can make it hard to engage with them. 

Place the stakeholder where you think they’ll be most engaged. For example, so can they see the work on the wall or monitor easily, and the agenda is visible. 

Spend a few minutes thinking about what else the stakeholder might need in this meeting? Could they ask for a mobile phone charger, what type of mobile do you they have? 

Is there a chance they might need to share a document from their laptop, if so, do you have the right connectors for this? And do they need access to a charging point for their laptop?

If you have provided snacks and drinks, make sure they can reach them and if you’ve rolled out the red carpet treatment, make sure they get the best cakes! 

Facilitating the Stakeholder Meeting 

During your meeting preparation, you would have gathered information on the stakeholder and when they first arrive is when you want to use it.

Use the first five minutes to discuss a relevant topic for them as it helps with reducing any tension in the room.

For a difficult stakeholder, you need to keep as much information visible in the room in case of any varied claims or points made that either take your meeting off track, or in some cases simply aren’t true. 

This could be print outs of the work to date, a project plan or decisions made in the last review meeting.

Keep your agenda visible at all times, make it big and directly opposite the stakeholder as this will make facilitation easier and more likely to keep the meeting and conversation on track. 

Have a space on the meeting wall or an A1 board to capture any insights, feedback and actions taken during the meeting. Continually capturing this information as it’s raised encourages the stakeholder to think more carefully about what they’re saying. If you don’t have this, it provides an opportunity for the stakeholder to vent or go off on a tangent. 

Visibly capturing decisions made as you go to maintain control of the conversation. Be prepared to say “Can we log that as a decision” By writing this decision down on the A1 board it makes the stakeholder take additional care of what they’re saying. 

Maintain positive feedback as you go when capturing actions, decisions and insights. For example:

“This is great, we're making real progress.” 

‘This decision is beneficial for the team; thank you.”

This positive reinforcement creates a good atmosphere in the room, and the stakeholder will notice and naturally want to maintain it. 

Working with stakeholder

Look out for the real issues being raised by the stakeholder and focus on them. If you don’t recognize their concerns, they’ll get frustrated. To help with this, use the same language as them as it improves communication and reduces tension, especially if you need to challenge them on their points. 

Try to listen out for the real issues they’re raising, it’s likely they’ll only be one or two so if you can answer and fix them, you’ll be going a long way to having a great meeting.

Be open and honest with your mistakes, in most cases, you’ll then get more understanding from your stakeholder, and you’ve removed some tension between you.
Be wary of your body language, keep an open and positive posture even if the conversation is a challenging one. You need to portray you’re still open and receptive to what they’re saying. 

The worst non-verbal message you can give is you’re not happy and being defensive by leaning back and crossing your arms. 

When you close out the meeting, make sure you cover the following points to create closure and maintain control. 

•    Be positive about the progress you’ve made 
•    Be transparent by highlighting you’ve had some challenging conversations but thank everyone for being open and honest
•    Be clear on the decisions made and what this means for the project going forward
•    Be thorough about the actions taken and who is owning them. 
•    Be clear on who will follow up with the meeting notes, actions and next steps 
•    Be decisive on when the follow up will be shared, not we’ll aim to get these to you by the end of the day. If you’re comfortable with the end of the day, then commit to this.

The Follow-Up 

How you approach and deliver the follow up is where you have the opportunity to cement your relationship with the stakeholder. 

At a minimum, you need to deliver on what you've promised. You can also find opportunities where you can go above and beyond what you can do and share. 

While reading this, you may be thinking why should I go above and beyond for a problematic stakeholder, but this is part of how you turn a problematic stakeholder into one that is a pleasure to work with.

If like most post-meeting communications you're sending the follow up via email, consider what is essential for the stakeholder when structuring your response. Start by thanking them for their attendance, time and contribution no matter how difficult they were in the meeting. 

Then share the critical information that was agreed, this could be the decisions or actions captured, but focus on the ones they need to read and act on alongside important ones for your project team that could impact the stakeholder. 

Everything else can sit below as long as you're happy if the stakeholder doesn't read them it doesn't matter. If they do great. 

The follow up is the opportunity further to develop the relationship between you and the stakeholder and build trust. You want this stakeholder to start coming to you with questions or in some cases asking you what you think could be done. 

Turning a difficult stakeholder into one that is a pleasure to work with takes time, but you have to put the effort in to get to this point. 

The Bottom Line

Every Project Manager will experience a difficult Stakeholder at some point in their career, but what you learn from working with a difficult stakeholder one, often far outweighs working with a great one. 

Difficult stakeholder forces you to prepare better, improve your facilitation skills and think much broader in your approach to how you manage relationships and communications. 

So although you don’t want to come across difficult stakeholders too often, when you do, treat it like an opportunity to learn more and improve your Project Management skills.