What does it mean when you call someone a difficult stakeholder? No, back up. What does it mean to be a stakeholder and how do you engage them effectively?

My definition of a stakeholder is anyone that can positively or negatively influence, or is affected by, the outcomes of a project. It’s about cause and affect (not effect). Meaning, if their actions can affect a change on your project or your project will (or they think it will) affect them, then you better be paying attention to them and actively managing their engagement (or lack thereof).

Here are my simple steps for managing stakeholders, even the difficult ones:

1. Find them

Look for them everywhere using the above definition. There are obvious groups of stakeholders like the business unit or company you are doing the work for, the project team, sponsor, etc. The ones you may not think about are those that can affect the project outside of that core group. Look at it from a risk perspective and anyone that could influence broader direction. For example, any other stakeholder on any other project that is in a position to shift resources from your project to theirs is a stakeholder of yours.

2. Get to know them

Everyone has a WIIFM (what’s in it for me). Know theirs. Ask questions, engage, and understand how they benefit when your project is successful (or fails). If you would like more information on how to talk to your stakeholders about their WIIFM, see this previous article: Lessons in Stakeholder Management from Mr. Rogers.

3. Categorize them (so you can manage them)

I’m a Myers-Briggs ISTJ (yes, I know, no one that ever meets me believes that, but it’s true). That means I like to categorize things, people, projects, everything really, so that I can make order of the chaos and figure out how to act. I like to figure out how to engage stakeholders properly, so ordering them into a system helps me do so. I have two systems for this. First, assessing them on a capability scale: Do they understand, are they motivated, and do they know how.

  • Understand – Do they understand their role (or lack thereof) on the project and what is expected of them?
  • Motivated – Do they know their “what is in it for me” (WIIFM)? Is that WIIFM strong enough to inspire them to act in the ways necessary to support the project?
  • Know How – Do they know how to engage/help/be a part of the project success?

Know this information so that you can figure out how to fill the gaps from where they are to where you need them to be on your project.

4. Understand their power and interest (ability to influence)

The second technique I use to categorize people is to understand their level of influence over your project. Two factors to consider here: Do they care and do they have the ability to do anything about that? Knowing this will help you figure out how actively you need to manage them and if they are where they “should” be for your project. You need to make sure those that ARE supposed to be engaged, are engaged. Use this quick checklist.

  • High interest and high power (well positioned to influence outcomes) – Manage closely. If their interest is positive, great, keep them engaged. Leverage their power for good, like getting necessary resources for your project. Your sponsor needs to be in this category, for example, to be most helpful to you. If their interest is negative, and they have a lot of power, they could use that power for evil and derail you project.
  • High interest and low power (moderately positioned to influence outcomes) – Keep them informed. They want to know what’s going on. If you don’t keep them informed, they could find someone with the power to derail you.
  • Low interest and high power (moderately positioned to influence outcomes even unintentionally) – Keep this group happy. If they aren’t really interested in your project, but have high influence, you want to keep them informed and happy with progress. They may become interested fast and impact your project if you are not keeping them happy. OR, they could have a high interest in other projects and since they don’t care much about yours, they could easily derail it by shifting resources or focus to those other projects, thereby leaving your project in the dust. That is why it’s important to give them a reason to have a WIIFM regarding your project. Give them a reason to care and then use those powers to support you.
  • Low interest and low power (lowest likelihood of influencing outcomes) – Monitor them and maintain a relationship, but don’t focus most of your energy here. UNLESS, they SHOULD be in the high/high category. Then, it’s all about finding their WIIFM and engaging them properly.

5. Engage them

Use what you learned by assessing them using the techniques above to figure out how to get them from where they are to where you need them to be. One great way to engage them is to focus on your communications with them. Read this article on effective communications strategies to help guide you down a right-sized path of communications with your stakeholders. Secondly, show that you actually care about them. When they tell you what they care about regarding your project or what they care about generally (that can impact your project), pay attention and then do something about it. This is especially effective if you find a stakeholder that is concerned about something going on with your project. Be clear and transparent with them and hold them accountable for the level of engagement they are expected to have, but you better be doing your part too.

6. Handle resistance

What happens when a stakeholder isn’t engaged and we need them to be? Or they are actively or passively resisting your project or the change expected from that project? We start talking. We try to convince them. We try to tell them why they should care. Stop. That. Immediately.

Has anyone ever grabbed your hand and started pulling you? What’s the first thing you do? You pull back. It’s our natural instinct. Before we have ever given it any thought, we are already resisting. Then, when our brains catch up to the resistance, we determine if we are interested in the direction we are being taken and then let up on the resistance or if we don’t like where things are headed, we pull back even harder.

Instead, you might want to try going to stand next to that person you want to come with you and telling them you are going to go through the change/project together. You walk beside them and hold their hand. You bring them along with you. They are far more likely to come with you now. You are doing it together. You are doing change with them, not to them.

7. And finally…Manage the difficult personalities

I’m a really, really, really big fan of the Serenity Prayer. Nothing that has proven to be a better tool for me in managing difficult stakeholders.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

Regardless of your religious preferences, I encourage you to say this to yourself on a regular basis when dealing with difficult stakeholders and see how saying these words remind you where you have power and where you don’t. To me, the difference is clear. You cannot control others. I’ve tried. Boy, have I tried! Unsuccessfully….

Attempting to control others is futile and will exhaust you. Every time I have a tough time with stakeholders, I realize I’ve forgotten this simple fact. The only behaviors you can control are your own. Every parent, despite our best efforts, eventually realizes this! It’s no different with your stakeholders on your project. (Hmm…I see another blog post on the similarities between the two coming soon.)

So what do you do? Do things differently if you want a different result (the opposite of insanity). Change the game. If the way you are communicating with your stakeholder isn’t working, do it differently.

Notice your own behaviors, how you act or react to them. Can you change how you respond when they aren’t engaging the way you want?

For example, are they acting out in meetings and making it difficult for you to keep the project moving? I know it requires much patience when a stakeholder is misbehaving to stay calm and in control of your own actions, but you must.  If you blow up, you look like the fool and others lose a little bit of respect for you. You become the center of their attention instead of the person that caused the chaos in the first place.

Pull them aside and show them how their behaviors are derailing the project. Calmly explain your position, what you expect of them and then hold them accountable. You need to know their WIIFM and where they fit in those categories above to figure out how to use that information to bring them back into the fold and help them help you move forward.

What about those that are constantly negative or telling you why everything the team is doing is flawed and headed straight for doom? Leverage that energy for good. Put them on the risk management committee responsible for coming up with everything that won’t work on the project. They will love that! Then, give them the whiteboard marker and ask them to help come up with ways to address each of those risks they identified. You can say, “OK! This is really helpful (even when you are thinking “I really hate working with you”)! Now what do you think the best way would be to manage (transfer, mitigate, accept, avoid) this risk you identified?” Help them see how being a part of the solution is of greater interest and benefit to the team than just being the naysayer.

Determine what you can control (since it isn’t the stakeholder) to benefit the situation and improve it for the better. Then, do that. You will have less headaches if you focus all of your mental energy into what you need to do differently to encourage or discourage certain behavior than trying to directly tell them, control them, or expect stakeholders to act differently all on their own.

8. Actually do the work

The biggest reason best practices don’t work is because you didn’t do the work. It takes time to do things well and get to the outcomes you want. There is no easy button for effectively managing stakeholders. Leverage resources to assess them and put a real plan in place to engage them in the right way. Then execute that plan!!


If you would like more information on how to talk to your stakeholders about their WIIFM, see this previous article: Lessons in Stakeholder Management from Mr. Rogers or effective communications: Project Communications Your Sponsor Will LOVE.


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Warmly,