How to Deal with 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 to manage stakeholder relationships. Stakeholders that we work beside, work for, or serve as our customers, all have a stake in what we are doing, and managing our relationships with them can be the key to success. 

This article isn’t setting out to be a one stop shop or how-to guide on effective stakeholder management, but I will work through my general approach to managing stakeholders, garnered from my own experience and from the experience of those who I have learned from throughout my career.  When it comes to managing 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 of the time you can overcome the challenges difficult stakeholders present.

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.


How do I deal with difficult Stakeholders?

Managing Difficult Stakeholders Rule #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. Engaging without any preconceptions can be key in managing difficult stakeholder relationships. 


Managing Difficult Stakeholders Rule #2: Listen and spend time with my stakeholders to fully grasp their expectations

Effective stakeholder management begins with actively listening and dedicating time to engage with stakeholders. Always seek to understand what motivates or is important to your stakeholders, particularly if you’re collaborating on a project with them. Take the opportunity to gain insights into their experiences and challenges within the project and try to understand their perspectives. Have they faced challenges on the project? What does a successful piece of work look like to them?

By investing time in building rapport and understanding you’ll be better equipped to manage difficult stakeholders. This not only fosters stakeholder engagement and relationships but also enables you to respond to their needs and understand where they are coming from to nurture a sense of trust. Establishing this sense of trust is a critical step in effective stakeholder management, addressing one of the key challenges encountered in stakeholder relationships.


Managing Difficult Stakeholder Rule #3: Know your audience and tailor your communication for different stakeholders

Understanding your audience is crucial when managing difficult stakeholders. Different stakeholder groups often want and need different information or information delivered in different ways, and understanding the preferences of your audience can make a big difference when managing difficult stakeholders. It’s ok to simply ask some stakeholders how they prefer to be communicated with. Doing so, you not only demonstrate your commitment to stakeholder engagement, but also lay the foundation for a more productive stakeholder relationship.  

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 structured framework for stakeholder engagement. 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 communication helps you to answer questions before they are asked, which can be a powerful tool in managing difficult stakeholders. .

Managing Difficult Stakeholders Rule #4: Be Transparent

Transparency is a cornerstone of effective stakeholder management, particularly when dealing with difficult stakeholders. 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.

This transparency serves a dual purpose; empowering stakeholders to make informed decisions and fostering trust in the stakeholder relationship, which helps you manage the stakeholders much more easily. Lack of transparency can erode trust and hinder collaboration, undermining your effectiveness in stakeholder engagement and relationships. 

Managing Difficult Stakeholders Rule #5: Follow through

Being responsive and addressing issues quickly is crucial in effective stakeholder management. 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. Provide a specific date and time by which they can expect a reply - this way you can set and manage the stakeholders' 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, even those with which may have initially been perceived to be difficult or obstructive stakeholders, 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. Addressing the cause of this and carefully setting expectations is key to successful stakeholder engagement. 


Adopting the 5 Rules of Engagement for Effective Stakeholder Management

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 inherent differences from the outset and adeptly leveraging the soft skills necessary to cultivate robust relationships, we lay the groundwork for successful stakeholder engagement. Through managing stakeholder expectations and communicating effectively most potential problems in stakeholder relationships can either be remediated or avoided altogether.

Natasha Norton