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We recently asked our top executives how they deal with difficult stakeholders and colleagues at work.

Here are their responses…

Ana Smith, Talent Architect & Global Learning Strategist

Managing stakeholders is one of the most complex and important responsibilities of any project manager. The success of any project or initiative often depends on the cooperation and satisfaction of stakeholders, which is why paying attention to their needs is essential.

However, managing difficult stakeholders and colleagues can be quite a challenge, so it is important to assess and manage them effectively. They may not be open and forthcoming in their communications, or they may offer only negative feedback. Some stakeholders may be frustrated with the progress of the project or feel too engaged with the work. Some of the basic areas you need to focus on in successful stakeholder management are: identifying stakeholders (internal and external), understanding stakeholder needs, meeting their needs, under-promising and over-delivering, listening to stakeholder concerns, communicating frequently. If not done properly, they can lead to spectacular project failures.

There is an “Iron Triangle” that experienced project managers focus on. This includes 1) quality/scope, 2) budget and 3) time. If stakeholders or sponsors want more of the deliverables (ie, more features), something has to give. Either the project takes longer, or it costs more, or it’s a bit of both. If they want to cut costs, they can’t do it without reducing scope or increasing timelines. The stakeholders should understand it and the project manager should be consistent in this regard.

A poor appreciation of stakeholder management can often lead to catastrophic decision making, which ultimately leads to higher cost, greater timelines, and diluted benefits.

Anna Smith Helps individuals & organizations achieve their full talent potential by developing and co-creating people strategies and customized solutions and using coaching as a “red thread” to transform impactful results and collaborative relationships.

Andrea Markowski, Marketing Executive

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When I think of difficult people, my college job years ago as a part-time credit card bill collector comes to mind. People are often on their worst behavior when I call.

Thankfully, we are trained to handle these situations. In essence, you must hear all objections before you ask someone to accept the request. It’s a valuable lesson about human nature, listening and empathy.

What does it look like and how can you use this method?

Step One: Be patient and let someone bring up, complain, or express problems that prevent them from doing something.

Step Two: Identify what they said and the feelings they expressed.

Step Three: Repeat steps one and two until there is no more air to clear. Don’t move until the upset person says it all.

Step Four: Switch to what you need and “what I have” (for them)—a WIIFM—if they follow.

Also, never accept insults or profanity. In the bill collecting world, we are allowed to hang up if things get out of hand. In your real life, you are allowed to leave the situation as long as cooler heads prevail.

Andrea Markowski Marketing Director specializing in strategic development, digital strategies, design thinking and creative direction. She has superpowers in presentations and public speaking.

Lynn Holland, VP Sales & Business Development

A man talks to a difficult colleague

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Get a job, win a client, use a dating app, and you’re one of those people with hurts, hang-ups, and emotions like fear, anger, and insecurity near the surface. Add modern stresses and poof! Dissent, Prejudice and Attitude. An inevitable evil, here are some tools for influence and goodwill:

To colleagues

1. Try to understand their POV and why (internal/external influences).

2. Suggest reaching the best company/collective outcome against personal preferences

3. Consider whether ideas #1 and #2 can be combined for an even better solution (ideal outcome)

4. Failing #3, translate #1 and #2 into their respective cost/benefits for the company/conglomerate

Shareholders

1. Build Personal Profiles – Job responsibilities, fears and prejudices can cause internal rejection or buy-in of ideas or initiatives.

2. Correlate ideas or initiatives to serve their inner personal interests without risk

3. Partner and collaborate with a motivated internal champion to support ideas or initiatives that improve the workplace

Lynn Holland A business development executive with 18+ years of experience taking operational, IoT & retail technologies, products & consumer engagement to market with a focus on petroleum & convenience retail.

Michael Willis, Sports Business Operations Executive

A difficult stakeholder gives the thumbs-down during a work meeting

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How to deal with difficult stakeholders and colleagues:

1. The first step is to identify the stakeholder. Although everyone on the team has value, I recognize the threat to the team. The overall mission and goals of the team must be fulfilled. If there is a weak link, executives and team leaders need this information.

2. Like any other threat the team faces, the activities of difficult stakeholders must be monitored.

3. Meet them one-on-one to discuss the facts gathered. Don’t just rely on second hand information. Let the conversation flow freely. Let the difficult stakeholder speak.

4. Determine the motivation behind the recent behavior.

5. Remind difficult stakeholders of their place in the team and, more importantly, the mission and goals the group must reach.

6. Determine their motivation. Try to find out what is causing the behavior. Offer remedies or solutions.

7. Create a success story to create new energy and purpose. Tell stakeholders how the team is valued and viewed by the company.

8. Develop a permanent stream of communication that flows in every direction. As executives, our job is to solve problems. But I think it’s more important to get ahead of problems before they become problems.

Michael Willis 18+ years of experience working with accounting & sports organizations and managed $10M – $125M+ P&Ls with $3M-$50M+ budgets. He worked for the NFL for 22 1/2 years, working primarily on the financial/accounting side of the business with game officials.

Mark Taylor, Product & Operations Executive

Colleagues talk about the project, but a difficult stakeholder interrupts

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“Dancing Monkey (DM): The time between giving someone a job and your brain wondering why you haven’t seen any product yet.”

If a stakeholder’s DM works more often than you, they may appear “difficult”.

To create stakeholder DM and take it a step further, use informal, face-to-face communication.

Ex: “Accidentally” walk past their office the day after you were assigned.

You: “Hi, no waiting, know you’re busy…”

They: “How’s it going?”

You: “That’s great. By the way, I’ve been messing around with that since yesterday.”

Them: “Great. Can you review what you’ve done so far now/later/tomorrow/next week?”

(Here’s where you can find out if you’re burning the midnight oil or if you have a few days of grace.)

Do this a few times and you’ll soon be calibrated with stakeholders’ DM, better managing their “difficult” tendencies.

Mark Taylor With 20+ years of risk, technology and product management experience working in global and regional financial services firms in the UK and US, he has managed 40+ teams, successfully resolved 100+ regulatory issues and saved companies $15M+.

Lisa Perry, Global Marketing Executive

Colleagues argue at a work meeting

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At this point in my career, I’m an expert at dealing with difficult stakeholders and colleagues as I’ve had this happen to me in a work situation so often. It will never be easy and it will take patience, empathy, communication, cooperation and your focus on the end goal to be successful. Here are some tips to help you in this situation:

  • Patience: The key here is to keep yourself cool as the temperatures rise. Take emotion out of the equation. If it means you have to stay away, do it. Being objective, calm and professional is essential.
  • Sympathetic: Remember the saying “first to understand, then to understand”. Steven Covey’s book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People? People want to be heard. Let them talk and vent their frustrations. Even if you don’t agree, keep quiet. It will be beneficial for you. It’s important to understand where their negativity is coming from so you can address it. You will have time to talk. Give them the first round.
  • Communication is key: Adapting your communication style to their style is essential when dealing with difficult stakeholders and colleagues. Ask them what works for them. I’ve also found that asking these two questions in emails clears up any miscommunications: Does this match what you need, and did I miss something?
  • Contribute: Above all, you need to be cooperative and show that you have their best interest at heart, and you need to work with them and figure out the best way forward.

If you focus on the end goal and try not to get caught up in the emotional turmoil of dealing with difficult people, you might be surprised how effective this approach can be.

Lisa Perry Helps companies build leadership brands, drive loyal customers and drive profitability. She does this through a process of creating brands that consumers love. Her mission is to help companies develop, monetize and grow their brands.

How do you deal with difficult stakeholders and colleagues? Join the conversation inside Work It Daily Executive Program.

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