The 5 P’s of Managing a Stubborn Stakeholder.

The 5 P’s of Managing a Stubborn Stakeholder.

Experienced project managers are very familiar with the concept of stakeholders and the need to manage them effectively. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a project stakeholder is a person involved in a project (however marginally) who may influence the outcome of a project either positively or negatively.

Identifying your project’s stakeholders is generally the first activity a project manager would undertake on agreeing to work on a project. Bringing these people in at the very beginning helps to grease the wheels of the project, and ensure it gets done on time, on budget, and within the scope constraints set in the charter.

However, the experienced project manager is often also familiar with stakeholders who, despite being brought in early, having their goals and objectives addressed, being kept informed, guided, hand-held and otherwise mollycoddled, refuse to see reason. These thorny branches can can debilitate morale across the team at best, and completely derail a project at worst. How do you crack these tough nuts and make them see the light?

Today I’m listing the 5 P’s to win over your stubborn stakeholder or at the very least haul your schedule back in line.

Stubborn stakeholders

1. Prepare.

The first thing to do, if you haven’t already, is to prepare a stakeholder analysis. Mindtools offers useful tips on preparing this, as does Singapore’s Project Stakeholder.

Find out where this particular stick in the mud fits in the grand scheme of your project.  Does he or she have a lot of power (i.e., could this person create problems for you, your other stakeholders or your team)? Does this stakeholder have a high level of interest in this project (i.e., could this person be on your case all day every day until you do things his or her way)?  Plot them on the grid and decide how much their stubborn position could jeopardize your project.

If, after doing the above exercise you still feel you’re going to have to take action, set up a casual one-on-one meeting with your stubborn stakeholder, and set the stage that the meeting will be a comfortable refresher on project objectives. Be friendly, and try to avoid setting your stakeholder up to be defensive from the start.

In his article on influencing skills, @nickheap suggests people will feel comfortable with us when we respond to their personal style. This is especially true if you need to influence the person you’re speaking with. Since your stakeholder is already resistant, you should be aware of possible approaches ahead of time in case your influence may be required.

Stakeholder Needs

Nick provides a simple but effective diagram that shows four behaviours a person may exhibit, and the underlying needs behind those behaviours in each quadrant. By monitoring the behaviour of your stakeholder during your meeting, this diagram can help you gauge the base needs of your stakeholder so you can form a harmonious response.

2. Point Out.

@rolfgoetz reminded me this morning that it’s important to refresh your stakeholders on the top level objectives of the project. Once a project gets underway, and people learn more about the product or service they are creating, it’s all too easy to forget about the high level project objectives in favour of more detailed ones that are discovered on the way.

It may well be that the reason your stakeholder is being stubborn is because they’ve learned something new and they haven’t shared, or the project has deviated from its original purpose and the stakeholder in question can’t articulate that without help.

It’s not fair to expect stakeholders to be either mind readers or well-versed in project management, so take some time to explain yourself, and learn from your stakeholder what’s ultimately important to him or her.

If you discover something you weren’t previously aware of, ask to bring this new information back to the other stakeholders to find out how your project needs to change. (And don’t forget to raise a change request.)

3. Probe.

But what if your stakeholder doesn’t add anything new to the picture when presented with the original objectives? People are seldom completely irrational (I said ‘seldom’ hehe). If there’s nothing on the surface that indicates why this stakeholder is being so stubborn, it’s likely there’s something under the surface.

Keep Nick’s behaviour diagram above in mind, while you dig to see if there are any personal reasons holding the stakeholder to his position. In many cases, a stakeholder can be afraid, ashamed or uncomfortable with revealing their true motivations behind their rationale.  Ask lots of questions, specifically listening for any underlying agendas that may be conflicting with your project objectives.

4) Persuade.

@robertllewellyn says in his article on Stakeholder Management, “what and how we communicate to our stakeholders will influence them, and how they react will influence us, and if we are to see true two-way communication, we need to know how stakeholders are reacting so that we can react accordingly.” This is not an easy skill to master, and can take some finesse.

Once again @nickheap provides some useful insight, suggesting not to let your anxiety take your attention away from the stakeholder’s needs. “Most people find being asked for their opinion or advice quite irresitible,” he says, so get their opinion first before attempting to jam your project’s needs down their throat. Encourage active dialogue to align their opinion with the needs of your project and other stakeholders. Even take a position contrary to your own, and take baby steps back towards the position you need (it’s amazing how well that sometimes works). If done well, you may find your stakeholder not only coming out from his corner, but thanking you for it!

5) Pushback.

If you’ve tried everything else, sometimes, there’s nothing more you can do. In this case, stay professional. Professional does not mean non-assertive. Clearly state the consequences to the project if the stubborn stakeholder refuses to budge. If they still refuse to move, then they will have to feel the burn.

Inform your other stakeholders and your project team so that they are aware of the situation, and can plan accordingly.

I had an excellent manager tell me years ago that at the end of the day, people learn through consequence. Often we hope to learn (and teach) through positive consequences, but sometimes, it’s negative consequences that prove the most powerful lessons. If you’ve done all you can, and are prepared to help your stakeholder pick up the pieces afterwards, there’s nothing left but to let them put their hand on the fire and scream, “OW”.

I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
  • Excellent stuff. But I think your definition of 'stakeholder' is too narrow: a stakeholder is not just someone who can affect the project outcome positively or negatively, that's a very project- & developer-centric view. A stakeholder is anyone or any group that will be affected positively or negatively by the outcome of the project. This is what I understand John H. Patterson to have meant when he invented the term c.1895.

    Gaia is a stakeholder too!

    As ethical professionals, we have an obligation to consider the impact of the work we do, not just with respect to the value delivered (or not) to the project sponsor(s) and end-users, but with respect to the value created, consumed, or wasted, and the debts incurred, in all 5 capitals. That is: the financial aspects; the resulting products (the physical capital); the impact on community & morale etc (the social capital); the value of new knowledge & skills acquired (the intellectual or human capital) ; and the environmental resources consumed, both renewable & non-renewable (the natural capital, incl. biodiversity, the H2O, CO2, N cycles, etc).

    The best, most sustainable outcomes are achieved not by the project team 'pushing' value onto the stakeholders, but when the stakeholders 'pull' the value they require from the system of work.

    Best regards,
    Grant (PG) Rule < >
    MD, SMS Exemplar Ltd. < >

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