How to deal with difficult stakeholders

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Let’s face it, in Business, Product Management or Project Management at some point we all have to deal with a difficult stakeholder. You know, one of those who is out to get you or that really tries to make your life difficult. And your first instinct might be to take out a bat and hit them hard on the face, but we all know that wouldn’t go down well. It would be unprofessional to say the least. So how do we deal with these people?

Here are a few techniques that will help you in this situation:

The Chameleon Technique

This technique consists on adaptation and survival. Like the Chameleon, who adapts to changing circumstances and a challenging environment to survive, you need to do the same. So when the difficult stakeholder throws a curve ball, showcase you’re flexibility and catch the ball! If they keep trying to make you fall, don’t let them, rely on your team members, pass the ball where possible, park difficult conversations until you are better prepared and most importantly change with the changing circumstances. And example, here would be a requirement that you thought was already bedded down. And then out of the blue and all of the sudden the stakeholder changes his or her mind. Instead of pushing back and entering into an unnecessary argument just note it down and let them know you will do everything in your power to help them with the new requirement. Ask them questions about it, ask them if they are willing to compromise on other areas and so on. They will likely appreciate your efforts.

The Mirror Technique

Difficult people tend to be narcissistic, and you need to play this card to your advantage. So when the difficult stakeholder is trying to make your life hard show them a mirror. And by this I mean, give them an ego stroke. So for instance, make them feel important or make them feel like the ideas are coming from them (even if they aren’t), stuff like that.

By you regularly giving ego strokes to the difficult stakeholder, you start building a bond with them and the person starts liking you more even if it’s at an unconscious level. It’s really hard to not like someone or go against someone who is constantly or regularly saying that you have great insights, provide valuable input or are considered a key stakeholder. That type of thing, melts the ice.

The Carrot and The Stick Technique

This technique consists on you “rewarding” the difficult stakeholder in exchange for getting them to do something. The key with this technique is, the whole time, they can’t really know or feel you are deliberately “rewarding” them or “punishing” them if you go with the stick.

So for instance, you can offer resources or that you’ll deliver something they were hoping to achieve or have been having difficulty getting over the line. Another example can be giving them a shoutout for their contributions or support when you send an email update to Senior Management and so forth. You could also “nominate” them for recognition as another example. All of these are carrots or “rewards” that will bring the stakeholder to your side.

On the other hand, sometimes, with difficult stakeholders you do need a stick. And the biggest stick for these type of people is someone above them, with more power and influence. So get one of those people in the room with you when you’re having a discussion with the difficult stakeholder are things will likely flow with less friction. Again, the key thing here is making sure that if you are using a stick, they’re not even aware you’re actually doing that. Remember, flying under the radar with this technique is your modus operandi.

The Behind The Curtains Technique

When you go to a show, what happens behind the curtain? You don’t know! And that’s why being behind the curtain is so magical. Dealing with a difficult stakeholder sometimes requires doing a lot in the background without them even knowing about it. It’s a bit like a chess game, but one where the pieces are hidden are you moving so fast that you’re opponent doesn’t even have a chance to get your act together. That’s exactly what you need to do with difficult stakeholders.

Prepare and move behind the curtain. Talk to other people, team members, other senior stakeholders and make sure the ducks are lining up. Ensure the pieces are falling into place and things are moving in the direction you planned. Once you face the difficult stakeholder it will be harder for them to push against you once they realize it’s already too late to make changes or you already have buy in from other Senior Stakeholders or perhaps even their boss! That’s right, you didn’t see that one coming did you? Who’s stopping you from meeting with their boss without them even knowing about it? No one!