How to Deal With Difficult Stakeholders (Part 1)

A Conversation with Professor David Bryde

Today I’m interviewing David Bryde, PhD, Professor of Project Management, Built Environment at the Peter Jost Enterprise Centre at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK. He is co-author of a new book, A Practical Guide to Dealing with Difficult Stakeholders, which is aimed at project managers working in tricky situations with challenging teams.

Read Part 2 of my interview with David

Hello David

David Bryde
David Bryde

Let’s get straight to the point: What’s the hardest part of learning how to deal with difficult stakeholders?

I think the first hard step is actually recognizing some stakeholder/personality types. I remember as a fairly rookie project manager coming across my first Anti-Sponsor – and what a shock and surprise it was! 

I was working in the Projects Division of a multi-national manufacturer and I was managing a project where the Sponsor was another business unit in the company. The project was managing using a PRINCE2-type process and as such I attended progress meetings with the Sponsor, who was the head of the business unit, as representatives on a Project Board. There was one other member of the Board. All the meetings, in my view, went very well; there were no issues or problems raised and everything seemed to be very amicable, to the point that the conversation often turned to other topics, such as our mutual interest in sport. 

The project proceeded in this fashion for a couple of months or so. It was only by chance that I was having a conversation with a colleague from another part of the company who dropped the bombshell that at Senior Management meetings the Sponsor was actually arguing for the project to be canceled and other work to be prioritized in its place.

I think it is a truism that you can't deal with something if you don't know what it is that you are dealing with.

Why Are Project Stakeholders Difficult?

A Practical Guide to Dealing With Difficult Stakeholders
A Practical Guide to Dealing With Difficult Stakeholders. Gower

Wow, that sounds challenging. Why are project stakeholders difficult?

It comes down in part I think to the difference between standard textbook approaches to managing projects and our approach. Standard textbook approaches often assume that stakeholders are compliant, rational, available and supportive and can be dealt with by following a pre-defined stakeholder management process. Such approaches have a part to play but they will only work if you appreciate that stakeholders are people and people do not always react in rational ways nor do they always behave in ways that you want nor do they always comply with your requests/instructions.

Difficulties arise because people are people: potentially irrational, selfish, tribal and proud, driven by the exercising of power, authority, influence, money and status. Learning how to work in that environment is one of the skills project managers need to have.

And projects make it harder, don’t they?

With projects, there are additional dynamics that create further difficulties for the project manager.  Stakeholders have their own objectives, responsibilities, priorities and agendas which might be different to those of the project.

Projects also involve change and doing something new: which can be threatening, creating negative or hostile environments that have to be dealt with; and for some stakeholders they involve doing work: which might be demanding, stressful or, on the other hand, dull and boring. 

In some situations getting the work done, especially where you have little formal authority of the person, can be difficult. Projects take place in work environments but they involve social structures, which require people to interact with each other. People are thrown together and there is the challenge of getting to know new people and, in some cases, having to interact with people that one might not naturally choose to work with.

So I guess in summary you can say that there are some stakeholders, like the Anti-Sponsor or the Maliciously Compliant Blocking Gatekeeper, who make a conscious choice to be difficult; but there are more situations in which stakeholders don't consciously choose to be difficult – it is just that they are people and people are complex beings.

Thanks, David.