How to Deal With Difficult Stakeholders (Part 2)

More with Professor David Bryde

Business people sitting in meeting
Dealing with Difficult Stakeholders. Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Blend Images/Getty

Here’s Part 2 of my interview with Professor David Bryde, PhD, from the Peter Jost Enterprise Centre at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, where he is Professor of Project Management. He’s also the co-author of a new book published by Gower, called A Practical Guide to Dealing with Difficult Stakeholders.

Read Part 1 of my interview with David

Hello again, David. Today I wanted to ask you for your top tip for project managers who are trying to get a stakeholder to change their attitude. What would you suggest?

This a difficult one. As we set out in the book it is often easier to change behavior than attitudes. In order to change a stakeholder's attitude, you will typically have to convey information to them in such a way that they will change their view on a particular topic or issue.

My tip would be to think carefully about how best to do it; plan it. Focus on making sure you do it in a credible way – being credible in these situations is crucial otherwise the stakeholder won't listen to what you are saying (whether you are doing it face-to-face, by email, in a report).

OK, thank you. Sometimes people are difficult simply because they are bored with their work. How can project managers deal with that?

This is something we cover in some detail in the book. There are a number of root causes of a bored team: firstly, the project is unchallenging and secondly, the project is technically uninteresting.

You can deal with the first of these causes in the following ways:

  • Try to generate some enthusiasm around the project, from your own actions and behavior and by bringing in other genuinely enthusiastic stakeholders – enthusiasm is infectious.
  • Create challenges for project team members, perhaps by changing the scope, roles, or delivery methods – though this needs to be done with care to avoid creating potentially damaging distractions.
  • Devote more time to people management – listening and empathizing with your team.
  • Introduce a sense of fun (activities, food, etc.) to provide some welcome distractions. 

With the second cause either seek ways in which some learning can take place, perhaps through the utilization of new tools and techniques or spend time selling the benefits of sticking with the current techniques – even if it means a technically uninteresting solution.

Right. You also talk in the book about gatekeepers. What is a gatekeeper and how can project managers best work with them?

Often we need people to "open a door" in order for our project to proceed as required. The people who open these doors are Gatekeepers.

There are lots of situations in which we need the help of a Gatekeeper. It could be we need them to authorise approval to proceed to the next stage of the project or we could need them to grant us access to another important stakeholder i.e. a key decision-maker at a higher level in an organisation (in the latter case a classic example of a powerful Gatekeeper in a large hierarchical organisation is the PA of the CEO).

Whilst they have a lot of power, blocking Gatekeepers that refuse to open a door can seriously hinder a project.

Gatekeepers are often detached from and disinterested in your from the project. They might also be thinking about the risk versus the reward of opening the gate to your project. What if things go wrong with the project at a later date, will some blame be attached to their decision? Or perhaps they are just being human i.e. irrationally refusing to open the gate for no good reason.

The best way to work with Gatekeepers is to not underestimate their power (and even if they are not particularly able to wield power on your project now they might well be able to in the future) and hence take them seriously. Try and get them onside. Empathize with them. Talk to them, ask them to open the gate and let them understand that you appreciate what they are doing and that they in some cases they might be putting themselves out to help your project.

Great tips! Thanks, David.

Read an interview with another of David's co-authors, Roger Joby