I know we normally start a New Year dreaming of all the positive things that are going to happen. But let’s be realistic for a moment. I’m sure that at some point in the coming 12 months you are going to face someone in a position of power who doesn’t want your project to succeed.
It happens. Whether it’s because it put their department out of a job, or they see it as a personal threat to their influence in the company, people can be difficult beings. In fact, it might not even be as overt as that: you might simply have a grumbling stakeholder who takes every opportunity to moan. That can be just as destructive: gossip is a powerful thing!
Jake Holloway, David Bryde and Roger Joby have written extensively about dealing with difficult stakeholders. Their book, A Practical Guide to Dealing with Difficult Stakeholders, includes tips on how to deal with people who want your project to fail. Here’s what they have to say, with my own take on their advice thrown in.
1. Ignore Them
If you’re just facing a moaning stakeholder, then ignoring them might be an option. Holloway et al say that you can publicly explain your position “with a sense of finality” and be done with it.
However, this is not really an option if the person who is your nemesis is very powerful and influential. You need an alternative strategy for people higher up the food chain than yourself.
2. Surrender to Them
If they are really powerful, and really anti your project, you are on a path to nowhere. Recognise the situation and walk away gracefully while you still can.
That might not mean that the project is shut down – just that you get out and leave someone else to deal with it. And it is entirely possible that with another project manager at the helm, the project could be a success and the negative person could behave totally differently. Perhaps!
3. Observe Them
When you don’t understand their odd point of view, take the time to watch their behaviour and try to get to the bottom of it. They could be negative about your project for a number of reasons including:
- They don’t understand the benefits
- They don’t think there will be any benefits
- There is no advantage to them in completing the project
- There is a disadvantage to them in completing the project.
You can also observe how they are with other people. In other words, are they grumpy and negative about everything or is it just your project? Armed with that information you can make decisions about where to go next.
4. Persuade Them
“It will work if you take the moral high ground,” the authors write. Good luck! This is a strategy for the longer term, assuming that you have a good story and plenty of material with which to persuade them.
5. Enlist Them
Ask their help. People like to be flattered, and they like to think their opinion matters. This will work with people who aren’t being too obstructive but who are still displaying negative behaviours that you want them to stop.
I would call this flattery! Take them to one side and ask how they think the project is going and what could be done to improve it at this point. For extra brownie points, act on their suggestions and then feedback to them about how great they were.
6. Confront Them
If you hate conflict like me, then this is a strategy you’ll be dreading, especially if they are more senior in the organisation than you are. In fact, the authors advise that you don’t publicly confront people who do wield more power than you. Stick to other, less career-destructive ways to discuss their behaviour with them.
If they are negative but you generally have a good working relationship with them, you could still try this approach: in private tell them that you are finding it hard to work with them because they seem negative. Are you reading it wrong or is there something at play here that you don’t understand? Then stand back…
7. Expose Them
This is a good way of tackling people who have bullying tendencies at work, and relies on you letting them know that their behaviour is unacceptable. You can do this directly, or through someone else (which might work better, if they value that person’s opinion more than your own).
The authors recommend that the best way to do this is to keep accurate and detailed notes. That way, when you are challenged on, let’s say, the commitment of the Sales team, you can flick back to your meeting minutes and report that six months ago the Sales Director said that his team weren’t going to be involved because it wasn’t a project that was relevant to them, or some such comment. In front of the right people this could be a powerful remark, but give your colleagues a way out so that they can save face if they want to. For example, “It’s not too late to get involved if you can send Claire to the meeting on Friday.”
8. Entrap Them
These suggestions get better and better! And more fun. Although personally I don’t think I’ll be entrapping any negative, but senior, stakeholders any time soon.
Holloway et al posit that you can put your negative stakeholder in a position where they either have to come out publicly to support or condemn the project. You can do that by asking them to endorse an element of your plan or project strategy. They recommend that you get someone in their team to support it first, so you can present it to them as almost a done deal.
9. Re-align Them
Ah, that’s more like it. This is the kind of gentle negotiation that I can get onboard with. It involves name dropping them in conversations about success, and pointing out how you couldn’t have done it alone. Get them on the winning team, not the opposite team. This is another take on flattery, really.
You’ll have to use your professional judgement to determine which, if any, of these approaches will work for your negative stakeholders, but they are all ways of managing up. When you need to communicate out to stakeholders and up to your sponsor and senior managers, it’s good to have a range of techniques to draw from. One of them might be just what you need to turnaround the perception of your project.