How to Improve Stakeholder Relationships

Someone once asked me, “How do you handle a difficult stakeholder?”. It’s never a pretty situation managing a stakeholder who is obviously opposed to your project for whatever reason. It’s even worse when the stakeholder goes the extra mile to ensure your project doesn’t succeed. Managing stakeholders is no different from managing personal relationships with people. Dayo Awe once drew an analogy between stakeholders and the movie: The good, the bad and the ugly. Stakeholders come with different faces, attitudes and interests. Not managing them effectively can make your job difficult and possibly lead to project failure. This post outlines a number of practices that can help you turn difficult stakeholders around.

1. Be open and honest with your stakeholders – If you want a stakeholder’s commitment and dedication to your project, be willing to offer exactly what you’re asking – honesty and openness. Be open about the objectives of your project and its risks or potential pitfalls. For example, you may be working on a process automation project that could lead to job cuts. Don’t be dishonest with them or try to cover up the truth, no matter how difficult it is to swallow. It may seem like an easy way out to be dishonest but on the long run, you may end up losing the respect you’ve worked so hard to build. A key aspect of being honest is empathy – how would you feel if someone lied to you?

2. Value your stakeholders’ opinions – Have you ever had someone walk up to you and ask for advice? You immediately want to dig into your wealth of knowledge to provide something valuable that the person can take away. Everyone loves being listened to and understood. Be willing to not only ask for your stakeholders' opinions but to also listen and empathise – whether their beliefs agree with yours or not. It can be very humbling being a business analyst. Who doesn’t enjoy being right? Set aside your need to be right in order to remain objective. It always helps, difficult as it sounds, to drop all your assumptions at the door and consider other people’s opinions on important matters.

3. Don’t take things personal – I once worked on a project where the Manager of the unit whose process we were automating could not be bothered to cooperate. He skipped meetings, cancelled UAT sessions and introduced a lot of delays to the project. At a point, I thought he did not want the project to work. Even though his attitude was frustrating, I kept reminding myself that the most important thing was the project. I focused on the project and continued carrying him along until the system was implemented. Luckily, the project was bigger than him and the end users of the system were excited about it. When he saw the usefulness of the system, I knew we’d won him over. My point is, not all stakeholders will make life easy for you but you certainly can choose how to react. Don’t let it affect you – always keep the end goal in mind.

4. Sell Your Project – Think of your stakeholders as customers. Wouldn’t you want to keep them informed of your project, new developments and the benefits, in the hope that they’ll buy what you’re selling? Be clear about the benefits of your project and always be prepared to sell these benefits to them and ask them how you can be of more help. In return for the information they provide, be ready to listen and to actually solve their problems or at least, arrive at some form of compromise.

5. Surprise them – Yes, surprise them. Give them what they don’t expect. Go beyond the requirements they’ve given you to deliver something beyond their expectations. Think of some “excitement requirements” you can throw in the mix. Apple did it with their innovative approach to consumer demands. For example, don’t introduce inflexible systems that can’t accommodate stakeholders' changing needs – because their needs will change, whether they know it or not. Be ready to anticipate their needs by introducing flexibility into system configurations, where possible. 

6. Engage them – Carry them along. Set up chat rooms, forums and discussion threads. Encourage discussions and debates. By keeping them engaged, you can win their cooperation and confidence while gaining valuable insight into thoughts they would ordinarily not expose in formal settings. Categorize them, define their communication needs and develop a plan that addresses these needs.

How do you manage difficult stakeholders? Do share.