Managing Difficult Stakeholders

28 May 2020

Tried & tested tactics from our own Comma network.

For this article we are going to dive into the ‘real’ world, the messy world, the uncomfortable world, the world that sometimes makes us want to scream ‘not everything is about you, it’s about what’s good for the company and your people!’ But of course we don’t. Whilst we communicators might not always be perfect, we ARE professionals. What are we talking about? Yes, the bane of our lives – the difficult stakeholder.

So, we thought it would be good to share some survival tactics we have gleaned from our very real interims who, between them, have probably seen it all and have still managed to come out the other end all in one piece with strategies and sensibilities still in tact.

Here are our top 20 survival tactics.Take time to understand your stakeholder. Feel your way. Don’t jump in with what you’ve always done in the past.

  • On first meeting make sure you have done your homework. Know something useful about them, their management style, their personality, their achievements, what might be happening currently in their world, how long they have been in their role, some of the challenges they are facing, the context in which the business is currently operating. At the end of the meeting, play back to them what you think you have heard and ask them – have I got that right? How do you think I can help?
  • Don’t assume people know why you have been recruited or why you have been involved in a project. The role of communicators and/or change specialists is often confusing to stakeholders. Help them to understand you are there to add value and you need them to help you to deliver that value.
  • Introduce yourself and include some information about you on a human and professional level. Make it an equal relationship as far as possible and as early as possible.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously.
  • Be clear what you are and aren’t there to do. Don’t be pressurized into feeling you should do anything they ask just to appease their attitude or behaviour or to win their favour. For example, produce me a poster or a newsletter. Be clear and firm about the boundaries.
  • Afterwards, write up a short note of what you discussed and agreed and what the next steps will be. Start the next meeting with that note. Checking in all the time that you are on the same track.
  • Adapt your style the second time of meeting if the first time was not as successful as you had hoped. Don’t panic. It takes time to earn trust and forge a relationship. Feel your way and move when you have earned the right to push further.
  • In situations of conflict, you can take two very different approaches. Your choice will depend on the culture, the individuals concerned and the urgency of the situation:
  • Call issues out as soon as you recognise them and bring them into the open to clear the tension. Doing this sooner rather than later is usually better than waiting.
  • Consider biding your time and backing off. Talk to others who your stakeholders respect and who have their ear and trust so you can better understand issues you may be missing or a certain approach that is preferred.
  • Seek opportunities to interface naturally with your stakeholder as another way to build the relationship – at the coffee machine, over a drink.
  • Be discreet. Whilst it is always helpful to ask for others’ opinions/guidance in a situation you are finding difficult remain positive and professional.
  • Build credibility. Do what you say and look for quick wins that work for both of you.
  • Do something and play back the results. Provide anecdotal evidence from audiences in their team. Sharing feedback from people who affect their every day adds gravitas to what you are saying.
  • Consider your approach when attending a meeting. What is their preference? For you to have sent something in advance for them to consider? To start with a blank sheet and brainstorm?
  • In a group situation where there are some difficult stakeholders, make sure you go round the table so everyone is heard. This is particularly important when you know there is dissent on issues that have not, as yet, been aired. Ask others, whilst at the table, what their opinions are on topics that don’t seem to be achieving consensus. Difficult stakeholders tend to be less difficult within a wider group.
  • Go armed with relevant data, particularly data relevant to the stakeholders’ sector or their people. It makes things real and less controversial.
  • Use, where possible, anecdotal examples to bring a situation to life. It’s much easier to influence someone when it is not just you saying something isn’t working.
  • Pick your time to have a difficult conversation. Read the room. Be emotionally aware. If the MD’s face looks like thunder as the previous visitor leaves the room, tread with caution. It wouldn’t be a good time to suggest a change of style.
  • Remember, not everyone takes well to being ‘coached’ or informed about the effect they have on you and/or other people. While some relationships will thrive others may never recover from the conversation.
  • Be realistic. Not all relationships work. Some never will. Don’t beat yourself up about it, just be as professional as possible and focus on those relationships that are working and helping you to deliver value.

It is easy to become disheartened when dealing with difficult stakeholders. Rest assured, EVERY communicator and change manager comes across a difficult stakeholder at some point in their career. Remember sometimes it can be a defence mechanism. Stakeholders may fear the unknown, resent what is involved eg moving to self-service, or may not understand why they have to get involved. Or they may be really under pressure with time, their own position, team dynamics etc. But the good news is that time and again our interims have said that the difficult stakeholder can be turned around with some of the tactics above and become a great ambassador for communications. Delivering something quickly and really impactful that makes the stakeholder look good will certainly help.

Do you have any of your own tips you’d like to share? If so, we’d love to hear about them.

Written by Tracy Smeathers Published Feb 2020

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