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Managing Difficult Stakeholders for Project Success

Managing Difficult Stakeholders for Project Success

Are you a project manager, sponsor, or executive leader responsible for delivering project outcomes? Are you struggling with managing difficult stakeholders who demand more time, resources, or change requests? If so, you are not alone.

As a project manager, one of the most challenging aspects of your role is managing difficult stakeholders. These stakeholders can be internal or external to your organization, with high power and highly interested in the project’s outcome. They can have different priorities, communication styles, and points of view that may hinder project success.

According to an article (1) Project Management Institute (PMI), lack of communication and stakeholder management are among the top reasons for project failure. Therefore, identifying and effectively managing challenging stakeholders is critical to achieving project success. In this article, we will discuss actionable strategies for managing difficult stakeholders and overcoming project challenges.

Why People Struggle with Stakeholder Management

Stakeholders are individuals or groups who have a vested interest in the project’s outcome, such as sponsors, clients, customers, team members, vendors, regulators, or competitors. Managing stakeholders is critical for project success because their involvement can influence the project’s scope, quality, schedule, budget, and risks. However, stakeholders can also be difficult to handle because of their high power or interest, conflicting priorities, lack of communication, or resistance to change.

For example,

  • High-power stakeholders, such as executives or sponsors, can demand more control over the project, make unilateral decisions, or threaten to withdraw funding.
  • High-interest stakeholders, such as customers or end-users, can have specific requirements, expectations, or demands that are not aligned with the project’s objectives.
  • Conflicting priorities can arise when stakeholders have different agendas, goals, or values that may not be compatible with the project’s vision.
  • Lack of communication can result in misunderstandings, misinterpretations, or assumptions that can affect stakeholder engagement and satisfaction.
  • Resistance to change can occur when stakeholders perceive that the project will threaten their status, autonomy, or security, or when they are not involved in the decision-making process.

To manage difficult stakeholders, you need to adopt a proactive and collaborative approach that focuses on stakeholder engagement, communication, and influence.

Here are some tips and tactics to help you manage difficult stakeholders and ensure project success.

Approaches to Conduct Stakeholder Analysis

Conducting a stakeholder analysis is essential at the beginning of a new project. It is a crucial step in the planning phase that helps identify and prioritize stakeholders interested in the project’s success. Here are some best approaches for conducting stakeholder analysis:

Identify Stakeholders

The first step is to identify potential stakeholders, both internal and external. Internal stakeholders may include project team members, managers, and employees, while external stakeholders may include customers, suppliers, regulators, and partners. A stakeholder mapping tool can visualize the stakeholders and their relationships.

Determine Stakeholder Interests

After identifying stakeholders’ interests, needs, and expectations is essential. This can be accomplished through surveys, interviews, focus groups, or direct observation.

Assess Stakeholder Influence

Once the stakeholders’ interests have been identified, their level of influence over the project’s outcome must be assessed. High-influence stakeholders have the power to make decisions, control resources, or affect the project’s success.

Prioritize Stakeholders

Prioritizing stakeholders is essential to figuring out who needs to be involved in the project most closely based on their level of influence and interest. This will guarantee that their demands are satisfied. It also will ensure that the project’s goals align with their expectations.

Develop a Stakeholder Engagement Plan

The last step is to create a stakeholder engagement plan that specifies how we should interact with each stakeholder during the project. This may include regular communication, meetings, feedback sessions, or other engagement strategies.

Stakeholder Identification and Analysis

The first step in managing difficult stakeholders is to identify and analyze them systematically. This process involves mapping the stakeholders’ interests, power, influence, and expectations and determining their level of support or opposition to the project. You can use some tools and techniques for stakeholder identification and analysis include:

Stakeholder Register:

A document that lists all stakeholders, their roles, responsibilities, and (preferably) contact information, and their interests and expectations. The stakeholder register can be updated regularly to reflect changes in stakeholder relationships and priorities.

stakeholder register

Stakeholder Analysis Matrix:

A grid that categorizes stakeholders based on their level of interest and power and determines their level of support or opposition to the project. The stakeholder analysis matrix can help project managers prioritize their engagement strategies and communication channels.

stakeholder register

Salience Model:

A model that classifies stakeholders based on their level of power, urgency, and legitimacy and determines their level of engagement and influence. The salience model can help project managers tailor their communication and negotiation tactics to each stakeholder’s needs and preferences.

Stakeholder Analysis - Salience Model - image by fundatabak.com

Stakeholder Engagement and Communication

Once stakeholders have been identified and analyzed, the next step is to engage them effectively and communicate with them regularly. Stakeholder engagement and communication involve building trust, establishing relationships, and exchanging information, feedback, and expectations.

Best Practices for Stakeholder Engagement and Communication

Stakeholder Management Plan:

A document that outlines the project’s stakeholder engagement strategy, communication plan, and escalation procedures. The stakeholder management plan can help project managers establish clear expectations and responsibilities for all stakeholders and ensure that their needs and concerns are addressed.

Effective and Regular Communication:

Project managers need to establish a two-way communication channel with stakeholders to keep them informed of project progress, risks, and issues. Communication should be clear, concise, and relevant, and stakeholders should be given the opportunity to provide feedback and ask questions. Regular communication is necessary to keep stakeholders informed and engaged throughout the project’s lifecycle. Project managers should establish a communication schedule and update stakeholders on the project’s progress, risks, and issues.

Throughout the project, communication is essential. Therefore, it is necessary to develop a communication strategy that covers the following aspects:

  • What needs to be communicated?
  • With whom do you want to communicate?
  • Who are the intended recipients of the communication? You might need to communicate different items to different individuals or groups.
  • What are the expected and actual outcomes of the communication? It is important to track the communication and its results to identify what works and needs improvement to learn and enhance the communication strategy.

Regular Reporting:

Project managers should provide regular progress reports to stakeholders, including updates on budget, timelines, risks, and issues. This helps stakeholders stay informed and provides them with the information they need to make decisions.

Collaborative Decision-making:

Engaging stakeholders in decision-making processes can help build trust and promote buy-in. Project managers should involve stakeholders in key decisions, such as scope changes, budget adjustments, and risk mitigation strategies.

Active Listening:

Listening actively to stakeholder feedback and concerns is an essential part of effective communication. Active listening involves paying attention, clarifying, summarizing, and responding to stakeholder feedback in a timely and constructive manner.

Communication Channels:

Choosing the right communication channels is also crucial for effective stakeholder engagement. Depending on the stakeholder’s preference and the nature of the message, project managers can use various channels such as email, phone, meetings, social media, and project management tools to communicate with stakeholders.

Dealing with Difficult Stakeholders

Despite best efforts, project managers will often encounter difficult stakeholders who are resistant to change, uncooperative, or overly demanding. Dealing with difficult stakeholders requires a combination of empathy, assertiveness, and conflict resolution skills. Here are some tips for managing difficult stakeholders:

Identify the root cause of the problem:

Before taking action, project managers need to understand the reasons behind a stakeholder’s behavior. Is the stakeholder acting out of fear, mistrust, or a lack of understanding? Once the root cause is identified, project managers can develop a targeted approach to address the issue.

Communicate effectively:

Communication is key to managing difficult stakeholders. Project managers need to listen actively to stakeholder concerns, validate their feelings, and respond with empathy. At the same time, project managers need to be assertive in setting expectations and boundaries.

Find common ground:

Even difficult stakeholders have shared interests and goals. Project managers should try to identify these commonalities and use them to build trust and collaboration.

Develop a mitigation plan:

If a stakeholder’s behavior poses a significant risk to the project, project managers should develop a mitigation plan to manage the risk. This may involve escalating the issue to higher-level stakeholders or involving legal or regulatory authorities.

Active Listening:

As mentioned earlier, active listening is essential when dealing with difficult stakeholders. Listening to their concerns and feedback can help project managers understand their point of view and find a way to address their issues.


Empathy is an important quality for project managers when dealing with difficult stakeholders. Putting yourself in their shoes can help you understand their concerns and perspective.


Collaboration can help project managers and difficult stakeholders find a mutually beneficial solution. It involves working together to identify common goals, priorities, and concerns.

Effective stakeholder management is crucial for project success. Managing difficult stakeholders can be challenging, but with the right approach and tools, project managers can overcome any obstacles and ensure that all stakeholders are satisfied with the project outcomes.

In conclusion, stakeholder management involves identifying, analyzing, and engaging stakeholders effectively. It requires active communication, regular updates, and empathy towards stakeholders’ concerns and feedback. By following the best practices and tips mentioned in this article, project managers can manage difficult stakeholders and ensure project success.

Remember, stakeholder management is an ongoing process, and project managers should be proactive and adaptable to changes and challenges. By implementing a stakeholder management plan, project managers can create a collaborative and supportive environment that fosters trust and transparency among all stakeholders.

Related Article: Overcoming Resistance to Change: Tips and Techniques for Project Managers

Resistance to change is a common challenge that project managers face. To overcome resistance to change, project managers need to understand the root cause of resistance and develop a change management plan that addresses stakeholders’ concerns and expectations. Read more about overcoming resistance to change in project management in my related article.

  1. Bragantini, D. & Ferrante, D. (2014). How to shape your stakeholders. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2014—EMEA, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

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