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How to Deal with Challenging Situations Involving Stakeholders

This is a guest article by Christine Unterhitzenberger.

Christine Unterhitzenberger
Christine Unterhitzenberger

Most project managers will have experienced a situation where they have found a stakeholder to be really difficult. This often causes stress and it’s challenging for project managers to find ways to deal with it.

A recent study by Dr Clara Cheung and colleagues found that project managers experience particularly high stress levels in regard to their working relationships. So, we were interested in investigating why this is the case and how project managers can deal more effectively with these situations.

My colleagues and I conducted a comprehensive research study (which can be found here). In this article, I’ll share some of our key findings.

There is no such thing as a ‘difficult stakeholder’

Interestingly, we found that there is no such thing as a ‘difficult stakeholder’. Stakeholders are sometimes simply labelled as being ‘difficult’ and subsequently their status as a ‘difficult stakeholder’ is accepted by the project team.

However, we found that this is generally not the case – hardly any stakeholder is simply ‘difficult’.

What happens instead is that they create situations which are challenging for the project manager. These situations include:

  • governance related issues (e.g. lack of responsiveness, absence of agreed working relationships)
  • a lack of technical expertise
  • attitudes towards the project and project team members
  • expectations and understanding (e.g. lack of understanding of project work)
  • the working environment (e.g. way of communication).

And more importantly, there is usually a reason for why these challenging situations occur – and by knowing and understanding the source of the challenging situation, a project manager can establish how to deal with it more effectively. 

Sources of challenging situations

We found that the project environment plays a crucial role in creating challenging situations involving stakeholders for project managers and that project managers can often take active measures to influence and improve this.

The structural environment

Firstly, the structural environment, i.e. the organization, participants, objectives and governance can create challenging situations.

Example: If a stakeholder is overlooked in the initial analysis and becomes involved too late, the requests they put forward or the way they try to become part of the project team can lead to them being perceived as ‘difficult’. In reality they are not. They create a challenging situation due to the late involvement in the project, which needs to be addressed.

The social environment

Secondly, the social environment can be a source for challenging situations. The social environment refers to the networks and interactions in terms of how project participants deal with each other.

It is about how inter-personal relationships are built and how communication is tailored to different stakeholder groups.

Stakeholder characteristics

Thirdly, stakeholder characteristics and personality traits can create challenging situations. This source is not related to the project environment and is the one over which the project manager has the least control.

In some instances, clashes occur where there is a misalignment between personalities, their position and importance as stakeholder and it is important to recognize this.

The impact of challenging situations

These challenging situations can have a two-fold impact.

1. They can affect the project in terms of meeting success criteria or objectives which could ultimately lead to benefits not being realized.

2. They affect the health and wellbeing of the people involved.

Challenging situations can affect the project manager as an individual as they can have an impact on their role as well as their health and wellbeing. This can go as far as being afraid of losing the job or being replaced in a project.

Less dramatic, but not less significant, is the impact on health and wellbeing as challenging situations can create emotions such as frustration, anger, isolation, defensiveness or threat.

Importantly, the impact of a challenging situation involving stakeholders can go beyond the individual project and affect multiple organizations involved in this particular project.

Learn from challenging situations

While there is always an impact, it doesn’t have to only be negative. Our study also found that challenging situations can lead to organizational learning if harnessed appropriately.

How to deal with the impact of difficult situations on projects

So the big question is: How do project managers deal with this impact?

We found that project managers employ emotion-focused and problem-focused coping strategies to minimize the personal stress they perceive due to challenging situations involving stakeholders.

Problem-focused strategies

Problem-focused strategies are efforts to do something active to alleviate stressful circumstances.

Emotion-focused coping strategies

Emotion-focused coping strategies involve efforts to regulate the emotional consequences of stressful or potentially stressful events.

What works best?

Problem-focused coping strategies have been found to be more effective in addressing the sources of challenging situations. Project managers often use established stakeholder management methods/tools/techniques such as communication, relationship building, identification of common ground or critical interventions (e.g. bringing a new person onto the project).

Emotion-focuses coping strategies can be less effective to address the source and might only lead to short-term relief, but our research showed that project managers frequently employed them, too.

Project managers often use their personal and professional network to share experiences of situations they perceive to be stressful in order to cope with the resulting emotions. They also reflect and self-validate or vent and confront.

Project managers rate the project’s health above their own

Interestingly, we found that project managers are often more concerned about the health and wellbeing of the project instead of their own health and wellbeing.

Project managers are held accountable to stakeholders for the outcome of a project and they use resources and personal competencies to meet this accountability. This is sometimes detrimental to their own health and wellbeing and a potential explanation for the high stress levels regarding working relationships found in the study.

Project managers employ personal coping strategies as well as project coping strategies. Project managers focus on how the project can best cope with the challenging situation involving stakeholders and address the project organization, seek external support or even pass on the role if they encounter personality clashes.

To conclude…

By understanding the reason why stakeholders are perceived to be ‘difficult’, project managers can develop more effective strategies to deal with the resulting situations on a personal and project level.

Even if a challenging situation does not have a direct impact on the project manager’s role or wellbeing, but only affects the project, they still employ personal coping strategies and vice versa. This means that if a challenging situation involving a stakeholder negatively impacts the project, the project manager feels affected by it and perceives the need to deal with that situation on a personal level as well.

We’d conclude that stakeholder management is a challenging activity for project managers and that appropriate support frameworks should be established to enable the project manager to fully exploit the stakeholder management tools and techniques.

There is no simple guide on how to deal with ‘difficult stakeholders’.

A ‘difficult stakeholder’ is a complex construct rooted either in the project environment or stakeholder characteristics. Only by understanding why a stakeholder is perceived to be ‘difficult’ can appropriate coping strategies be developed.

The foundation for identifying appropriate strategies is knowledge and experience in general stakeholder management with its associated tools/techniques and methods.

Key takeaways

  • There is no such thing as a difficult stakeholder: only challenging situations involving stakeholders.
  • Challenging situations are a risk to both the project’s goals and outcomes and the project team’s health and wellbeing.
  • Project managers employ a range of emotion-focused and problem-focused strategies to cope with difficult situations and people perceived to be challenging.

Read the research paper

Unterhitzenberger, C., Wilson, H., Bryde, D., Rost, M. & Joby, R. (2020) The stakeholder challenge: dealing with challenging situations involving stakeholders. Production Planning & Control, DOI: 10.1080/09537287.2020.1776907

Please feel free to get in touch with [email protected] if you would like to have a copy of the full paper.

About the author

Dr Christine Unterhitzenberger is Associate Professor of Project Management at the University of Leeds. She worked for nearly 10 years in the industry before joining academia in 2016. Her research focuses on psycho-social aspects of project management and is interested in understanding the relationships between individuals working in project environments.

She is Department Editor for the Project Management Journal and has published her work in the leading academic project management journals. She is currently Chair of the Association for Project Management (APM) Research Advisory Group and also a member of their Professional Standards and Knowledge Committee.

Acknowledgement

The research study reported here was kindly supported by the APM Research Fund. I would also like to thank my co-authors of this study without whom the work would not have been possible.

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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management in the UK and the award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.

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