According to ISO 21500, Guidance on Project Management, a stakeholder is a person, group or organization that has interests in, or can affect, be affected by, or perceive itself to be affected by, any aspect of the project.
It is commonly taught that stakeholders are identified, analyzed and managed. Manage however is a curious word. Using the word manage implies a certain degree of hierarchical control. Engage is a better term. In this post, I want to focus on something that is critical to project success, engaging with upset stakeholders.
In my years of managing projects, volunteering for organizations, starting businesses, being a husband and a father, I have learned that there are things to avoid at all costs unless building a wall between you and success is your goal [Insert any Donald trump wall joke Here].
I am going to provide some tips but before I do, I want to emphasize that inside every stakeholder are several other stakeholders fighting for position.
When you engage a stakeholder, you aren’t just getting the personality that has interest in your project. You are getting their personal baggage also. Your project is not on their mind 24/7. They are also someone’s son or daughter, or maybe someone’s parent or spouse. They might be a hard core sports fan, artist or hold any number of interests all which can influence their emotions and state of mind. A great project manager understands that turning off personal noise isn’t always possible all the time and if you have a stakeholder who has a problem or is irritable, there may be more to the story. Taking this into account, can save a lot of headache.
At the same time, you as a stakeholder have the same challenges and need to be cognizant of how you communicate. Here are some tips for engaging irritable stakeholders (share this with the team in case you are the irritable one)
Involve a second party
If the person you have an issue with makes you feel threatened, don’t go in alone. Take a colleague or work with the project sponsor to determine the best approach. Also, if you are an imposing figure, follow the same advice.
Don’t fight fire with fire
If someone comes at you irrationally, don’t throw it back in their face. Your natural reaction is to fight back as your adrenaline levels have increased. Take some time to calm yourself down and understand your tendencies. Do you hold grudges? Are you upset easily? What triggers you? Knowing what sets you off can be a great way to prepare for an interaction with an upset stakeholder. If you are the one who is upset, think about the best approach and don’t react in a manner that will cause more harm as a result.
Take emotion out of it
Sometimes, the reason the stakeholder is irritable has nothing to do with you. Coming to this realization can greatly influence the outcome. Is the person dealing with issues in their personal life? Is another issue at work forcing the anger out on you? Research has shown that when individuals learn that they are not the reason for a stakeholder to get angry, the situation is far less upsetting to them. If it is you who is upset, what is the real reason?
Figure out what is really going on
Get to the root of the issue. Using the Six Sigma 5 Why’s is a great approach. The keys to getting a better understanding is to take emotion out of the equation and employ active listening techniques and keeping an open mind. Don’t automatically assume the worst. Is it a misunderstanding?
Get to a solution
If you don’t want this taking over your emotions for an extended period of time, figure out a way to solve the issue, but don’t get defensive! Figure out a solution that leads to a valuable outcome and if need be, apologize. “Hey sorry I blasted you with an angry text message. I had a bad day.” Or “I am sorry for attacking you at the team meeting, I have a lot on my mind and directed it towards you.”
Everyone deals with adversity differently, understanding your tendencies and those of your stakeholders will help to position you towards greater success and satisfaction.