How to Identify and Manage Difficult Stakeholders

updated on 30 March 2021

You’re also saddled with one too many stakeholder meetings – with the relevant folks ready to go. All of which have a vested interest in their own businesses, armed with their own agendas and opinions and personal objectives. Daunting.

And then there’s you, with your own set of concerns, objectives and goals. 

You’re going to have your priorities straight, your mindset right, and a strategy for managing stakeholder expectations and engagement. Before all that, you need to grasp the importance of mental models.

What are mental models?

Consider mental models outfits for your mind. You wear varying outfits to suit different occasions, just as you use changing mental models to approach different situations. While most of us have specialized mental models as individuals, an effective people manager might have a latticework to choose from.

Below, we’ll be diving into different scenarios you’ll come across and how best to approach them. Consider your ‘take’ on each aspect a different mental model that must be cultivated, optimized, and worn often.

Mental models are the foundation for how you might cater your communication style to each stakeholder, as a preparatory measure for working with disruptive stakeholders.

How do you deal with difficult stakeholders?

If you have not had to deal with a problematic stakeholder yet – you will. It’s all part and parcel of working life. However, what determines your effectiveness as a leader is how you work with these stakeholders.

It’s easy to start burning bridges when issues arise, but that’s how short-term problems become long-term obstacles – and that’s precisely what you want to avoid.

So, as the difficult stakeholder threatens to veer the harmony of your project towards chaos, here’s what you can do:

Know the signs 

Prevention is the best remedy to most business ills. A good stakeholder management strategy is knowing how to spot the symptoms of a problematic stakeholder before they become unmanageable and you develop an untenable position at work.

friend relationship management
friend relationship management

Here are some tell-tale signs to look out for:

  • Poor communication.
  • Overly critical.
  • Lacking a sense of urgency or direction.
  • Withholds resources from the project.

Now that you’ve pinpointed a difficult stakeholder, it’s best to put a contingency plan into action. This plan generally revolves around re-engaging the stakeholder and troubleshooting their doubts about the project. Here are some core stakeholder management and troubleshooting techniques you can use to make difficult stakeholders manageable:

1. Stakeholder identification – know your stakeholders

One of the first core steps of leading a group of stakeholders is the awareness of who they are. In order to accomplish this, you first need to understand what a stakeholder is.

Loosely defined, a stakeholder is any person or group who affects or is affected by a given project. This can be a co-worker, employee, organizations, and even segments of the population.

Stakeholders can be considered internal or external parts of a project. They can be further divided by whether they influence the project or are affected by its outcome.

Determining who your stakeholders are and what categories they fall into is the first step in troubleshooting any potential trouble spots. A crucial part of identifying your stakeholders is factoring risk into the equation.


Every project comes with its own set of risks. The same can be said about stakeholders. Stakeholders are dynamic in nature and are likely to change throughout the duration of a project. Some are there from start to finish, while others come and go. Either way, they all bring risk to the table as long as they’re affected by the project’s outcome.

And that’s why the core tenet of project risk management is engaging with stakeholders and getting a good grasp on their ideals, values, opinions, and hopes for the project.

2. Listen to what they have to say 

Often, you’ll find that just taking a step back and absorbing what the stakeholder is communicating can help you understand their viewpoints. Part of good people management is giving everyone time and consideration; however, some stakeholders will need more attention. Remember that every voice matters – keeping your ears open might just help you to solve the problem at hand.

3. Meet them one-on-one

Hashing out issues face-to-face feels more personal, which allows you to get right to the heart of the stakeholder’s apprehensions. Plus, often, a stakeholder won’t feel comfortable voicing their opinion in the crowded meeting room. So, let your team member know that their concerns are important to you and that their input is valuable by carving out some time for them.

Seizing these more ‘open’ moments as a chance to address expectations can help make sure everyone is on the same page and not disappointed by any eventual project outcomes.

4. Determine their motivation or influences

There’s always the likelihood that a stakeholder’s driving force is opposed to a project's direction. Take some time to understand the stakeholder’s core values and what lies behind their actions. Getting to the root of what influences their efforts can be key to overcoming the impasse.

Here are some questions you should ask yourself (or your stakeholders) to gauge their involvement in your project:

  • What financial or emotional interests do they have in the project's results? Are they positive or negative?
  • What motivates them above all else?
  • What information are they looking for, and what is the best way of communicating it with them?
  • What is their opinion of your work? Is it based on good information?

5.  Figure out their level of engagement

You may want to analyze the level of engagement of each stakeholder with a project management technique that Shiv Shenoy, a Project Management Specialist, recommends is helpful in determining how often you should follow up. He breaks this down into five levels:  

  • Unaware – unaware of the project and its impact
  • Resistant – aware of the project impact, but resists change
  • Neutral – aware of the project impact, but not yet convinced
  • Supportive – aware of the project impact and supportive
  • Leading –  aware of the project impact and actively involved

You plot this on an Engagement Assessment Matrix with ‘C’ for the ‘Current’ level of engagement and ‘D’ for their ‘Desired’ level of engagement.

Engagement Assessment Matrix
Engagement Assessment Matrix

Determining their engagement levels will help you further develop your stakeholder communication plan. Whilst that is helpful, adding another visual method called Stakeholder Mapping can assist in determining more nuanced approach in your manner of interactions, based on your objectives.

Stakeholders can be further sub-divided into four parts in a matrix:

  • High power, highly interested people (Manage Closely)
  • High power, less interested people (Keep Satisfied)
  • Low power, highly interested people (Keep Informed)
  • Low power, less interested people (Monitor)

Using these methods will enable you to establish the appropriate frequency of feedback loops with key stakeholders and work as a preventative measure to ensure the availability of open channels for communication so that they are kept apprised.

Final Tho


Being a people manager isn’t easy. There’s information coming at you from all sides and only so many hours in a day. Understanding that you can’t do it all is essential. However, understanding how to optimize and streamline what you can do becomes even more critical.

Following the procedures outlined above when managing stakeholders should help you to put the right foot forward and navigate the hectic corporate landscape you work in.

However, building personal relationships in the workplace can be challenging when everyone’s super focused on their end goals. There exists many frameworks for prioritizing and assessing stakeholder’s intent. However, these are really only useful at a high-level, and you risk showing up as impersonal, cold and lacking empathy.

Metacosm lets you unburden your thoughts and experiences with others by allowing you to sort through your open loops so that you can build more meaningful relationships despite your overwhelming, fast-changing environment. This helps you to keep track of complex stakeholder relationships in a hyper-efficient manner.

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