Working with Difficult Stakeholders

Man Scratching HeadThe current posting contains lessons I acquired as a lead engineer—these lessons concern working with difficult stakeholders. As a project lead, the first job I secured was with a major technology company. I was a consultant. I had in abundance the professional skills required to do my job, but the specific domain knowledge lacked depth, coming from a different but related industry. In the first few weeks, I needed to do some lab work to get familiar with the new product. I kept hearing stories about a certain Dave, and I was curious to ask who Dave was. I found out that Dave was the engineer I replaced. My curiosity had the best of me, and a couple of questions later, I found out that Dave lasted only a week, and he was discharged. Hearing that, all kinds of bells and whistles started ringing through my head.

A couple of weeks later, I was invited to a fellow consultant’s work review, being my senior in that company only by three weeks. Let us call him Dan. He received the task of writing a technical analysis, and that was his first work review. The review turned sour, and the man was discharged immediately after the review. I got in charge of technical analyses for which two people were discharged for poor performance. At that moment, the anxiety grew to an all-time high. Not being one to back away from a challenge, I needed to look for a successful way where others have failed. I started immediately looking at the reason my predecessors failed. The lack of domain knowledge was obvious, but could not explain all of it. All those reviews had one other element in common. They had a few Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), competent, but challenging to work with. They were the ones rejecting the work proposed. This situation reminded me of a few reviews from hell someone else had while working for a previous employer. My former co-worker had assigned to one of his reviews several difficult SMEs and never got that work off-groud during his reviews. Every time the panel tried to meet and review his work product, these SMEs started fighting about principles and then details. The meetings did not last more than 10 minutes, and the review was going nowhere. He got through only because his supervisor disbanded that review panel and created a new panel of reviewers, where the conflicts were not as glaring.

I did not have the luxury of a new review panel. I needed to make do with what I had. The first thing I figured out is that difficult people are not particularly popular in their workplace. They are about the loneliest people possible. If they are not talented, they will not have a long life with the company. If they are talented, they will make someone else’s life miserable. Dealing with them requires much patience, and sometimes a thicker skin than usual. What I did to get through with the reviews was involving them in my work early. I could not go to them with dumb questions. I needed to make their time interesting and worthwhile. I picked the essential part of the analysis and asked them smart questions about it. The remainder I needed to figure out on my own. Being secure about my analyses’ backbone, I had enough competency to wrap those papers in a reasonable amount of time. My work passed the review, and I survived as a consultant in the company.

That lesson learned followed me my entire career. When dealing with very talented but difficult stakeholders, one needs to create a working relationship with them. It might take patience and some degree of tolerance to make it work. Some of the difficult stakeholders may be cocky and arrogant. Some others may prefer to work in a certain way, disregarding established processes and procedures. Complaining about them is pointless because the company would refuse to discharge valuable resources unless there are gross ethical violations.

Dr. George Gafencu, DBA, PMP, DTM

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References to Working with Difficult Stakeholders

[1]       Project Management Institute, A guide to the project management body of knowledge (sixth edition). Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute, 2017. Retrieved from

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