What if your stakeholders are wrong?

My favourite tale of stakeholder unreasonable behaviour involves conflicts of interest, misogyny and entitlement. You should have been there, I shouldn’t have, apparently!

Dealing with stakeholders is a complex endeavor. Sometimes, stakeholders may exhibit unreasonable behavior, presenting unique challenges for us sponsors . In this article, we delve into the intricacies of handling unreasonable stakeholders, drawing from personal experiences and offering practical insights.

The Unforgettable Encounter:

Allow me to share a remarkable tale of dealing with a stakeholder whose demands bordered on the absurd. The stage was a public forum, and my mission was to “explain our position” to a committee of council staff and elected officials.

The protagonist of our story was an elected official with an audacious proposal – to divert the railway we were constructing through his land to arrive at a tourist attraction he planned to build. This request was at odds with the project benefits of generating housing, jobs, and opportunities. Railways are neither cheap nor easy to divert and this was a diversion that would have almost doubled the route length!

Despite the proposal’s unreasonableness, this stakeholder’s political influence demanded our attention. We had already expended countless words explaining why the diversion was infeasible. As a public entity, we needed to be respectful and diplomatic, avoiding outright dismissal.

Our communication manager had handled the situation well, suggesting that he bring the Sponsor to the next committee meeting to explain the technical, legal, and cost implications of the proposal. These implications were so significant that committee support seemed unattainable.

As we arrived at the meeting, the stakeholder’s outburst shocked everyone, as he exclaimed, “I asked you to bring a senior person here to talk to us, and you have brought… A WOMAN.” In that moment, I could have taken offense, but instead, I seized the strategic advantage he unwittingly offered.

Our strategy hinged on demonstrating the unreasonableness of the request, and with one sentence, he had made our case. I replied that I was both a senior person and a woman and that both things are indeed possible at the same time. In fact, that was actively encouraged in the company I worked for at the time.

As the stakeholder persisted in verbal combat, we calmly went over the reasons why accommodating his extravagant wishes were unfeasible. The committee, eager for resolution, quickly accepted our position, and we left with a clear end to the matter.

The Essence of Stakeholder Management:

Stakeholder management, at its core, revolves around ensuring that project integrity remains intact. Regardless of your project’s nature, stakeholder management is a significant part of your role. Effective stakeholder management involves not just hearing their words but also understanding their perspectives.

While much advice is available on managing stakeholders, the challenge arises when stakeholders are simply wrong or unrealistic in their demands or expectations. Little guidance exists for this scenario, often placing the onus on sponsors to navigate with tact and business-based sensibility.

Addressing Unreasonableness: Handling unreasonable stakeholders falls into three categories:

1.    Is it Me?: Assess if your perspective may be affecting your perception of their request or behavior. It’s important to be self-aware and open to self-improvement.

2.    Is it Them?: Some individuals thrive on conflict and distractions. Recognise when you are dealing with someone who enjoys a tussle and adjust your approach accordingly.

3.    How can I address it?: Plan a clear, high-performance conversation with the stakeholder. Avoid vagueness and spell out the implications and consequences. These conversations might be challenging, but they are necessary for resolving unreasonable requests.

Conclusion: Being a successful sponsor means mastering the art of dealing with stakeholders, even when their demands are unreasonable. Engaging in those difficult conversations, early and directly, is a crucial aspect of this role. While resolution is not guaranteed, ignoring the issue guarantees that it won’t be resolved. So, what conversations are you postponing that could bring you closer to a resolution?