How to Deal with a Difficult Stakeholder | Velopi
One of Ireland’s former Ministers for Education, Ruiri Quinn, wanted to stamp out bullying in the classroom, in the schoolyard and online. He insisted that every school had to come up with an action plan to achieve this goal.
But was he right? The problem with bullying is that it is not simply confined to our schooldays. We are subject to it all through our adult lives as well. We might have fancier terms for it – “power politics” or “force majeure” – but, when the dust settles, it all boils down to bullying. As part of the government that wanted to “burn the bondholders”, Mr Quinn should have appreciated the bullying potential of banks and the might of the International Monetary Fund.
As project managers, we too experience our fair share of bullying. How many PMPs® have been forced into accepting unrealistic budgets or schedules? How many projects have been derailed by belligerent stakeholders who have put obstacles in the way, just to score points against the project sponsor or the organization as a whole?
If Mr Quinn had achieved his aim and stamped out bullying among children, how would the next generation have coped with the sorts of bullying they would face in the workplace? Would it not be better to instruct young people in coping strategies? Just like anyone who wants to get into project management needs to deal with the sort of awkward characters that pop up from time to time.
The best way for a project manager to deal with bullying is to be professional. Deal with facts and make decisions explicit. For instance, a common ploy that senior managers use is to treat the project manager’s project estimate as an opening gambit. This is countered with a lower offer and the assumption is that the project manager expects to be beaten down and has padded the estimates in advance.
This sort of nonsense is counter-productive. The estimates provided in these situations have no basis in facts and the power of the decision maker is what dictates that final figures. Project Management Professionals (PMPs)® have a really effective weapon to counter this – the three-point estimate. By presenting your estimate as a range between optimistic (where everything goes right), pessimistic (where everything goes wrong) and most likely (the result of risk analysis) you are presenting realistic estimates and risk contingency. By making the padding in the schedule explicit, the discussion can be focused on the level of risk that needs to be budgeted for in this particular project.
Introducing formal sign-off for budget and schedule baselines is another sensible step. Bullies tend to be cowardly and will delight in forcing you into agreeing to unrealistic estimates. However, if they have to sign their name to the reduced estimates, suddenly the risk of failure is back at their door.
Again, during the project, powerful stakeholders (remember the power / influence grid from Project Stakeholder Management in your PMP® course?) might seek to rush things along by using bullying tactics. This is where the PMP® needs to draw on facts. If the project is running behind schedule, the project manager has to report this. If the project’s schedule is being affected by powerful stakeholders, this needs to be made clear. It has to be shown exactly where the problem lies and what steps are needed to address the problem.
For a project manager, there might be a natural reticence to confront powerful stakeholders. But, in essence, the task is the same as dealing with difficult subordinate team members. You need to confront the situation armed with objective facts. Just like tackling a late employee is done by listing all the instances of poor timekeeping (instead of sweeping, personal attacks like: “You’re always late”), confronting powerful stakeholders involves having facts at the ready.
For instance, a team member might give notice. Informally s/he might cite disparaging remarks from a senior stakeholder. Instead of reporting anecdotal evidence, conduct a formal exit interview (ideally with HR present) and get the reasons of the resignation onto the record. Now the stakeholder can be confronted and put on the spot. S/he needs to placate the disgruntled employee.
A very useful word in the project manager’s vocabulary is “no”. However, it should be an informed “no”. If faced with an unrealistic schedule, the project manager should come back and demonstrate what can be done in such a timeframe. Being bullied into accepting the schedule and not making the consequences clear is not only unprofessional, but unethical. Part of the Project Management Institute’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct is that we do what we say we will do. Make sure you embark on projects that are feasible. You are doing no one any favours by submitting to bullying, least of all yourself when the project hits the rocks.
Velopi’s project management training courses cover resource and stakeholder management. If this area is intriguing for you, you might consider one of our project management certification courses that are held online in our virtual classroom. Find out more by visiting our training page or by contacting us directly.