Interview question answered: How do you deal with a difficult stakeholder?

This is probably the most commonly asked interview question for project management candidates.

For good reasons!

If you’ve ever been in charge of a big project with lots of people involved, you might have faced some problems with stakeholders. Some of them might not come to meetings, some might not answer your emails, and others might say no to your ideas. This can happen because they have different things they care about more, or they’re worried about the changes your project will bring.

So let’s explore the question.

My name is Adrian Neumeyer. I’m a former Senior Project Manager and the creator of Tactical Project Manager, and I’m excited to help you ace your upcoming job interview!

What this question means

This question suggests a “challenging” stakeholder, indicating someone who is hesitant to offer support or may even be actively undermining the project, rather than simply having different priorities.

What specific skills does the question focus on?

  • Your ability/skill to deal with people from different levels (employee, manager, executive)
  • Your ability to build trust with stakeholders

My comments on this question

You will need to gain their trust and make them realize how the project impacts their team or him/her personally. One likely reason why the stakeholder is unwilling to collaborate is because he/she is afraid of the changes brought about by the project.

How to answer the question

  • Describe in detail how you would go about building trust with the stakeholder and gain their support.

Suggested techniques for building trust with stakeholders

  • Have an informal, personal meeting with the stakeholder (don’t come with an agenda). If you are on the same location drop by their desk. If not set up a status call with them.
  • Show interest in the stakeholder’s area of work
  • Try to understand what challenges he is facing in his area
  • Listen!
  • Try to figure out why he is unwilling to support your project: What is he afraid of? What negative impact does he expect the project to cause?
  • Explain how his area/work will be affected
  • See if you can make any concessions that would satisfy / calm down the stakeholder. This is a negotiation: you try to achieve a win-win scenario for both parties.
  • If none of the above techniques work, escalate the matter to their manager and make sure everything is documented.

Sample answer to the question ‘How do you deal with a difficult stakeholder?’

How I would answer the question:

“In such a case, I would first try to understand the reason for the stakeholder’s reservations. Why are they unwilling to support the project? What are they afraid of? What negative consequences do they foresee for their area, their team etc.? What are their objections?

To get this information, I would set up an informal meeting with the manager. Just a friendly conversation where I try to learn about his area, their current projects as well as any goals or vision he has set for his department. I think it’s crucial to show genuine interest in his area in order to build trust. He should walk away from the meeting knowing that his he is being heard and feeling we care about his area and are doing everything in our power to minimize the burden on his team.
In the meeting, I would also explain in detail how his area will be affected, based on our assessment of their processes.

Once I understand his specific objections, we can look into possible solutions. We can talk about the timing of individual activities, we can also talk about getting additional support from other teams to limit the effort for his team. Maybe there is some extra functionality they would like to have so they can use the new system more effectively. I don’t know, I have to find out during the meeting.

If we didn’t achieve any agreement during the meeting, I would escalate the matter to the stakeholder’s manager, providing documentation of our conversations and the status of decisions.”

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  • Adrian Neumeyer

    Hi! I’m Adrian, founder of Tactical Project Manager and Ex-Project Manager with over ten years of experience in project management. Led large-scale IT implementations and business projects. I started Tactical Project Manager to offer you a straightforward and pragmatic approach to project management, enabling you to lead any project with confidence.

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