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The customer is always right. That donor is a royal pain in the butt, but we can’t build that new science center without their money. When is that parent going to leave us alone so that we can get our work done? UGH, I’m never going to finish this project if that co-worker doesn’t stop talking about his/her great ideas. How many times have we heard one or more of those statements? Most of us, at some point, have worked with difficult people. In this blog, we discuss six strategies for managing difficult people.

Face it. Some people have a bad habit of changing their minds or they can’t make decisions. Some have more money than sense, and some want to flaunt that wealth to make others uncomfortable. Some want to micro-manage your projects. Some demand frequent communications that take time away from work. Others don’t want to be involved until there is a problem – and then, you can be assured that they will be grumpy, at best.

It can be a challenge to keep a project team focused on scope when a difficult stakeholder is causing chaos. These strategies can help keep your team sane and focused, when stakeholders are trying to wreak havoc.

  1. Focus people on the why. People will engage with the “why” before they will engage with the “what.” Understanding the vision behind your project and getting a team excited about the why will energize your team, allowing them to move forward without you having to push so hard. Can you get those difficult people to buy into why you are doing this project? If these difficult people are not on your project team, help them buy into the vision and find a way to channel their energy away from the team and into objectives that will positively impact the organization.
People will engage with the why before they will engage with the what. Share on X
  1. Develop and clearly document a clear understanding of your project and what is needed to accomplish the objectives. How many times have you seen projects go awry because the three or four word activity description on the activity list was ambiguous, and team members went off on a tangent? And, how many times have you seen projects go into execution without a clear understanding of the goals. If that difficult person is your customer, spend time understanding what they really want and what they can afford.
  1. Communicate, communicate, and communicate some more. A strong project leader or a designated team member should manage communications with difficult people. Understand and document their perspectives in a format that allows easy reference. If you are dealing with a large group of stakeholders, that documentation will be invaluable. What are the hot buttons? How often do they expect an update? How do they want updates? An emailed status report, inclusion in team meetings, access to project dashboards, or even, a snail mail update might be considered.
  1. Encourage a culture of honesty. Develop a culture that encourages team members to report problems quickly. I’ve worked with project managers who have looked at Smart Projex and told me that they would never use it. They didn’t want their management or customers to understand how much fudging they do on their weekly status reports. Sadly, I’m concerned that this culture of keeping management and customers in the dark may be more widespread than I know.
  1. Contain Costs. Keeping a close eye on the budget can help insure that projects stay on track. Throwing more money at a problem, in and of itself, rarely solves the problem. Cost overruns may be a sign that scope creep is setting in.
  1. Develop a clear system for handling changes.  Every project should have a clear change management process that everyone understands. Who can submit changes? Who approves changes? How are changes evaluated? Without an appropriate change management process, a team can spin mindlessly every time a new idea is introduced.

While it is important to keep your key stakeholders (the people who are very interested in your project) intimately involved in the project, there are people who can challenge your project. Managing difficult people requires skill, clarity, communication, and boundaries.

If the stakeholder is your customer, remember that if your customer could develop or build the software or the widget that they have hired you to develop or build, they would. It is important to stay focused on letting the customer dictate the overall objectives without micromanaging each step in the process.

When the stakeholder is an investor or a donor, remember that they want you to be successful. Get them excited about the vision for your projects and channel their energy into finding more funding, if wanted. Help them understand that the team will be more successful if they can work without unnecessary interruptions and make them aware of the process for submitting new ideas.

Let me know if these suggestions help you in the comments below.

Want more ideas? Check out our free ebook: Project Management Tips That Will Make Your Client Happy. Even if you don’t work for external clients, you have someone in your organization depending on you.

Photo Credit: You say yes, you say no; by Angeline Veeneman; CC BY-ND 2.0 License;