Stop Being Difficult! How to Deal with Passive Aggressive Stakeholders
We’ve all run into challenging stakeholders—some of us have even been the difficult ones. “Difficult” can mean aggressive, passive aggressive, indecisive, uninterested, or all of the above.
If they have any hope of it being successful, project teams have to learn to manage the difficult personalities they encounter on a project. The key is to identify which type of difficult personality you are dealing with, then quickly apply approaches to smooth over the situation.
Identify the Stakeholder Type
One type of difficult stakeholder is the passive aggressive one. They can be tricky to identify and often create major distractions on a project. These stakeholders avoid being openly confrontational, but there is usually some underlying issue that hasn’t been addressed and comes to light during the project. Passive aggressive stakeholders will usually:
- Use body language or underlying tones that indicate they are not satisfied, even if their words say otherwise
- Send emails that question elements of the project but do not discuss these concerns in meetings
- Play “devil’s advocate” to such an extreme that it discourages team members from voicing their ideas or opinions
- Feign support in person but openly diminish the team behind closed doors
How to Deal with Them
It is important to understand why different personality types emerge on a project. Once you have some insight into the “why” behind their perspective or actions, it is easier to appropriately address and handle their behavior.
One key to managing passive aggressive stakeholders is to identify the issue that has not been stated or addressed. For example, someone who is consistently providing deliverables late or not participating in discussions may behave this way because she felt her contributions were not valued on a previous project. Once you have that piece of information, you can try to remove or address the issue directly.
Here are some recommendations on how to handle passive aggressive behavior.
1. Call the stakeholder on it. When you suspect there is an issue, simply say something to the stakeholder one on one in a kind way. That alone might allow her to be more honest.
2. Prioritize concerns. Once you understand what she is really struggling with, help her understand the prioritization of her concerns in relation to project goals.
3. Ask for a helping hand. Ask for help on specific tasks that highlight her strengths. This emphasizes that you value her input and underscores the project's importance. Active engagement in developing pieces of the solution can help refocus a difficult contributor’s effort and support in the project.
Project teams will forever face challenges with difficult stakeholders. Understand that you will not be able to solve every problem on every project; some challenging stakeholders simply may not be able (or want) to be appeased. However, arming yourself proactively with ideas about how to navigate challenging conversations will increase your chances of project success—which should always be your overarching goal.