If there’s a project underway, negative stakeholders will be there. You can count on it.
They’re not always easy to spot, but on occasion, their existence is painfully obvious. Whether they’re a noisemaker on the front end or a stealth trouble maker behind the scenes, it’s your job to manage them.
Who’s a Negative Stakeholder?
Negative stakeholders are those who will be, or perceive themselves to be, negatively affected by the project. They could be individuals, groups, or entire organizations and they exist for numerous reasons.
Some seem to exist as though it’s the calling of their cantankerous personalities. They’re miserable on the inside and think you should be, too. Reminiscent of the Grinch, they “stink, stank, stunk!”
Others have valid reasons for opposing a project. For example, on a project to implement robotics in a factory, negative stakeholders may include the workers who will lose their jobs due to automation. They certainly won’t want the project to succeed. Who could blame them?
On a project to open a new coal mine, environmentalists will rise up as a group of negative stakeholders. In the interest of protecting the land, the water, and the supported ecologies, they’ll work passionately to quash a new surface mining project. It’s easy to see their perspective.
Regardless of why someone is a negative stakeholder, learning to spot one — and using the right strategy to deal with one — can mean the difference between project success and failure. To apply the same treatment to them all can be disastrous. You must determine whether their noise and trouble-making is worth your attention. Next, you have to determine what that “attention” should entail. Therein lies the rub.
9 Tips and 3 Templates to Help You
You can’t deal with negative stakeholders if you can’t spot them. Identification begins with a review of the project charter. While you’re gathering names, start recording them with template #1, a stakeholder register.
Continue through your usual process for identifying everyone who has an interest in the project; regardless of whether they’re a positive or negative stakeholder. Review the contract, the procurement documents, and your lessons learned. Look at stakeholder registers from similar projects and talk to stakeholders you’ve already identified. Include the sponsor, the project team, the customer, and the suppliers.
Pull key stakeholders together and brainstorm for a bit. Consider applicable laws, regulations, and licensing and inspection requirements. Consider who will be involved in the project. Who will be impacted by the project? List them all in the stakeholder register and update it anytime new stakeholders are discovered.
During the identification process, you will have likely discovered some negative stakeholders. A member of the project team might give you a heads up about one and the project sponsor might identify two more. Record them in the register and move to Tip #2.
By now, you’ve identified several stakeholders and placed all their names and contact information on a register. The primary purpose of this step is to analyze the interests of everyone and to classify them.<
We classify stakeholders because, throughout the project, they won’t all receive the same attention. Some stakeholders will require additional or different types of communication than others. You’ll want to know who they are. Some will require greater engagement and you’ll need to plan for that. The potential actions of some will pose no risk while that of others could be devastating. This knowledge will affect your risk planning.
To get you started, here’s template #2, a stakeholder analysis template.
Identify their interests in the project. Identify their expectations of the project and their levels of influence. Analyze the possible impact or support that each one could generate.
As you go through the analysis process, decide which ones you should keep satisfied, which ones you should manage closely, who you will monitor and who will keep informed. If you’re not sure, this is a good time to seek expert judgment.
The fancy footwork here is much about soft skills. There are very good reasons to slow down and solicit the voice of negative stakeholders. Besides offering the project a different perspective, it might point you towards previously unidentified risks.
Listening adds additional value as well. For some negative stakeholders, it helps build trust because you care enough to ask. It can also help resolve conflict before it happens and it can reduce resistance to the upcoming change.
On occasion, people are negative stakeholders simply because they don’t understand the value of the change. Some only see additional work, but might not see the large gains it will produce.
Make sure all stakeholders clearly understand the project goals, its objectives, benefits, and even its risks. Transparency goes a long way and this step can be just the right place to gain buy-in.
Buy-in increases your chances for success and nothing speaks buy-in like engagement.
After you’ve worked to understand the needs and expectations of negative stakeholders, build appropriate opportunities for engagement that occur throughout the project life cycle.
For some stakeholders, the engagement activities might be as minimal as including them in project communications. For others, it might include allowing them to participate in the change request process or to submit issues as they arise.
Based on the information gathered during stakeholder analysis, develop meaningful opportunities for engagement that help minimize resistance. Add the communication activities to the communication plan and include the engagement activities in template #3, the stakeholder management plan.
Some negative stakeholders are directly involved in the project and they work with intent to harm it. They do this by creating a lot of change requests, imposing impossible quality requirements, or speaking ill of the state of the project . Others work behind the scenes to bend the ears of influential players.
If necessary, solicit help from positive stakeholders to negate the influence of negative stakeholders. Call on your alliances to message positive communications about the project.
Step up your game regarding project communications and ensure the right message is placed front and center.
Where the project is placed at risk, escalation might be necessary. During an enterprise project, where a team member refuses to perform, and nothing else seems to work, consider escalating the matter to their functional supervisor. If absolutely necessary, call upon the support of the project sponsor.
For a public project where negative stakeholders work to physically obstruct progress, call the police. For some situations, escalation is the clear immediate solution, for others, it should be used with great caution. Though it can be a project saver, escalation can also be a career killer. It’s one of the moves that could leave you on the sidelines for the rest of the game.
If escalation isn’t an option, consider isolation. Where negative stakeholders are causing damage to the project, remove them from every critical task. Leave them in positions where they are least able to harm the project.
If you intend to isolate a negative stakeholder, first consider the potential risks. Like escalation, isolation is a move that should be used with care.
As challenging as some negative stakeholders can be, others require no effort at all. In fact, it’s best to simply ignore them. These are the stakeholders that have little or no influence over the project. There’s little or no risk in not engaging them. As to these negative stakeholders, project time is better spent focusing on the goal.
Quiet the Noise
If you’re managing projects, you’ll find your share of negative stakeholders. Whether they’re flailing their arms on the front end of the project or yelling in a bullhorn through the middle of it, you can use these 9 tips and 3 templates presented above to help quiet the noise.
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About the Author
Kimberlin R. Wildman, JD, PMP is a former attorney, a PMP certified project manager, a federal proposal manager, and the founder of MyPM. She has two decades of experience interviewing subject matter experts, spotting opportunities, and leading projects to successful closures. Author Bio