Project Management Rebooted™ | Dealing with Crazed Stakeholders

Remember a project where you had a couple of special stakeholders who sucked up so much of your time and energy, you had to pour in countless extra hours to get the work done, not to mention the added expense of special project manager detox therapy and a 4-week vacation somewhere quiet and relaxing for yourself?

Or maybe you're a newcomer to managing projects, you haven't managed your own project, but you've witnessed other project managers getting run over by certain project stakeholders driving Bigfoot monster trucks, jamming it into four-wheel drive as they repeatedly run over the project manager and project team, leaving everyone in the Monster Jam pit stunned, bewildered, and shell-shocked.

If you haven't experienced this yet, then read on to find out how to handle these often stress-inducing stakeholder types.

If you've been there, done that, and maybe don't have the tee shirt yet but you do have some giant tire tread marks on your back - this is for you too!

What are Crazed Stakeholders?  How do you manage them?  Why does it matter?


To shake up the boredom that could surround this topic, we're going to look at these questions through a couple of Crazed Stakeholder insect archetypes.  You can't deny that the insect world makes for an interesting analogy for this discussion.  It just does.

No matter where you are in the project management world, you've probably seen the array of human behaviors that make up the microcosm we call a project.  It's inevitable you will land in a project scenario with one or more stakeholders who behave badly.  For the sake of this discussion, we are calling them Crazed Stakeholders.

Before I go any further, I want to emphasize we are talking about the person's behavior.  Not the person themselves.  Big difference.

The Crazed Stakeholder spectrum is far and wide – lots of examples to choose from.  In this post, I’m going to focus on Spiders, Beetles, and Ticks.  In my own project management journey, I’ve had at least one stakeholder fall into one of these categories at some level, running from “slightly annoying, but manageable” to “red alert, project fail coming my way, life as I know it is over”.

The one thing you must remember, is that while I’m using insect analogies here to help tell the story, at the end of the day Crazed Stakeholders are human beings.  They have families, they have past trauma and pain that has shaped them into who they are now, and they have stuff going on in their personal lives we have no idea about. Sometimes the crazed behavior is temporary, and sometimes it's just a fact of life you will need to deal with on an ongoing basis.

They're just like you and me in many ways.

So, keep that in mind as we dissect the Crazed Stakeholder taxonomy because one day in the future, you could be the Crazed Stakeholder.

Let's start with The Spider:  This Crazed Stakeholder type may be off to the side at first. Busy spinning a web.

They don't see you, and you don't see them right away because you're neck deep in planning with the team - you are too busy to see the web being spun.

They usually have some form of direct influence on your project or sprint, being someone you consult or inform during project planning and execution.

At first, you're out there, flying around your project, planning, coordinating, collaborating, and then suddenly, you find yourself caught in the spider's web.  You didn't see this coming.

Maybe you didn't consult The Spider.  Maybe you forgot to fill them in on something of importance.  Whatever the case, you are caught in the web.

How do you get out? Remain calm.

Do not thrash around like a crazed Project Manager who is caught in a spider web. This makes it worse.

Once you realize you're in a web, take time to clear your mind of all the fear and assumptions, and try to understand how you might free yourself.  This means make some actual space to think.  Often, we make the situation worse by reacting horribly (WTF? I'm entangled by a giant spider web! I'll show that Spider. Thrash. Thrash.)   Congratulations! You have now alerted The Spider to your distress. This will not end well for you.

What types of collaborative behaviors can you start employing with The Spider to start getting free?

Can you brave a meeting with the person to discuss their project needs and how you might be able to help them?  Sharing information, more honest and transparent communication, holding meetings where The Spider is invited to give input and help define goals may help get them what they need to feel like they are in the loop and working toward their agenda.

It's your job to figure out what they are really hungry for.  Many times, it is not you they specifically want.  They have underlying goals, objectives, and fears that drive them to spin the web and catch whatever lands in it to satisfy whatever is driving them.

The success factor for you getting out of the web is to lay down your ego and have a transparent conversation with this stakeholder and find a way to give them a little something that satisfies their appetite without turning into The Spider's next meal.

 

Next, we have the The Golden Tortoise Beetle:  the type of Crazed Stakeholder who does not communicate with you when they are upset with you.

The only way you know something is not right is from their nonverbal behavior - their outward appearance.

The Golden Tortoise Beetle is usually a translucent gold when undisturbed; it looks nice and beautiful.  But when disturbed, this guy turns into a brilliant shade of red.  The "I'm madder than you can even imagine right now" shade of red.

Even the simplest bump causes the color change.  They don't bite or sting.  They just change color.

And they play dead.

A Golden Tortoise Beetle Crazed Stakeholder type can be trickier to deal with than anything that stings or bites because other than the turning red, there is no indication they are bummed out with you and what you doing; you have no idea if they are going to work with you on moving through the conflict.

They are playing dead.

This Crazed Stakeholder type can be tough to work with because no matter how much you approach them to work through the conflict, it is not easy to get them to open up and collaborate.  They are busy playing dead.

They could be completely overwhelmed, shut down into denial, and can't deal with one more thing like you and your project.  And try you must to break through with a private conversation or two, asking the right questions to ease their way:  "I notice something is bothering you in the project meetings - can you share what your concerns are?"   "How can I help you with regarding this project?"

If you still get nowhere, find a peer of theirs who may be able to give you insight on how to break through.   If this isn't possible, there is not much you can do here…..except leave them alone and monitor the situation, continuing to be open to help them move back to their beautiful golden color as it relates to your project.

 

The Tick:  This stealthy stakeholder type has the ability to take a toll over time without you even knowing it.

Ticks are a blood-sucking parasite that often go unnoticed while they inflict their damage through the continuous siphoning of their host's blood.

As they feed, they release an anti-coagulant that enables the host's blood to keep right on flowing into their bloated little bodies.

I realize this might be a somewhat horrific image - using the analogy of a blood sucking tick to convey a Crazed Stakeholder type. But, I'm not going to avoid talking about the harsh realities of the negative human behaviors you may encounter as a project manager. That would defeat the purpose of this post.

Most of the Project Managers I know have had a Tick type stakeholder somewhere in their career.  Once you recognize a tick has been hanging out, you must take action to immediately remove it.  If you don't, your risk of contracting tick-borne diseases increases, which can cause a wide range of project ailments including project manager fatigue, increased unresolved conflicts, and general project malaise.

So what's the best way to remove a Tick?

Definitely do not grab it and try to pull it out with your fingers, as you will most likely be leaving part of the Tick behind, embedded in your project, causing painful, ongoing issues.

The best way is to get some fine point tweezers and have someone expertly remove it for you.

What does this mean?  If you have a Tick stakeholder, no amount of reasoning, or well-intentioned conversation is going to placate them.  If you try to remove the Tick yourself, you risk serious consequences.

You need assistance from your Project Sponsor, or someone who has the ability to remove the offending Stakeholder respectfully and carefully.  Do not be lulled into the belief that if you leave them alone or avoid the removal process that things will get better.

They will not.  Deal with this the minute you recognize its presence.

While I'm not covering the entire universe of Crazed Stakeholder insect archetypes out there or getting overly detailed, I figure this is an opportunity to highlight a few of the most common, difficult-to-manage examples, and give you some ideas on dealing with them authentically and professionally; to encourage you to leverage all of your relationship and communication skills in your toolbox to be professional, resilient, and firm in managing these types of people in your business universe.

Hopefully your project will also include plenty of beneficial stakeholders: the butterflies, the ladybugs, the honey bees - people involved in your project who will join you in your quest to make the managing of the Crazed Stakeholders a little easier.

All of this said, your long-haul strategy should not be to focus on the behaviors of your stakeholders.

Focus on YOUR own response to Crazed Stakeholder behaviors.  How you can use your soft skill acumen, your relationship building strategies and experience to manage unwanted behaviors that have the potential to undermine your project outcomes.

Have you done your best to communicate, be transparent, to find ways to meet the Stakeholder where they are at?

Even if you do all the right things well and professionally, experimenting with several different intergrity-based approaches to deal with a Crazed Stakeholder, at the end of the day you, your project, and possibly the project team may continue to suffer under changeless circumstances.

Then you'll have to make the call on whether the circumstances are big enough and nasty enough for you to walk away and move on.

Your mental, emotional, and physical health are more important than any project, or any job for that matter.

It is simply not worth the cost.

Ever.

 

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