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Stop Being Difficult! How to Deal with Passive Aggressive Stakeholders

Talking to a stakeholder, you hear “Sure. Ok.” but you sense that wasn’t what the stakeholder was thinking. That’s because you are probably dealing with a difficult stakeholder — one who likely doesn’t even mean to be one. We’ve all run into them (and some of us have been the difficult ones!). “Difficult” can look like aggressive, passive aggressive, indecisive, disinterested, or some combination of all of those. Project teams have to learn to manage the difficult personalities that they encounter on a project if they have any hope of being successful. The key to managing these stakeholder types is to identify which type of difficult personality you are dealing with, and then quickly apply approaches to deal with them. This post deals with the passive aggressive stakeholder type specifically.

Identify the Stakeholder Type

Passive aggressive stakeholders can be tricky to identify and often create distractions that disrupt project goals. These stakeholders avoid being openly confrontational, but there is almost always some underlying issue that hasn’t been addressed and seeps out through their involvement on 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 “the devil’s advocate” to such an extreme that it discourages team members to voice their ideas or opinions
  • feign support in person, but openly diminish the team ‘behind closed doors’

Now Deal with Them

It is important to understand why different personality types emerge on a project. Once you have some insight to the ‘why’ of 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 discussion 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 possibly remove or address the issue directly.

The following are recommendations on how to handle passive aggressive behavior:

  • Call Them on It – When you suspect there is an issue, simply say something to the stakeholder in a one-on-one kind of way. That alone might allow him to be more honest.
  • Prioritize Concerns – Once you understand what they are really struggling with, help her understand the prioritization of her concerns in relation to project goals. Maybe you can prioritize her issues, and maybe not.
  • Ask for a Helping Hand – Ask for help on specific tasks that highlight his strengths; this emphasizes that you value his input, as well as underscoring the importance of the project. Active engagement in developing pieces of the solution can help refocus one’s effort and support of the project.

Project teams will forever face challenges, and difficult stakeholders will always be one component. In the end, 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 on how to navigate challenging conversations will increase your chances of project success – which should always be your overarching goal.

One Response to Stop Being Difficult! How to Deal with Passive Aggressive Stakeholders

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