How to work with difficult stakeholders

On this blog I describe myself as, “a former techy turned UX Jedi”. Alas us UX Jedis aren’t as powerful as those in the Star Wars universe. Whilst Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi can bend the will of others by using the mystical power of the force, we’re stuck with good old fashioned stakeholder management. This is a real disappointment for me because I’d love to be able to quietly mutter, “Yes, these are the designs you’re looking for” and get instant buy-in from a senior stakeholder!

It’s only when you start working in UX that you realise just how important stakeholder collaboration and management is to the role. In fact, it’s something that becomes increasingly important the more senior you become. Creating well thought out designs, carrying out insightful research, they’re the easy parts. Convincing stakeholders to buy-in to those design, persuading them to follow research recommendations, to follow a user-centred design approach, they’re the really hard parts.

I’ve written before about how UX design is a team sport and is best played like one. As a UX professional you will need to collaborate with stakeholders whether you like it or not. Some of those stakeholders will be a pleasure to work with, some will be a pain to work with, that’s just the way it is in the real world. Believe me, from prickly product managers to disinterested developers and annoying architects, I’ve worked with plenty of difficult stakeholders over the years. Here are some strategies that I’ve found to be effective when working with difficult stakeholders.

Focus on key stakeholders

There are stakeholders, and then there are stakeholders that really matter. Some difficult stakeholders can just ruin your morning, others can de-rail an entire project. If you can identify key stakeholders and pro-actively plan your approach, you can focus more of your energies on the relationships that really matter.

The power-interest matrix (shown below) and Emily Webber’s Team Onion model are both great ways to identify key stakeholders and to think about how best to deal with different stakeholders, including of course difficult stakeholders.

For the power-interest matrix you map out stakeholders depending on their level of interest in your work, and their power and influence over it.

Use the Power-interest matrix to help identify key stakeholders

This will help you to identify those who you should:

Manage closely

Key stakeholders to manage closely will be those with high interest and high influence. This is where you should focus your energies, especially any key stakeholders who are, or are likely to be difficult to work with.

Keep satisfied

Stakeholders with low interest, but high influence can often be the most difficult to deal with because there are less opportunities to work together, and engagement might be low. It’s important to proactively manage these stakeholders and to think about how you can keep them satisfied so that their influence remains positive.

Keep informed

Stakeholders with high interest, but little influence should be kept informed. Don’t stress too much about any difficult stakeholders in this group unless their influence could grow over time.

Monitor

Whilst you should be aware of stakeholders with little influence and little interest, it’s generally not worth spending a lot of effort on this group. Whilst it might be nice to improving working relationships with any difficult stakeholders, it shouldn’t be a priority.

Use your UX superpowers

As a UX professional you are very well placed to understand people. Afterall, it’s a pretty key part of the job. I know that it might be hard to believe for some particularly difficult stakeholders, but stakeholders are people too, and those UX superpowers you possess can be put to great use understanding them, rather than just your users.

Interview your difficult stakeholders as you would your users. Find out what their goals and challenges are, build empathy and understanding. You can even create stakeholder personas if it helps.

Stakeholders are generally not being difficult just for the sake of it (Ok, maybe some I’ve worked with definitely have) so dig a little deeper to understand ‘why’. Why are they pushing back? Why are they not engaging? Why are you not getting buy-in? Take a look at my article discussing the importance of asking awkward questions for some probing questions that you should be asking your stakeholders.

Use your UX superpowers to build understanding and empathy with difficult stakeholders

Find common goals

Sometimes stakeholders can seem difficult because they have different goals than you have, or at least they can appear to. Like some sort of organisational tug of war competition, you both seem to be pulling in different directions. Perhaps you’re striving to improve the user experience, whilst they say that they don’t care about UX, they’re purely focused on sales.

By finding common goals you can ensure that you’re both pulling in the same direction. For example, you might outline how improving the UX will positively impact sales or use something like the five whys approach to identify a common overarching goal.

Agree roles and responsibilities

No-one likes someone stepping on their toes, either physically or metaphorically. When roles and responsibilities are unclear it’s a recipe for tension, confusion and potential conflict.

A great way to build a shared understanding of roles and responsibilities is by using the RACI model. RACI stands for: Responsible; Accountable; Consulted and Informed. As a group you should review tasks and agree who:

  • Is accountable for ensuring the task gets done.
  • Is responsible for completing the task.
  • Should be consulted during the task.
  • Should be kept informed but doesn’t need to be directly consulted.
The RACI matrix is a great way to discuss and agree roles and responsibilities

Earn stakeholder trust

Like a lot of things in life, stakeholder trust doesn’t come for free, it’s something that you have to earn. Think about how you can earn the trust of your difficult stakeholders. For example, by helping them with a task, or by taking them through previous case studies.

A fantastic way to build trust is with early wins. Identify something positive, realistic and achievable that you do to demonstrate what good design and research can achieve.

Show, don’t tell

Rather than telling stakeholders how things should be, or trying to persuade them to buy-in to something they don’t yet fully trust, it’s better to show them. For example, you might create a prototype to showcase what the user experience could be. You could put together a user journey highlighting pains and opportunities to target, or create a video showcasing usability testing issues to address.

A customer journey map is a great way to show where there are customer pains and opportunities to address

Use stakeholder terminology

It’s always easier to build a good working relationship when you speak the same language. When you’re working with stakeholders you should use their terminology, not UX gobbledygook, and utilise language that will resonate with them. For example, rather than talking about improving usability, you might talk about making it easier for users to complete key goals and tasks.

Bring difficult stakeholders on the journey

By all accounts J.Edgar Hoover, the infamous first director of the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) would certainly fall into the category of difficult stakeholders to work with. As an experienced politician President Lyndon Johnson recognised that it was better to keep J.Edgar Hoover within his inner circle, rather than have him cause trouble from afar. As he famously put it:

“It’s better to have him (J.Edgar Hoover) inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in.”

President Lyndon Johnson

It’s a good idea to follow Lyndon Johnson’s lead by bringing difficult stakeholders into the design process, for example through workshops, pairing and interviews. This allows them to better understand and feed into the process and of course it’s much harder for someone to push back on something that they’ve been actively involved with.

Share your work

If bringing difficult stakeholders directly on to the design journey isn’t possible, you should at least be regularly sharing your work with them. As Teresa Torres, product coach and author of the excellent Continuous Discovery Habits book explains:

“The key to managing stakeholders is to show your work. Don’t start with your conclusions: Share every step of the way with your stakeholders. But do it in a way that’s easy for them to digest.”

Teresa Torres, product coach

If you’re regularly sharing your work stakeholders will have visibility of what you’re doing and can better understand the rationale behind decisions and recommendations. Think about how regularly you should be sharing your work and how best to do this in a way that is easy for stakeholders to digest. For example, you might have regular show and tell sessions, create regular update videos, or have a weekly update email that is sent out to your stakeholders.

Work with difficult stakeholders individually

From children who transform into little monsters when they’re with their friends, to managers who are compelled to demonstrate their authority whenever they’re in a team setting, we all behave differently when we’re in a group. This can be especially true of difficult stakeholders who can be a delight to work with individually, but a nightmare when placed in a room full of egos.

A good tactic with difficult stakeholders is to take away the influence of group dynamics by working with them individually. This provides more scope to build a good working relationship and makes full use of your precious time with them.

Remove unhelpful group dynamics by working with difficult stakeholders individually

Have frequent check-ins

When it comes to stakeholders, absence certainly doesn’t make the heart grow fonder, it just makes a difficult relationship even more difficult. Whether in the workplace or at home, every relationship requires work, and you can’t expect a relationship to blossom if you don’t put the work in.

It’s therefore important to have frequent check-ins with your difficult stakeholders. This could mean catching-up with them fortnightly, weekly, or even every workday. This is best done in-person or at least via video call.

Don’t shy away from conflict

As every marriage guidance councillor will tell you, conflict is an important part of every healthy relationship. Sure, too much conflict certainly isn’t healthy but then neither is no conflict at all. A relationship with no conflict is either very one-sided or suggests that issues are going unresolved due to a fear of conflict.

As uncomfortable as it can be it’s important not to shy away from conflict with your difficult stakeholders. I’m not saying that you should go out all guns blazing, but that you are open about any issues and look to create an environment where you can have open and honest conversations. The books Radical Candor by Kim Scott and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lenconi have excellent advice for how to create just such an environment.

Recap

Dealing with difficult stakeholders can be frustrating, really frustrating, but it’s the reality of life as a UX professional. Some strategies that I’ve found to be effective when working with difficult stakeholders are to:

  • Focus on key stakeholders — Identify key stakeholders and pro-actively plan your approach so that you can focus on the stakeholders that really matter.
  • Use your UX superpowers — Utilise your UX superpowers to better understand and build empathy with your difficult stakeholders.
  • Find common goals — Identify common goals so that you’re pulling in the same direction.
  • Agree roles and responsibilities — Use tools such as the RACI matrix to establish a shared understanding of roles and responsibilities.
  • Earn stakeholder trust — Identify something positive, realistic and achievable to earn trust and show what good design and research can achieve.
  • Show, don’t tell — Bring your design and research to life.
  • Use stakeholder terminology — Speak the same language as your stakeholders.
  • Bring difficult stakeholders on the journey — Bring difficult stakeholders into the design process where they can better understand and feed into the process.
  • Share your work — Regularly share your work in a way that is easy for stakeholders to digest.
  • Work with difficult stakeholders individually — Remove group dynamics by working with difficult stakeholders individually.
  • Have frequent check-ins — Set-up regular check-ins with difficult stakeholders, either in-person or via video call.
  • Don’t shy away from conflict — Have open and honest conversations and be candid about issues to be resolved.

See also

Photo credits

Angry Lego man by jLasWilson from Pixabay
Team Onion model from Emily Webber
1–2–1 interview by Sora Shimazaki

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Former techy turned UX Jedi from the UK. Checkout out my blog (UX for the Masses) for more about me.

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Neil Turner

Former techy turned UX Jedi from the UK. Checkout out my blog (UX for the Masses) for more about me.