Strategies for Reframing Your Stakeholder’s Bad Habits
How to decode and maneuver the bad habits of your trickiest stakeholders.
Navigating how to work with a new stakeholder is challenging. After all, they're often a stranger when you kick off the project. As your working relationship begins, your stakeholder's bad habits may start to emerge. The narrative we tell ourselves about those habits matters. We can get overwhelmed with needing to grow a sixth sense for mitigating disaster. But staying flustered like this will prevent you from getting to know your stakeholders—how they think and what’s important to them—and forming a productive and enjoyable working relationship.
Instead, if we exercise empathy and examine those same “bad” habits, we can focus less on how the stakeholder operates and more on why. In my experience, the bad habits of a stakeholder usually stem from one of three reasons: disorganization, absence from the process, or being very hard to please. Decoding the reasons a client operates the way they do is paramount to finding the right tactics to use when forming a healthy and productive working relationship.
The Bad Habits
This client is scattered. Email threads? They’ve never heard of those. The information they send to you is often incomplete or piecemeal—or maybe just never comes at all. And they’ll be sure to ask you to resend whatever it was you needed them to look at again, and again, and again.
What could these disorganized habits be signaling?
Perhaps they are over-extended in their responsibilities or working on one too many things at a time.
If they are short on time, digging through their inbox might be too time-consuming, and asking you to resend something is the quickest way to find what they are looking for.
Maybe their tardiness is due to not understanding how to prioritize their time whenever they finally get to attend to your project.
If their organization seems as frazzled as they do, there might be limitations with finding someone available to provide input or clarify instructions.
When possible, consolidate links and information. If a shared digital workspace exists between you and the client, leverage it like you would a shared folder, so you only need to point the client to one place instead of many. Even a shared document with a bulleted list of hyperlinks can be helpful. Consider also consolidating the number of tools and platforms to keep things as streamlined as possible.
Be reasonable, but be firm. Inaction has repercussions, so be explicit about the impacts of a missed deadline or incomplete information. When and where appropriate to do so, enforce those repercussions.
Go the extra mile, whether that means taking the extra step to store or export files in a format you know makes it easier for the client to review or being willing to respond to a last-minute request. Those actions demonstrate care and usually (in my experience) don’t go unappreciated.
Absent From The Process
The Bad Habits
These clients want to be involved but aren’t—at least, not in an effective way—and are likely ill-informed about the process for which they could contribute. Day-to-day responsibilities have been delegated to someone else. It's unclear how empowered that individual is to make decisions on behalf of their boss. Besides, an absent leader can unexpectedly make an appearance in a meeting or an email thread and offer an opinion from way out of left field. When it comes time to officially sign off on deliverables, they don’t. At least, not right away... because now they need time to review all the completed work (which would have happened had they just come to the meetings).
What might a client’s absence tell you about how they operate?
Assuming their absence is due to lack of time, they might just be overwhelmed with too much information to absorb by the time they get back into the project.
Their seemingly misguided opinion may also speak to the bigger picture or business context they’re focused on.
Or perhaps they’re thinking about the best way to position the work so it gets approved more easily.
Ultimately though, they are still accountable for the work and its outcomes, so taking some extra time to review things and make a final sign-off is pretty likely.
Instead of focusing on what you need from this client, reframe your asks as “help me help you” requests. Ask your client what they need from you to engage more deeply. A lot of times, posing questions like this can help clients realize their shortcomings rather than the perceived shortcomings of the project team. It’s also a simple way to invite the client to directly communicate needs so you don’t have to guess.
If your client has delegated responsibilities to someone else, it’s important to get specific on what that person can and cannot do. Is this person able to make decisions about the timeline? Can they approve the work? If the answer is no to either of those questions, highlight to the lead client that, without autonomy, this person does not replace a true decision-maker or champion of the work.
Always leave a paper trail. Your client is busy; if they haven’t made time to stay up to date on the project, how can you expect them to retain the discussions you’ve both had about risks, deadlines, or the roles and responsibilities of their team? It’s also a good habit to repeat and confirm a shared understanding to give the client every opportunity to correct the record before moving on.
Hard To Please
The Bad Habits
These clients are slow to trust and conform to project processes. Instead, they want things done their way and require lots of visibility, which only creates distractions from the real work that needs attention. Their expectations—of timing, cost, or the sheer amount of work that can get accomplished—just aren’t realistic. Eventually, the relationship between your team and this client may begin devolving into one concerned more with optics than performance.
“Too hard to please” sounds pretty harsh. How else can this behavior be interpreted?
Maybe their lack of trust in the process simply comes from not being able to visualize what they can’t yet see.
They want visibility because they are detail-oriented and work best when they have as much information as possible.
They have high standards that may, in turn, contribute to some high expectations.
They're under pressure too! And optics are important to keep in check so this project looks like a success.
Be explicit about how each step of the process feeds into the next. It's never wise to assume the process is obvious or well-understood, especially to those less familiar with the particulars of a project.
Present options, even if they aren’t all good ones. Show the client how you got to your recommendation, which oftentimes has happened through the process of eliminating less-than-ideal options. Doing so can help build trust in situations where neither option is exactly what the client wants and can give them some sense of control over the outcome (even if you know it is a foregone conclusion).
Challenge yourself to shift your mindset. If initial expectations seem unrealistic, are there creative solutions that could get close to meeting them? What if you worked a little differently or made some tradeoffs? It’s more helpful to compromise and meet a client where they are than to immediately disregard a request because it doesn’t fit the current plan.
In Conclusion: Be A Stellar Teammate
The strategies described above are geared towards individuals working one-on-one with a stakeholder. But, managing stakeholders is a team sport, no matter what type of client you may encounter.
While there are certain individuals who tend to act as the first line of defense, every person on the project team can—and should—participate.
The next time you find yourself with a disorganized, absent, or hard-to-please client on your hands, try these three strategies to be the best teammate you can be:
Take cues from your project manager and account manager — oftentimes these people are having more frequent conversations with the client and may have some context that could help you approach your specific part of this project. PMs and AMs may have a spidey sense you won’t have around areas like how to prepare for presentations, the format in which work is shared with the client, and limitations of scope. Be willing to listen to those instincts.
Be adaptable — the dynamics of every team vary from project to project. What worked for you once may not work a second time. Being open to working differently and getting outside of comfort zones are both qualities of a healthy and productive team.
Present a united front — specifically in front of a client. If we as a team have drawn a line in the sand about scope or process, it is the responsibility of everyone on that team to stand by that boundary. In turn, if we have a moment of misalignment in front of the client, take a beat and create the opportunity to reconvene as a team. In both scenarios, presenting a united front avoids giving the client the impression that information or process depends on who they are talking to. And it’s also a surefire way to know that your team has your back.