It’s a bit like the tango. Energetic, powerful, dependent on each other but with a hint of argument woven in. That’s stakeholder management at its finest.

But what about when you’re being stonewalled, and all you hear are all the reasons why what you’re proposing won’t work? We’ve all had that situation where you need buy-in from a department head whose team needs to adjust a process or report data in a different way, and who is reluctant (or downright refuses) to endorse the change with their team.

Product management is a deeply collaborative, relationship-driven job, and developing techniques for addressing a reluctant stakeholder is crucial to your success. There are 4 easy things you can do to bring a reluctant stakeholder over to your side.

1. Walk in their Shoes

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Empathy is a critical skill for a product manager, but we usually talk about it in terms of understanding our users. It’s just as important when it comes to understanding our stakeholders, though. Some of the most insightful conversations for me have come from digging into the “why” behind the reluctance I’m facing. I’ve found everything from a hesitation to change a process during the busy season (solvable) to competing top-level goals between our two teams (more serious).

To Sell, Stop Talking

When you’re working with a familiar stakeholder, you likely know what criticism you’ll be facing, and it’s easy to prepare your arguments in advance.

But wait.

If you go straight into selling mode, you’ll miss the point, and you likely won’t convince anyone of anything.

Instead, start with common ground and shared understanding. Do they understand the problem or opportunity as you do? Do they agree that it’s worth pursuing? How will the changes impact the stakeholder and their team? What does it mean for how they perceive their place in the company, in the process, and in the customer relationship?

Above all, listen. Listen for what is said and what isn’t. Invite them to share their feedback on the situation and listen, uninterrupted. When they’re done, repeat back to them what you heard. Hold space for their concerns and you’ll be able to design a product that eliminates the reluctance.

Crack Open the Resistance

If you’re going to be successful at navigating tough stakeholder relationships, you have to focus on understanding the person themselves. To crack open the resistance you’re facing, try to answer these questions:

  1. What is this person motivated by, personally and professionally?
  2. What is this person rewarded for? What does success look like in their role?
  3. What baggage are they carrying from past interactions with you or other members of the product team?

When you know the person’s value system, framework for viewing themselves in the product development process, and external motivators, it becomes a lot easier to develop a strategy for making your solution one that works for everyone.

2. Define Shared Success

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Though we’d always like goals to be aligned and an organization moving in the same direction, it’s just not always the case. You might be evaluated on your ability to reduce time spent on customer service activities by 30%, while the customer service lead might have a goal to increase NPS by 10 points. How do you achieve both at the same time? Or more to the point, how do you achieve your goal without sabotaging their goal?

The solution has to be a joint effort. Start by raising the concern – “Hey, I reviewed both our teams’ KPIs and realized that if we’re not careful, they might be in conflict.” Let the person know that you’re not out to get them…you’re there to find a way to make everyone’s goals align.

If you’re facing reluctance or skepticism, let them know that you are going to help them achieve their goal with no strings attached, because it also helps you achieve yours. You might be building the foundation for months, but nothing is more powerful than showing in actions that this stakeholder can trust you.

3. Overcome the “We Can’t” Wall

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We’ve all been in situations that seem hopeless before. When you’ve got someone ready for everything to fail and the CEO says you have to find a way, there’s one tool I’ve found effective.

Turn it around and ask what it would take to be successful. When you’re faced with, “We can’t do this in China,” ask “What would it take for this to work in China?” A variation on this is, “What would have to be true for this to work in China?”

This simple change of phrase brings the person onto your side. Suddenly, you’re working together to solve this problem. It’s no longer you vs them. It also allows the stakeholder to suspend the reality they’re mired in and lets them think creatively about the future.

Why does it work? You’re acknowledging the challenge but taking a deliberately hopeful view…maybe we’re not there yet, but what would it take? If you invite your stakeholder to dream with you, you can uncover product requirements you may never have thought of, but that you can deliver on and get over the “we can’t” wall.

4. Underpromise and Overdeliver

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The first thing a new product, program, or project manager learns is to pad your estimates. When someone asks you how long it will take, add 25%. The only exception to this is if you’re working in a well-established team with a track record that you can rely on and a rock solid understanding of both the problem and the proposed solution.

This is especially true with reluctant stakeholders. They are already looking for reasons not to support your initiative. Why give them more? I look at underpromising and overdelivering in two ways – the time estimate, discussed above, and the scope.

Chances are, when you’re talking with your stakeholder about your proposed solution, they’ll have some ideas about what would make it work for them. Pay attention to where they engage and see what you can do to insert some wins for them. Even if it’s tangential to your core product, if there’s something relatively low-effort and high reward, consider fitting it in. But here’s the catch – you don’t say anything about it until it’s live. Then you get the surprise and delight element without negatively impacting your overall timeline or product vision.

Climb the Hill

With just 3 easy steps, you can better understand your reluctant stakeholder, make them your ally, and dream together about the future. By bringing them along on the solution journey and overdelivering on your promises, you’ll quickly gain a supporter and someone who not only wants to work with you, but helps you achieve shared success and ultimately, better outcomes overall.


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