Photo courtesy of Rawpixel

Dealing with Difficult Stakeholders and Team Members

Published on 3rd July 2017

Experiencing disagreement and conflict is part of our job as product managers and product owners. We work with a broad range of people from different departments, and it's only natural that we don't always agree and sometimes clash. But constructively navigating conflict can be challenging. This article shares my recommendations for dealing with difficult people and successfully addressing conflict.

It’s a Common Challenge

“You just can’t make up your mind. I really wish that for once, you gave us clear priorities,” Jane said accusingly at the end of the workshop and walked out of the room. [1] It felt like a slap in the face, an unprovoked attack. How could she say something so wrong?

Does this story sound familiar? I certainly find that as product managers and product owners, we sometimes have to deal with pushy, stressed, or unhelpful stakeholders and team members—with people who are just being difficult.

If we reflect on the nature of our work, then this shouldn’t come as a surprise: Product management is as much about people as it is about products. Friction and conflict commonly appear when people from different departments work together. What’s more, innovation and effective teamwork are only possible if we can leverage conflict and disagreement. [2]


Don’t Ignore the Conflict

It would be easy brush aside the issue and forget what Jane said. With so many things competing for your attention, should you really worry about Jane’s remark? But what would happen if you did ignore the conflict?

Chances are that you would feel aversion towards Jane, even if you are not fully aware of it. Next time when you meet, this might cause you to say something you later regret, which would make things only worse. What’s more, tolerating wrong behaviour sets a precedence and creates an unhealthy work atmosphere; disrespect invites disrespect.

Therefore, do not ignore conflict. See it as an opportunity to improve your product management practice and leadership skills. This, of course, is sometimes easier said than done: Addressing the issue requires courage. Jane might a powerful or influential individual like senior management stakeholder. Additionally, you have to be willing to honestly reflect on your own intentions and actions, and be open to change your behaviour.


Regain Your Composure

When exposed to unkind behaviour, it can be hard for me not to lose my calm. But before responding to Jane and telling her what you think, stop and reflect. Become aware of how you are, how you are feeling. Are you disappointed, upset, or angry? If so, then that’s ok. But bear in mind that negative thoughts and emotions cloud your perception; they will make it difficult to have a constructive conversation with Jane.

What’s more, negativity affects your own wellbeing; it makes you unhappy. Holding on to anger, a wise man once said, is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of harming someone else: The only thing certain is that you will get burned. [3] Even if anger, fear, or worries seem to have a tight grip on you, they will weaken and go away if you do not feed them. Acknowledge them, but do not engage and identify with them.

Additionally, bring to mind the positive qualities of the difficult person. Jane surely can’t be all mean and evil. Think of moments when you saw Jane help others, make a constructive contribution, or commit other acts of kindness. Remind yourself that anybody who acts in unskilful ways must be unhappy deep inside. This will help you empathise with the difficult person and develop compassion, rather than villainising the individual and holding a grudge against her. Finally, tell yourself that as human beings, we have all acted in inappropriate ways and said unkind things; I’m certainly not perfect by any means.


Put Things into Perspective

Next, ask yourself why you perceive the person as difficult. What makes the individual so hard to deal with? Why did you respond in the way you did? Why did Jane’s remark make you feel angry or hurt, for example? Was it purely because of what Jane said, or has it something to do with you?

I notice that my own response to unskilful behaviour is particularly strong when deeply held opinions and believes are challenged. If I think of myself as someone who is decisive and knows what’s right for his product, then I am likely to be more affected by Jane’s remarks—independently of her intention. Similarly, I find that when I am stressed or tense, any wrongdoing I experience feels worse than when I am relaxed and content.

Finally, look at the data and calmly consider what actually happened. Jane’s remark might have felt like a slap in the face. But did she mean to be nasty? And did you contribute to the conflict in any way? Was there anything unhelpful you might have said or done to Jane, intentionally or unintentionally? This doesn’t excuse Jane’s behaviour, of course. But it helps put things into perspective and move on from blaming Jane to resolving the conflict.


Respond Skilfully

When you meet Jane to address the issue, approach the meeting with the intent to understand and reconcile, not to win. Conflict resolution is not about getting the better of the other person; it’s about developing a shared perspective on what happened, agreeing on the changes required, and rebuilding trust.

Share your perspective and experience in a constructive way, and be kind: Jane may not be (fully) aware of her actions or their impact on you. At the same time, be honest and firm. Use the I language; describe what you saw and heard, and how it affected you. For example, “I heard you challenge my ability to prioritise and make effective product decision; then I saw you leave without giving me time to respond. I consequently felt angry and disappointed.”

Separate the person from the issue. Don’t blame or attack the other person, don’t generalise (“that’s typical of you”), don’t talk about what other people may have said (“John says so too”), don’t speculate (“it’s probably because you didn’t get what you wanted in the previous meeting”). Listen with an open mind and try to suspend judgement. We all hold a piece of truth.

Offer a helping hand and make constructive suggestions for resolving the issue. Suggest changes that you are prepared make, such as, “I will invite you from now on to the product roadmapping workshops so you better understand the overall constraints we have to take into account when prioritising the product backlog,” or “I will listen more carefully to your suggestions so you no longer feel ignored and side-lined.”

State the positive changes that you wish for, for instance, “it would really help me if you tried to be more patient and understanding,” or “it would be great if you could let me know sooner if you feel your opinion is not heard.”

Remember: While you want to be kind and caring, you are not responsible for the other person’s thoughts and feelings. You can encourage another person to change. But you cannot make someone change her attitude and behaviour.


Move on

If everything works out well, you’ve made up with Jane and agreed on a way forward. What’s then left to do is strengthening the relationship and fully re-establishing the trust that might have been lost. This is achieved by working together as well as socialising, for example, having coffee or lunch together.

If the conversation didn’t go well, consider what the next steps are. Should you talk to Jane again? Should you involve someone who can mediate? Should you escalate the issue? Talking to your manager or ScrumMaster / coach might help you choose the right action.


Notes

[1] Note that Jane is a fictitious character. I assume that the conflict can be resolved by the people involved unlike severe transgressions, such as violence or sexual harassment. If in doubt, involve your manager and human resources.

[2] Tuckman’s team building model, for example, suggests that people have to creatively manage conflict to be able to work together productively.

[3] This quote is often attributed to the Buddha but it may actually be from Buddhaghosa.

Post a Comment or Ask a Question

19 Comments

  • Connie says:

    Hello! I stumbled over your article just when I was struggling with a very “special” stakeholder. He has always been grumpy, always challenging the team’s decisions, his favorite sentence is “it can’t be that hard”.
    Now he has started acting outright insulting, openly doubting my team’s competence as well as my own.
    I took your advice to ask why he was so unhappy and found out that he was having problems with other projects that he was projecting on us. However, thinking of something kind he has done was a difficult task – I have honestly never seen anything particularly kind from his side. So I did some exercise where I imagined him going to the fun fair with his grandchildren (that I’m not even sure he has but that’s not important here). It helped me a lot.

    Just thought I’d leave this here. 🙂

    • Roman Pichler Roman Pichler says:

      Hi Connie, Lovely story–thank you for sharing. Great to hear that thinking or at least imaging a positive trait of the difficult person has helped you. All the best!

  • YnnoN KuhC says:

    Hello Roman – Just like Idu, I have a situation where the SM basically wants to ‘run the show’. I am the PO and he attempts to bully me at every chance he gets. He feels like I owe him explanations to every single decision I make. He undercuts my decisions and run off with his own ideas to the dev team for them to implement his own solutions before I even am aware of it. He feels because he is senior to me within the company that he knows better. I confronted him about this several times and his response was that as a PO, I shouldn’t be making any decisions. He feels the Business stakeholders should be the ones making the decision (isn’t that really funny?). I am really trying to find a way to work with him but he constantly undercuts me at every chance he gets. He was kicked out of the Scrum team because of this attitude initially, but that meant I had to do the job of PO and SM. It wasn’t really helpful to me, so I brought him back to the team and made it clear to him that his job is to be SM only, nothing more nothing less… Well that didn’t take long, he is back to his old ways. His recent excuse is that ‘Oh it takes a village and we are all helping one another’

    Any advice in dealing with this situation will help. I am looking to avoid any deep conflict between the both of us, but history with him says it isn’t going to be easy.

    • Hi Ynnon,

      Thank you for sharing your challenge. There are two things you may want to try: First, arrange a one-on-one meeting with the Scrum Master. Kindly but honestly describe the behaviour you have seen and how it affects you and the team. Then ask the Scrum Master for his perspective. Listen with an open mind and try to understand why he does what he does: What are his interests and needs? What drives his behaviour? Finally, see if there are needs and interests that both of you share and that you can use to establish a healthier relationship. If this fails, or if you have already had such a meeting, then escalate the issue to your manager and involve HR.

      Hope this helps!

  • Idu says:

    Hi Roman,

    Thanks for sharing this nice article … How do deal with SM bulling PO. Sharing my recent experience with tough Scrum Master. He always causes problem during all the Scrum ceremonies. For example:
    1. During grooming – SM always says the stories not clear and the dev team shouldn’t take up, even though everyone on the team says they understand the story.
    2. He requests the PO to give detailed user stories with designs. Same time SM says it’s technically not feasible during grooming. After lot of escalation from management, he agrees and completes the task within one sprint …

  • Mona Abujam says:

    Hi Roman,

    While I was struggling to come to a solution related to a concern at work, I came across this article.
    which was a brilliant and great find, exactly what at the moment I needed.

    But wanted your opinion on how to actually implement in below case?
    For the given example in the article, it works perfect but, I am facing scenario slightly different.

    As a product manager, I have to deal with the design team on a constant basis. But due to some reason, I am not able to really connect with them. There are communications, things are getting done but not in an effective way. It looks like a passive war just to get a small change done. Due to which, the product releases are a bit slow as well as not up to the mark.
    I would like to hear your thought on how would you approach such a case?

    • Hi Mona,

      Thank you for sharing your feedback and question.

      As your conflict relates to a group of people, I recommend holding a meeting with the design team. If you work with Scrum, then you could use the next sprint retrospective.

      Share your observations and feelings without judgement or blame. Simply state what you have seen, how this makes you feel, and why it is an issue. Ask the team members to share their perspectives. Listen with the intention to understand and connect, and consider asking clarifying questions.

      It is important to choose the right environment, and you may want to establish some ground rules at the beginning of the meeting. Make sure that everybody feels safe, that people are able to offer honest feedback, and that no blaming takes place. Consider involving your ScrumMaster, coach, or another experienced facilitator who facilitates and suggest helpful techniques, such as capturing the observations and feelings on adhesive notes and visualising them on the office wall.

      Once you have shared your observations and experiences, uncover the causes for the challenges you face, and identify actionable improvement measures. These might include involving design team reps in the product roadmapping activities, better alining the work of the development and design team–possibly even merging the two teams, having joint Daily Scrums / standup meetings, committing to treating each other with (more) respect, and organising a social activity outside of work to get to know each other better.

      You may also want to take a look at my article “8 Tips for Collaborating with Development Teams“. The article focuses on working with dev teams, but the recommendations are equally applicable to design teams in my mind.

      Does this help?

  • Rahul V Thombre says:

    Nice read . In my experience within the product development environment involving the person, providing opportunities to take decisions, providing freedom to experiment with concepts and listening to her or him with an open mind really helps.

  • Proomag says:

    Hi,
    A good article.
    Better results with peaceful behavior.

  • Matt says:

    Thats awesome – This feels like how I attempt to approach conflict normally – although there is always those days where your not feeling so great and you slip up. Its actually really cool to see it in writing – now I have something I can forward on to co-workers 🙂 Might even write about it on our blog!

  • Dom says:

    Hi Roman, your thoughts from the product managers perspectives are spot on – the best way to respond to such feedback is stay objective and state your own values, feelings and a way forward.

    I do empathise with Jane however. Surely, there is a lot of frustration built up over time that lead to this outburst. We could assume that the issue about prioritisation has come up in retros before without noticeable change. What if the issue is so ingrained in the PMs behaviour that he is blind to the real issue – his bad habits of throwing things over the fence to the team?

    You do mention of course the need for a willingness to change your own behaviour. But techniques to deeply reflect and examine own behaviour and advice on how to change is a crucial, often brushed aside topic.

    I do enjoy your posts and would be interested in reading about it in a future one 🙂

    Cheers, Dom

  • Sonu Sayeed says:

    Good read and very useful advice, in any discipline. One of the principles of effective people, as Steven Covey suggests is to “seek first to understand, then be understood”.

    Approaching the steps and advice in the article with honest intentions is paramount, “…… to understand and reconcile, not to win.” as you say.

  • David Grant says:

    I like this approach. It reminds me quite a lot of Non-Violent Communication.

    • Thanks for your feedback Dave. I have never practiced non-violent communication but from what I know the intention is similar: to understand the other person and see the things we share rather than what separates us. Have you got any experience with non-violent communication?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *