What Can YOU do When Your Stakeholders Won’t Talk to You?

Filed under Becoming a PM, Communication | Posted by MMeloni

By Margaret Meloni

Why would one of your project stakeholders refuse to talk to you? YOU are the project manager. The leader and facilitator of communication. How can you and the team reach successful project completion if a key contributor is going to withhold information deliberately?

First, you want to make sure that there is no confidentiality or clearance issue. That you are allowed to know what it is you need to know. That might sound crazy, but I have led projects where part of the project was a black box to me. It was not ideal, but there was a shortage of qualified project managers with security clearance, and so we moved forward as best we could. The technical lead provided the information that he could, and I did my best to facilitate all of the non-confidential aspects of the project.

Next, check yourself. Don’t makeup stories that cause you to label your stakeholder as difficult or uncommunicative. Are you dealing with a stakeholder who is overallocated, and stressed out and does not see your project as the highest priority? Is it that he or she will not share project information with you, or is that he or she is currently not ready to share project information with you? You can always ask. And if there is a disagreement over project priority, consult with your project steering committee or your project sponsor.

If there is no confidentiality issue, and this is not a prioritization issue. Your stakeholder is actively involved in the project, and he or she knows that you are the project manager. It is possible that for some reason, he or she is purposefully withholding information. Why would anyone do this? Out of frustration, you might think, “Who cares why? They are being subversive ad uncooperative.” The strategy you take is dependent on knowing why. Is this someone who cannot give you the information? Or is this someone who will not give you the information?

How do you know? At first, both reasons for withholding information might look and feel the same. But, if you are dealing with a stakeholder who is not comfortable in his or her role, or does not know the subject matter, he or she is possibly embarrassed and uncomfortable, which is going to lead him or her to avoid you. It might be that he or she does not know how to do the work, or it could be he or she does not know what to do. In both circumstances, your stakeholder cannot give you the information you need.

Talk to your stakeholder privately. Ask if he or she has questions or concerns about doing the work. Allow your stakeholder to let you know that there is a problem. If he or she shares with you that they are having challenges, then get them help. If your stakeholder opts not to tell you, move on, and set a due date for the required information. And be clear about what is needed. Set an appointment for him or her to present to you. Do not let this appointment slip. When you review his or her work, you will have the opportunity to gauge where there is a problem. If you find that a part of the assignment is incorrect or incomplete, use this opportunity to find out why something is inaccurate or incomplete. Get your stakeholder help, training, mentoring, etc. so that he or she will be able to complete the work.

Not knowing what to do to support the project is different than not knowing how to do the work. Your stakeholder might be clear about what you need to know but does not know what steps to take to fulfill his or her duties. I once worked with a woman who was brilliant and agreeable and hard working. Nobody knew the system better than she knew the system. But she was unable to provide me with the information that the rest of the team needed to move forward with the project.

I went through the stages we are discussing here. At first, I thought she was uncooperative, but that just did not fit with the friendly way with which she interacted with me. She missed deadlines and did not share information. One day out of desperation, I said to her, “Do you need me to write you a list of steps to follow?” Shame on me, I was upset, and I gave in to sarcasm. But she looked at me and with no trace of irony, replied, “Yes, please, would you?” She knew how to be a coder and how to do her job. But for what we were asking, she did not know what steps to take to arrive at the answer. We sat down together and created a plan. She needed help translating the big picture into logical and measurable actions. And so began an excellent working relationship, and she became everyone’s favorite stakeholder. The entire team fell in low with her.

Perhaps at this point, you are ready to throw up your hands and say, “I don’t know! I cannot even get my stakeholder to take my calls or answer my texts or meet with me.” Do not forget the power of the well-phrased question. Ask him or her why. They might tell you, and in their response is the beginnings of your strategy for moving forward. You might need to find a way to induce your stakeholder to participate.

“Personally, I am very fond of strawberries and cream, but I have found that for some strange reason, fish prefer worms. So when I went fishing, I didn’t think about what I wanted. I thought about what they wanted. I didn’t bait the hook with strawberries and cream. Rather, I dangled a worm or grasshopper in front of the fish and said: “Wouldn’t you like to have that?” – Dale Carnegie

Information is a type of currency. What can you give your stakeholder, that will encourage him or her to share information with you? Some people respond to gratitude. They want to be appreciated. Isn’t your project success worth letting your stakeholder know how valuable he or she is? Maybe he or she wants to impress upper management. Great! Create a situation where he or she can present the required project information in a way that showcases his or her skills and strengths. You might also appeal to his or her need to be part of something bigger. Remind your stakeholder of the importance of the project and the value of being associated with something that is going to leave a lasting and positive legacy.

Despite all of your efforts, it might be necessary to escalate. If your stakeholder will not share and cannot tell you why, then get help, do not place project success at risk. When escalation is necessary, remember to make it about the situation, and try not to make it personal even though there is a person withholding information. Do not let the escalation be a surprise. Be calm and professional in your communications. Be clear about what is needed and the impact that the project will suffer if the information is not delivered. Do not wait until the critical path is delayed.

Why spend so much time and energy on people who will not share? The bigger picture is that hoarding knowledge damages everyone. Nobody can generate new ideas or creative approaches if only one person has all of the information.