Question forms part of
Other interview questions that are similar
How do you handle difficult people?
Do you get along with everyone you work with?
What do you do if someone is not responding to your requests?
Have you ever needed to go ‘over someone’s head’ because they were not responsive to your requirements?
What the interviewer is looking for by asking this question
This is an extremely popular question so you need to make sure you have an answer prepared and ready.
This question tests you across a range of things. Firstly in the basics; do you know what a stakeholder is? Do you know their importance and can you analyse their needs and manage them adequately?
Further than that the question is asking for your experience in managing difficult stakeholders. Not every project is going to go smoothly and not everyone you meet will be open and supportive to your aims.
If you are in a professional working environment for any amount of time you will encounter difficult stakeholders. It is important that you are able to manage these stakeholders so that you can meet your goals and further the aspirations of your organisation.
How you will manage these difficult stakeholders is what the interviewer is interested in when they ask this question. Most stakeholders are not ‘difficult’ just for the sake of it:
- Some will be incredibly busy people who cannot devote the time you want
- Some will have been given different targets which your project will impact so they will not be excited about helping you
- …and of course some people are just awful people!
Your interviewer wants to see how you approach all of these types of people. And of course the best way to find out how someone will approach a scenario in the future is to look at how they have reacted to similar scenarios in the past and understand if they learned anything from the experience.
And that my friends is the crux of why we get asked this question.
The best approach to answering this question
As this is a “Tell me about a time” interview question your answer is going to need to include an example. The best answers will be detailed while also being concise. In order to achieve this the B-STAR technique should be used.
Let’s see how that would work in this question.
B – Belief – What are your thoughts / feelings / processes regarding the subject matter? – Here you should talk about how whenever you are facing difficulties with a stakeholder that you always seek to understand the issue first before engaging with the stakeholder, then you approach with empathy and attempt to resolve the issue to everyone’s benefit.
S – Situation – Set the scene of your example – This is an interview so you wont have all the time in the world to describe what was happening. Explain the situation briefly, leaving more time for the steps that you took. A good scenario to describe would be one where the stakeholder was being difficult due to outside pressures that you then helped to alleviate.
T – Task – What was your role in the situation? – Talk about what you had been tasked to do and how this stakeholder being difficult was impacting that. Ideally you will be in a project management or equivalent role where stakeholder management is one of your key responsibilities.
A – Activity – What did you do? – Lay out all the steps you took to manage this difficult stakeholder. Good answers will talk about how you investigated the issue to understand the concerns of all parties and then approached the stakeholder with empathy toward their point of view. In the end though you need to talk about the action you took to remediate the issue.
R – Result – How did everything end up? – This is an interview so it is best to talk about times in which you were successful in your endeavour. Good answers will talk about how the stakeholder’s concerns were removed and they were no longer difficult or a hinderance to your goals. Talk in this section about any lessons you may have learned for the next time you face a similar scenario.
How NOT to answer this question
Do not dismiss the premise of the question. It is quite easy to fall into the trap of saying that you have never worked with a difficult stakeholder before. Some candidates will say this thinking it shows how well they get along with everyone. But this will not endear you to the interviewer. There are difficult stakeholders in every workplace up and down the country. It is not a reflection on you that someone else is difficult, saying that you have never had to deal with someone like that is showing your inexperience.
Do not ‘steamroll’ the stakeholder. I’ve seen this time and time again in work settings and in interview settings. An ambitious PM looking to force their project through will smash through any barrier that comes their way. Mostly what happens is a stakeholder raises an objection and the PM will remove the stakeholder from the project or go above their head to report the stakeholder for creating obstacles. This is not the right way to approach these issues. A PM should try to understand the issue in the first instance and resolve with the stakeholder. Ignoring the issue and pushing ahead regardless is not a good answer.
Tell me about a time you have had to manage a difficult stakeholder – Example answer
“Difficult stakeholders are unavoidable when you have been in the industry for any amount of time. It is just one of those things that you need to be aware of, not everyone is going to be on the same page or have the same goals as you and you will need to handle these people appropriately in order to deliver on your goals.
Whenever I find someone being difficult or not giving me the level of support I require in my projects I tend to do 2 things. Firstly I make sure that I fully understand the issue and therefore my colleague’s concerns and secondly I approach my colleague to discuss potential remedies to get things back on track.
For example, recently I was working on a project that would automate a key data gathering task within the process. This task was performed by 2 teams within the organisation and the lead SME of the teams was assigned to my project.
After some time I found that the SME was not participating in project meetings and any actions they would pick up would go incomplete or be delivered very late.
I spoke to the rest of my team individually as well as some contacts I had in the wider department. I learned that there was a rumour going through the two teams that once the project was delivered that the organisation was going to fire the 2 teams as they would no longer be needed with the new automation process going live.
This was not true however. Our actual plan once we delivered the project was to train these colleagues on a different process where more resources were required. I approached my senior manager to discuss a change to our communication strategy so that a notice could be sent to all impacted parties.
Once the communication was confirmed I approached the SME to explain the situation and remind them that the project still required their 100% focus. Thereafter the SME was much more involved in meetings and all actions were delivered on time. The project ending up a success and the teams were successfully trained on the new project with no colleagues being let go.“