Do Difficult Stakeholders Really Exist?
We hear and use the term ‘difficult stakeholders’ regularly, but is it the person that is difficult, the relationship or the situation?
It is hard to be truly objective, and the term ‘difficult stakeholder’ is almost always a subjective assessment. Sometimes the same person can be easy to work with in one context, and difficult in another. This points to particular situational issues which cause difficulties in reaching agreement. Sometimes a stakeholder seems difficult to one member of the team, but perfectly pleasant to work with to another. This may point to relationship or situational issues. And sometimes, we have to work with someone who is just difficult. With everyone. In every situation.
Despite general agreement that this person is difficult, we often tell ourselves it’s still a subjective assessment (“There are two sides to every story…” or, “They have friends and family so they can’t be like this all the time…”).
So, do objectively difficult people exist? Apparently – yes.
The Difficult Person Test
IDRlabs have developed the Difficult Person Test, which is based on research on the structure of antagonism. It uses 35 questions to create a radar chart of seven characteristics:
Many people score highly against at least one area but a high score in only one area is unlikely to create a high overall score. A high score overall suggests, objectively, that you are more difficult to get along with than most people.
It is easy to work on the assumption that difficult people must already know they are difficult, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Most of us think we are self-aware (95%!) but research suggests less than 15% of us are able to demonstrate good self-awareness.
We should all make increased self-awareness part of our personal development plans. Though this test, like most self-assessments, has many limitations there is always something to be learned by reflecting on how our preferences affect our behaviours and how our behaviours affect our relationships.
It is never too late in a relationship, group or team to re-set expectations. Contracting often takes place between groups or individuals at the start of a relationship to define how we want to work together, what we expect from each other and the behaviours we want to encourage and avoid. It also provides the opportunity to discuss how we will approach difficulties and unexpected behaviours when they arise. It enables an non-confrontational conversation that “as a group, we have moved away from the behaviours that we all agreed”.
Responding vs. Reacting
We learn in many ways that we cannot control other peoples’ behaviour, but we can control our response to it. Giving ourselves time to process an emotional reaction and turn it into a professional response pays dividends. Although we may feel provoked or even justified by the actions of difficult stakeholders, this legitimises the poor the behaviours and does nothing to improve the relationship.
Does it help to know that some people are objectively difficult? Perhaps not much, but it can at least provide an opportunity to reflect, consider how other people see us and even prompt a conversation within teams and organisations.
Before we label stakeholders as ‘difficult’, we need to consider the relationship and situational factors, and consider how we might try to resolve the difficulty. There are always two sides to every story, but perhaps the stories we believe about ourselves require a little more scrutiny.
Have you taken the difficult person test? HBR (2021)
Why most people lack self-awareness and what to do about it. Training Magazine (2019)