How do I work with difficult stakeholders?

Project and Portfolio Management

Kerry Gorgone

Kerry Gorgone

Oct 6, 2022

"How do I work with difficult stakeholders?" Find out in this episode of Appfire Presents: The Best Project Portfolio Management Show by Appfire.

Michelle Bartonico joins Appfire's Kerry O'Shea Gorgone to explain how different types of stakeholders (like "astronauts" and "zombies") require special handling, and why a stakeholder register is a must-have. She offers insight into how you can work effectively with all types of stakeholders, and shares tips for keeping your projects on track.

About the guest

Michelle Bartonico is a senior strategist and project manager at Trinity University. She is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP), completed the Google Project Management program, and the Search Engine Optimization specialization from UC Davis Continuing and Professional Education.

Her book, 

Stakeholder Engagement Essentials You Always Wanted To Know

, comes out January 25, 2023. Follow Michelle at for thoughts on project management, marketing, and higher education.

About the show

The BEST Project Portfolio Management Show by Appfire covers everything you ever wanted to know about PPM by talking with project management experts who’ve seen it all. And every episode is 10 minutes or less, so you can get back to changing the world, one project at a time.

For your convenience, here is the transcript of this episode:

How do I work with difficult stakeholders?

Kerry:  Today we’re going to address the question of how to work with difficult stakeholders. To help us with that is Michelle Bartonico, senior strategist and project manager at Trinity University. She is a certified project management professional, completed the Google Project Management program and the search engine optimization specialization from UC Davis, continuing in professional education. She is the perfect person to help us answer that question. Stick around for 10 minutes of really good valuable insight.

Michelle, help. How do I work with difficult stakeholders? Not that anybody on my team is difficult. I’m asking for a friend.

Michelle:  Oh gosh. I did prepare some notes for this, but I’m going to go a little bit off script because that’s what difficult stakeholders do anyway. Here’s what I would suggest when you’re dealing with a difficult stakeholder. 

What does that even mean? For one person, a difficult stakeholder is like, “I’ve seen that type of person before, I know exactly how to handle them, they’re actually not that difficult.” For somebody else, they might say, “I’ve never encountered this type of personality before, style of communication or style of working on a project team. I’m completely lost. They are infinitely difficult for me.”

One of the ways you work with difficult stakeholders and actually succeed on the other side is by trying to do as many projects as you can with different types of people.

Kerry:  You’re saying punish yourself, get right in there.

Michelle:  Punish yourself first. See what you can get under your belt. See if you can have anchor memories to say, “I remember when this happened. Here’s what I did,” or, “Here’s what I shouldn’t have done.” 

I had something just the other day that I should have been a little bit more concrete and sought more clarification, and I backed off a little bit because I thought the person is much higher than I am in the org chart, I trust them, there’s no reason to not trust them, let’s just move forward and I’ll let it go, it will breeze over, and it kind of bit me in the butt. That’s something that I know on paper what I’m supposed to do, but sometimes it’s just really hard given the situational context to figure out what battle you want to pick.

Kerry:  Let’s talk about what flavors of difficult stakeholders there are, the different types.

Michelle:  If you’re subscribing to project management technical definitions, you can look at different models, like the salience model, for example. People are going to be categorized as dominant or dormant, and other categories like that. For us people who just want to manage projects, they’re not project managers, they just want to manage a project to completion, I like to approach it in sort of a lighthearted way because I think it just helps you get through the day.

I’ve created these personas of people that, from my experience, are the types of people who I’ve experienced. You might have different ones. 

Kerry:  You didn’t name them after people though. 

Michelle:  No. I definitely didn’t name them after people. That’s the thing, that’s why you have to get as much experience as you can, because it’s not one person who does something that is so unique, it’s a type of person. 

For example, I have a group of people who I call the astronaut. These are people who I think are difficult because they kind of orbit way above the clouds and they’re not really into the details when they need to be, and then they crash land onto Earth, and you don’t really know where they’re going to land, but you know you have to go get them. That can cause a lot of damage, that can cause a lot of ripple effect to your project because they’re unpredictable, you don’t know when they’re going to actually crash land onto Earth. 

Those are the types of things I mean when I say in a lighthearted way categorize people and know what that means to you. With any of these difficult stakeholders, always try to approach it with empathy first. It’s going to be really difficult, and it is still difficult for me, too. 

Try to at least ask yourself, “Why are they operating like this?” Are they distracted? Do they just trust you and it’s actually a compliment and they think I can just orbit above Earth because you are highly competent, I don’t need to get into the weeds, I trust you’re going to move things forward. In some ways, maybe if you take a pause and you think about it, maybe it’s a compliment. Maybe they have a professional barrier. Maybe they are deficient in technology or something, so they are uncomfortable participating with the rest of the project team. 

Just taking a step back and trying to be empathetic and try to understand why a person might be what you think is difficult is helpful when trying to approach that.

Kerry:  If you’re at the very end and you’re about to turn everything in, there is one kind of stakeholder that has not been participating that pops up right at that time and has some thoughts. How do you deal with that? How do you be empathetic when you have 45 minutes left in your project window?

Michelle:  A friend of mine calls that the zombie stakeholder, the stakeholder who has been dead the entire project, you’ve sent them a hundred emails, and then at the very end they just like pop out from the dead. How do you deal with that empathetically? 

I would say the same way. Take a breath, and then articulate as clearly as possible objective information. For example, “Thank you for approaching me. I’m excited that you’re wanting to engage in this portion of the project. Unfortunately, we’re at this stage, and I want to just friendly remind you that these four emails,” or these junctures, meetings, or whatever factual pieces you have, we had these meetings, we had these milestone retrospectives, we had a charter, we had timeline updates, whatever those things are that you’ve been continuing with for your project, you need to reference those. 

Key number one is if you’re managing a project, try to be as over-communicative as possible. As much as you can be, those are the things that you can go back to objectively and say, “I’m so sorry. I know you were incredibly busy. It looks like you may have missed this.”

Kerry:  All 17 meetings.

Michelle:  “You may have missed some of the emails about where we were in this process. I’m so sorry that we’re at this place. Let me take down your notes so that if we repeat this project, I have them for the future,” or, “Let me take down your notes so that we can figure out how we can mitigate this in the future.” Again, trying to make sure that they feel heard. 

They may be mad about it. They may say, “I actually want to pull some of this back. You’re not turning this in yet, it's not done.” In that scenario, go back to your stakeholders.

Kerry:  You’re dealing with a couple of things at that point, because it’s not necessarily the schedule you selected, it’s the schedule that you had to adhere to for one reason or another. Does it depend on who it is that’s pulling it back? 

Michelle:  Yes, it does.

Kerry:  If it’s their schedule, then you’re like 'whatever you say.' If it’s not their schedule, then what do you do?

Michelle:  Exactly. Upfront, some of the different artifacts that you would produce is a stakeholder register. A stakeholder register would help you keep track of who those people are and from a technical standpoint what kind of person you think they are. Then there’s the lighthearted stuff later on, when you figure out that they’re a blue sky astronaut. Knowing who they are and the RACI chart, responsibility matrix, that answers your question.

Kerry:  What does RACI stand for? 

Michelle:  Responsible, accountable, consult, and inform. Of the people who are part of the project team, if that zombie stakeholder is somebody who you just needed to be informed, that’s where you say, “I hear you, I understand your frustration. I want to make sure that you know that you were part of the communication and informed in this way. I’ll make note of your concerns,” or, “I appreciate you being engaged at this point, but we have to move forward.”

Always, “I hear you,” but if they are somebody who is responsible, certainly accountable, that’s your sponsor at that point, but if they’re accountable, then yes, you have to stop and figure out what happened there. Depending on how urgent the actual timeline is, you might have to say, “We made a mistake somewhere. We’re going to diagnose it afterward in a retrospective,” or, “We’ll going to pull this back. We can afford to lose some time, figure out what happened, and how to incorporate your feedback, how to make you feel comfortable before we turn in our report,” or before we launch a product, or etcetera. 

Hopefully, your most important and influential stakeholders, those are not going to be your zombie stakeholders. If they are, then yes, make sure to do some upfront work. If you can start to sense that the key people are not engaging with you early, try to figure out how to get in front of them. Is it their admin assistant? Is it a friend of theirs who you can ask for advice? Do you bring food to meetings? Stuff like that. How can you get them to engage in a way that allows them to participate so that they when they get a meeting recap, they know what you’re talking about.

Kerry:  I used to use subject lines. I would have people that would be zombies, except I would say, “I swear to God, this will take five seconds. Open it, and just  tell me yes or no.” Then they would tell me along the way, so I didn’t have those last minute.

Michelle:  For those people who are also very distracted, they’re busy, they’re pulled in different directions, subject lines are great. Review by, review needed, approval needed… Be explicit. Don’t use clickbait. Just ask them what you need an answer on and try to make it as convenient for them as possible. Again, those are the people who you absolutely need to make sure they’re engaged with your project.

Kerry:  Michelle, thank you so much. You should write a book about this stuff, and when you do, we’ll promote the heck out of it. In the meantime, if you want to see more episodes of The Best Project Portfolio Management Show, some of which feature Michelle Bartonico, you can find them at

Thanks. We’ll see you next time.

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