Working with Difficult Stakeholders
Stakeholders are defined by my friend and longtime colleague Danny Spitzberg as “those with an economic interest in your business’s success.” Danny explains, “Depending on how they use your service, the business may be necessary to meeting their needs on a regular basis.” In the context of brand communities, this most often means that stakeholders are your fellow employees (typically those in executive leadership) whose economic and personal interests are tied up in the community’s (and thus the business’s) success. We call these “internal stakeholders” because they are inside your organization. Internal stakeholders typically include the entire C-Suite plus critical voices within aligned departments, such as Directors of Product and Product Managers, members of customer support teams, and those invested in growth and marketing.
As a community consultant and instructor, I regularly coach community managers on the practice of launching and maintaining their communities. This year alone, I have coached 15 community builders one-on-one and worked with over 50 more in my online group programs. The most frustrating— but ultimately rewarding—challenge they face is working with difficult stakeholders. Difficult stakeholders are those colleagues who unwittingly create gridlock for community programs. You are sure to come across a few in your efforts to build a brand community.
You may be familiar with some of these personas already (they are not specific to community building). But let’s go over a few examples you might run into as you build your community, as well as some tips for how to navigate working with them.
The Detractor wants very little (or nothing at all) to do with the community. They typically haven’t “bought into the hype” and will repeatedly request you make the case for the value of your work, even if you’re only weeks into your community’s existence. These stakeholders are typically comfortable working with transactional programs, where input into a program directly creates an output to the business, ideally within a three-month period.
We know that communities affect many key business outcomes, but communities can take months to reach critical mass. Even then, it can be difficult to attribute any business outcome to the community alone, and this reality is uncomfortable for The Detractor. In some cases, it is possible to find a KPI meaningful enough to convert them. But more often, you are probably better off knowing that you will have to educate this person, that they may still disagree with you, and that you will move forward anyway.
In some cases, Detractors can add value to your community. There is a big difference between a respectful Detractor and a non-respectful Detractor. A respectful Detractor will listen while you make your case, ask tough questions, and give you the time to respond and regroup when needed. This Detractor is a gift; they ask the tough questions that no one else has the guts to ask. Answering those questions will help you grow, even if doing so is uncomfortable.
A non-respectful Detractor isn’t really listening to anything you say, even when they’re asking you tough questions. They have their own way of seeing things and aren’t too interested in changing their perspective. This is a toxic situation, and I recommend removing that person from the stakeholder group if at all possible.
The Distractor means well, but you’re never sure what they mean. They may talk in circles so that you’re never sure where they stand (They aren’t sure either, nor will they take the time to figure it out). They employ their own ambiguous terms and definitions and might define community as something vague and meaningless like “connection.” These are likely those colleagues who don’t send out meeting agendas, but with whom you love having coffee and asking big questions.
Go to The Distractor when you need new perspectives, but not when you need to get things done. If this person is your boss, you will need to bring structure to your programs; they will never do it for you. One positive side of working with The Distractor is that you can be experimental. Try new things, get feedback and results, and report back. Your job will never be boring.
The Know-It-All has built a community once (or has worked at an organization where one was built) and they, therefore, think they know everything. This person tends to talk over you and takes an authoritarian stance on community building. You will often hear them say things like, “That’s not how we did it at _____” or, “Well, the _____ community did this. Why don’t we do it that way?”
The good news is that this difficult stakeholder supports community investments. The bad news is that they only support them when they are done their way.
Don’t mistake The Know-It-All for someone with deep expertise. As community builder Jodi Meier once said to me, “If you’ve built one community, you’ve built one community.” Take this person’s perspective with a grain of salt and acknowledge that you appreciate their contribution. Ensure that you also know all the strategic pillars of your program, especially its purpose, so you can justify your decisions should they deviate from The Know-It-All’s opinion.
The Impatient stakeholder makes rapid decisions and finds it impossible to align around shared purpose and values. They want to launch and iterate and learn as they go. They likely subscribe to the “Launch it broken, fix it live” mentality, and apply it indiscriminately. They often have little stake in either the work itself or the relationships built in the community. They just want to know the results.
Be careful not to feel pressured by The Impatient’s personal timelines. Remember always that this kind of impatience erodes relationships, trust, and loyalty. If they do not have a stake in the day-to-day work, they are allowed an opinion. However, they are not allowed the final say about how you do your work. Full stop.
The Distracted are too busy to care deeply about what you have to say. Their attention moves toward shiny objects. They could be on your side one day and completely indifferent the next. They will often miss meetings, change their minds (and give you whiplash), and communicate unclear expectations.
Securing their attention can feel like a major win, but do not allow yourself to be seduced by that goal. They will be on to the next thing shortly, and you’ll be stuck with whatever decisions you made to influence them. Do you want your community to be meaningful to its members or meaningful to one capricious person who will never acknowledge your work as good enough? You decide.
The Enabler seems like an easy stakeholder. They tend to be kind, patient, and empathetic. But The Enabler can be toxic because they are too nice to stand up to toxic team dynamics fueled by non-respectful Detractors, Know-It-Alls, and The Impatient. As a result, they perpetuate harmful dynamics. They sometimes may not totally understand what you’re saying but say they do. This can cause major gridlock down the road when you realize you are not on the same page.
Instead of kicking the can down the road, be transparent and use Radical Candor with them. Some of their kindness and patience is reserved for you. If you are honest with them, they are likely to rise to the occasion and support you.
Even thinking about these difficult stakeholders might cause some stress! But not all stakeholders will be difficult. Look out for Champions, who talk you up in boardrooms and during important meetings. Seek the Resource Finders, who pull out all the stops for you and find budget and resources when you are clear about what you need.
Amid the challenges of working with difficult stakeholders, there will be stakeholders who serve as bright shining lights that give you hope. Keep them close and communicate with them often. You deserve to find yourself amidst people who make your work easier and remind you of what really matters.