Software Development

Dealing with Difficult Stakeholders and Team Members

Experiencing disagreement and conflict is part of our job as product managers and product owners. We work with a broad range of people from different departments, and it’s only natural that we don’t always agree and sometimes clash. But constructively navigating conflict can be challenging. This article shares my recommendations for dealing with difficult people and successfully addressing conflict.

It’s a Common Challenge

“You just can’t make up your mind. I really wish that for once, you gave us clear priorities,” Jane said accusingly at the end of the workshop and walked out of the room. [1] It felt like a slap in the face, an unprovoked attack. How could she say something so wrong?

Does this story sound familiar? I certainly find that as product managers and product owners, we sometimes have to deal with pushy, stressed, or unhelpful stakeholders and team members—with people who are just being difficult.

If we reflect on the nature of our work, then this shouldn’t come as a surprise: Product management is as much about people as it is about products. Friction and conflict commonly appear when people from different departments work together. What’s more, innovation and effective teamwork are only possible if we can leverage conflict and disagreement. [2]

Don’t Ignore the Conflict

It would be easy brush aside the issue and forget what Jane said. With so many things competing for your attention, should you really worry about Jane’s remark? But what would happen if you did ignore the conflict?

Chances are that you would feel aversion towards Jane, even if you are not fully aware of it. Next time when you meet, this might cause you to say something you later regret, which would make things only worse. What’s more, tolerating wrong behaviour sets a precedence and creates an unhealthy work atmosphere; disrespect invites disrespect.

Therefore, do not ignore conflict. See it as an opportunity to improve your product management practice and leadership skills. This, of course, is sometimes easier said than done: Addressing the issue requires courage. Jane might a powerful or influential individual like senior management stakeholder. Additionally, you have to be willing to honestly reflect on your own intentions and actions, and be open to change your behaviour.

Regain Your Composure

When exposed to unkind behaviour, it can be hard for me not to lose my calm. But before responding to Jane and telling her what you think, stop and reflect. Become aware of how you are, how you are feeling. Are you disappointed, upset, or angry? If so, then that’s ok. But bear in mind that negative thoughts and emotions cloud your perception; they will make it difficult to have a constructive conversation with Jane.

What’s more, negativity affects your own wellbeing; it makes you unhappy. Holding on to anger, a wise man once said, is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of harming someone else: The only thing certain is that you will get burned. [3] Even if anger, fear, or worries seem to have a tight grip on you, they will weaken and go away if you do not feed them. Acknowledge them, but do not engage and identify with them.

Additionally, bring to mind the positive qualities of the difficult person. Jane surely can’t be all mean and evil. Think of moments when you saw Jane help others, make a constructive contribution, or commit other acts of kindness. Remind yourself that anybody who acts in unskilful ways must be unhappy deep inside. This will help you emphasise with the difficult person and develop compassion, rather than villainising the individual and holding a grudge against her. Finally, tell yourself that as human beings, we have all acted in inappropriate ways and said unkind things; I’m certainly not perfect by any means.

Put Things into Perspective

Next, ask yourself why you perceive the person as difficult. What makes the individual so hard to deal with? Why did you respond in the way you did? Why did Jane’s remark make you feel angry or hurt, for example? Was it purely because of what Jane said, or has it something to do with you?

I notice that my own response to unskilful behaviour is particularly strong when deeply held opinions and believes are challenged. If I think of myself as someone who is decisive and knows what’s right for his product, then I am likely to be more affected by Jane’s remarks—independently of her intention. Similarly, I find that when I am stressed or tense, any wrongdoing I experience feels worse than when I am relaxed and content.

Finally, look at the data and calmly consider what actually happened. Jane’s remark might have felt like a slap in the face. But did she mean to be nasty? And did you contribute to the conflict in any way? Was there anything unhelpful you might have said or done to Jane, intentionally or unintentionally? This doesn’t excuse Jane’s behaviour, of course. But it helps put things into perspective and move on from blaming Jane to resolving the conflict.

Respond Skilfully

When you meet Jane to address the issue, approach the meeting with the intent to understand and reconcile, not to win. Conflict resolution is not about getting the better of the other person; it’s about developing a shared perspective on what happened, agreeing on the changes required, and rebuilding trust.

Share your perspective and experience in a constructive way, and be kind: Jane may not be (fully) aware of her actions or their impact on you. At the same time, be honest and firm. Use the I language; describe what you saw and heard, and how it affected you. For example, “I heard you challenge my ability to prioritise and make effective product decision; then I saw you leave without giving me time to respond. I consequently felt angry and disappointed.”

Separate the person from the issue. Don’t blame or attack the other person, don’t generalise (“that’s typical of you”), don’t talk about what other people may have said (“John says so too”), don’t speculate (“it’s probably because you didn’t get what you wanted in the previous meeting”). Listen with an open mind and try to suspend judgement. We all hold a piece of truth.

Offer a helping hand and make constructive suggestions for resolving the issue. Suggest changes that you are prepared make, such as, “I will invite you from now on to the product roadmapping workshops so you better understand the overall constraints we have to take into account when prioritising the product backlog,” or “I will listen more carefully to your suggestions so you no longer feel ignored and side-lined.”

State the positive changes that you wish for, for instance, “it would really help me if you tried to be more patient and understanding,” or “it would be great if you could let me know sooner if you feel your opinion is not heard.”

Remember: While you want to be kind and caring, you are not responsible for the other person’s thoughts and feelings. You can encourage another person to change. But you cannot make someone change her attitude and behaviour.

Move on

If everything works out well, you’ve made up with Jane and agreed on a way forward. What’s then left to do is strengthening the relationship and fully re-establishing the trust that might have been lost. This is achieved by working together as well as socialising, for example, having coffee or lunch together.

If the conversation didn’t go well, consider what the next steps are. Should you talk to Jane again? Should you involve someone who can mediate? Should you escalate the issue? Talking to your manager or ScrumMaster / coach might help you choose the right action.


[1] Note that Jane is a fictitious character. I assume that the conflict can be resolved by the people involved unlike severe transgressions, such as violence or sexual harassment. If in doubt, involve your manager and human resources.

[2] Tuckman’s team building model, for example, suggests that people have to creatively manage conflict to be able to work together productively.

[3] This quote is often attributed to the Buddha but it may actually be from Buddhaghosa.

Roman Pichler

Roman is an agile product management expert. He helps companies create new products by providing consulting and training services, and he is the founder of Pichler Consulting.
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Back to top button