Posted by: Ornella Farrugia
on Tue 05 Feb

Welcome to the latest in a series of brief interviews with guest experts from KnowledgeBrief’s Innovation Programme, providing a window into the experts’ latest ideas and new advice for executives.

Following the Innovation Day in January, Dan Sly, Professional Learning Advisor at KnowledgeBrief (KB), interviewed Dr Christine Unterhitzenberger (CU) from Lancaster University Management School to discuss how to deal with difficult stakeholders who can both positively and negatively impact upon organisational functioning.

KB: What’s the key business challenge that organisations need to address that your research tackles?

CU: Today’s working environment is characterised by a high level of uncertainty and complexity. For projects this means that more and more stakeholders are involved, who often have differing needs, objectives, values and responsibilities. As stakeholders are often outside the formal authority of the project manager, this can create a lot of tension and we’ve found that project managers frequently encounter apathy, resistance, or even outright hostility, which cause stress and discomfort for the project manager. Hence, the project manager needs to develop resilience and strategies how to cope with these difficult situations and emotions in order to look after his/her own wellbeing.

KB: What advice would you give to executives, based on your findings?

CU: I think for executives and project managers it is important to understand that there isn’t simply a “difficult stakeholder”. It is about understanding the reasons why a stakeholder might appear to be difficult and then analyse the impact of the difficulty. The impact is often two-folded: there is an impact on the project – which every project manager is familiar with and deals with on a day to day basis, but here is usually also an impact on the project manager him-/herself – which is often much more difficult for the project manager to admit and to cope with. So, I would recommend to executives and project managers to consciously develop strategies to cope with difficult situations like reflection, sharing, self-validation, etc.

KB: How does your latest research approach this? What do the results indicate?

CU: Together with my co-researchers I investigated how project managers deal with difficult situations involving stakeholders. Based on the research we developed a Project Coping Model which helps to understand the underlying processes of dealing with difficult situations and provides valuable insights into the coping strategies project managers adopt.

KB: What did you learn or take away from meeting with the executives in the KnowledgeBrief Innovation Programmes?

CU: The last Innovation Day was another great opportunity for me to discuss my research with executives and practitioners. The feedback I got is invaluable for me. I could see that all of the participants have encountered such difficult situations involving stakeholders in the past and it was very interesting to see which learnings they draw from it. It was e.g. highlighted that they need to put stakeholders higher on the agenda within the organisation in order to understand them better and that their internal project-to-project learning needs to be improved. I think these are very good starting points to develop our research further. 

With thanks to Dr Christine Unterhitzenberger, Senior Teaching Fellow in Project Management at Lancaster University Management School.

Part of a series of brief interviews with expert guests from our Innovation Programmes, we cover insights from the latest research and key advice for executives to stay ahead in management and innovation.

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Corporate Social Responsibility | Stakeholder Analysis and Management | Successful Project Management

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