Stakeholder management is at the heart of product managers’ jobs. Yet many product managers struggle with it tirelessly. In fact, “difficult stakeholders” is one of the biggest frustrations for most product managers.

Sometimes, it feels like you just can’t strike the right chord with stakeholders to build concurrence.

You may explain things logically and think you’re making sense, but if your argument sounds like gibberish to your stakeholder, then your chances of getting through to them are on a par with the chances of teaching a coyote to dance salsa.

The coyote might never learn to dance, whether it’s salsa, flamenco or ballet; but you can.

Actually, you’re probably already a good mover on the dance floor. But you must bring your moves to the dance of human interactions, a dance you’re continually engaged in with your product stakeholders – whether you know it or not.

Busting your moves

The dance of human interactions entails many moves. Some of them are spurred by factors like psychology, sociology and religion, while others relate to the basic nature of the human spirit.

If you can learn to bust the right moves in the dance, you’ll forever be a peerless product manager whom your stakeholders will love rocking with.

Mastering the dance moves starts with understanding.

And the most basic thing to understand is that your stakeholders are not static beings, they’re human beings.

Humans are not like computers or light switches that one can simply turn on and turn off. We’re not wholly rational nor behave in reasonable ways; we’re complex beings, with attitudes and behaviours that can sometimes be idiosyncratic, induced by a blend of personal, psychological and environmental influences – a blend that is so complicated it has spawned numerous professions, thousands of university faculties and millions of specialists across the world, just to get a handle on this one species called “human”.

The personal factors that sometimes impel our behaviours are things like age, gender, marital status, education and religious beliefs. The psychological influences include personality types, attitudes and values. And the environmental factors are things like political dispositions, financial or economic circumstances and social and cultural norms.

With this composite soup of influences in the human make-up, it’s no surprise that dealing with some stakeholders can sometimes feel like handling jelly.

Knowledge and tools don’t bring love

On top of that, we’re also driven by so many visible and invisible forces – like the defined work processes we follow, the problems and struggles we’re living through, or the emotions coursing through our spirit at any point in life.

For instance, a stakeholder going through a bitter divorce may not be the most agreeable person to work with at the time. Nor would a stakeholder facing severe health problems or contending with some other traumatic circumstances, or one desperately trying to quit smoking, perhaps.

All these factors and other hidden influences shape and condition the dynamics in your everyday interactions with stakeholders, and the level of success you attain with them.

That’s why you may be au fait with all the conventional knowledge and tools for managing stakeholders – stakeholder mapping, power-interest grid, RACI matrix, and so on – and you may still not be feeling their love.

So it’s always helpful to remember that when a stakeholder comes across as “difficult”, quite often there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface. You may not know what exactly but you get the vibe.

You must constantly incorporate this understanding as you practise busting your dance moves with your product stakeholders – especially at those moments when they jangle your nerves.

At the same time, you should also remember that your own psychological and physiological states deeply affect the impressions you form about people, events or experiences. Like when you’re in love, it’s always summer in your heart and you see la vie en rose; when you’re depressed, everything is tinged with a grey cloud.

This effect has a relationship to our sentiments, attitudes, internal dialogue or self-talk, and our actions. It colours most aspects of our lives, including our work, in substantial ways which many of us are unaware of.

And somewhat unsurprisingly, all of this affects the way we come across to others.

Rhythm and groove

Just as you may perceive a stakeholder’s vibe, you’re also giving off a vibe of your own, which individual stakeholders pick up on and react to (sometimes unconsciously), in the same way that dance partners sync to each other’s moves.

How you yourself are feeling – angry, frustrated, stressed out, self-assured, optimistic or inspired – will almost always impact how you interact with your stakeholders and how they’ll come across to you.

The more you imbibe these considerations to your dance moves, the more you’ll handle your stakeholders tactfully and gracefully.

Conversely, if you ignore or dismiss these elements, your rhythm will frequently be out of sync and your stakeholder management efforts will feel like dancing with two left feet.

Things can be made even worse with stakeholders from other countries or cultures: if we fail to appreciate the cultural nuances of their groove.

Cultural sensitivity helps. Tremendously.

It certainly helps when you’re grooving with stakeholders from countries with a national inferiority or superiority complex. And if you’re Anglo-Saxon, for instance, it helps too when dealing with stakeholders from some Mediterranean regions whose overly relaxed attitude to punctuality is similar to the “African time” that prevails in many parts of Africa and the Caribbean. If you’re from certain parts of Asia, it helps when communicating with stakeholders from some erstwhile Eastern Bloc countries whose directness may seem rude. If you’re Scandinavian, it helps when you have to engage with your more effusive or exuberant American stakeholders; and it’ll help even more when you have to dance with stakeholders from tactile cultures – you may find yourself disliking their tendency for physical contact or their touchy-feely nature.

One woman’s meat…

At the end of the day, it all comes down to one woman’s meat being another woman’s poison.

What may be culturally appropriate in Kansas City in the USA probably won’t wash with a stakeholder from Kharkiv in Ukraine, and you may find yourself struggling to have effective interactions unless you recognise and work with these nuances.

One of the ways to make use of some of these perceived differences is to mirror your stakeholder’s body language when you’re in conversation. For example, their gestures, posture or vocal pitch.

Mirroring is a powerful mechanism to help build rapport and attune someone you’re interacting with, as scientific studies prove.

But it’s got to be subtle to be effective; you shouldn’t try to mimic someone’s gestures exactly, for instance, or try to mirror every single one of their mannerisms. That would be trying too hard, which will distract you from paying attention to their gist.

It’s always imperative to not allow the gist to be clouded by the seeming peculiarities of your stakeholders.

In any case, whatever those peculiarities are, cultural or otherwise, it’s amazing what you can learn from people who seem quite different from you or embody contrasting or incompatible values.

The symbiotic vibe

Many of those perceived differences often contain wisdom, magic and miracles. Just look at successful love relationships and close friendships you know of that epitomise the phrase “opposites attract”.

And then look at the many symbiotic relationships in life between organisms that are so “different”, like the bee and the flower: neither the bee nor the flower worries that the other is different or peculiar, they just get on with their groove – the flower feeds the bee with pollen and nectar, and the bee helps the flower reproduce and prosper by spreading its pollen.

The parties in these mutually beneficial relationships signify the wisdom of life, a beautiful wisdom that is available to us all – if we’re tolerant, unprejudiced and humble enough to countenance the notion that, just like us, and just like the bee, and the flower, our stakeholders have a birthright to be who they are. We’re not better, more important or more intelligent than the bee, the flower or any one of our stakeholders. They each have their own unique intelligence and contribute something to life. And we do not control the menu of life; the menu was designed by inexplicable forces beyond the realms of the human mind.

Alas, the human mind often thinks it is our lord and master and it knows it all. And because the mind has our best interests at heart, it is constantly probing, assessing, plotting and scheming; for example, on ways to handle our stakeholders.

Yet our minds cannot understand everything that happens in life, especially the affairs of magic and miracles. There are some issues in the alchemy of human interactions that exceed the logical capacities of your rational mind, things which your second brain, which resides in your gut, can often sense.

It’s that sense, that vibe, that great dancers flow with to make their dance moves so graceful.

And you too can be a great dancer with your product stakeholders.