Dealing with “irrational” stakeholders

If you want to be a bad product manager, assume that people who don’t agree with you are irrational. You’ve presented your argument at least once, and if they still don’t understand, they never will. What are they thinking? They must be nuts! Since you’ll never get through to them, they must be irrational and you need to go around them to still do what you were going to do anyway.

If you want to be a good product manager, seek to understand the other person’s point of view. Product development inherently involves conflict. There may be conflict between what end users want and what purchasers want. Your sales staff may disagree with your marketing group. Product requirements you put forward will likely encounter resistance from your engineering team. Designers and architects will disagree on key points.

Successful product managers are able to work through these conflicts. Avoiding them is impossible; instead, efforts should be put towards addressing them productively.

One of the most useful approaches when dealing with conflict is to assume you are wrong and the other person is right whenever there is a disagreement. Even if you are 100% sure you are right, putting yourself in the mindset of the other party helps you gain a different perspective.

As product managers, we seek to understand the needs, goals, and behaviors of our customers, though rarely is the same respect given to our colleagues. When conflicts arise, the normal response is more often complaining than understanding. We regularly put ourselves in the mind of the customer, so why don’t we put ourselves in the mind of the salesperson, or the marketer, or the engineer?

The Harvard Business School Working Knowledge recently published an excerpt of a new book by Deepak Malhotra and Max H. Bazerman that discusses Dealing with the ‘Irrational’ Negotiator:

What do you do when the people with whom you are negotiating act in ways that can best be called counterproductive? Before throwing up your hands, take a deep breath and ask yourself 3 questions. Do these people lack good information? Are they operating with constraints you don’t know about? Are they holding onto hidden interests?

The article goes on to provide a brief overview of how to identify these three different situations and respond. In most cases, the “irrational” person you are dealing with is actually very rational, though from your narrow perspective they only appear to be acting irrationally. (The article does also give tips for when you are dealing with someone who truly is irrational, though these situations are usually very rare.)

Product managers who seek to empathize with their different internal stakeholders and team members as much as they do with customers will be better able to manage conflict and develop good working relationships. Seek to understand what Malhotra and Bazerman call “counterproductive behavior” rather than marginalize it and you will be more productive and effective in your role.

Translations available:

5 thoughts on “Dealing with “irrational” stakeholders

  1. Great post and really good advice. On the other side I’ve worked with junior folks that tend to empathize too much. Trying to please everyone which can also be problematic. Letting the business ground the decision (once everyone is heard) is a good fallback.

  2. Sage words again (also from Rob G).

    Another vital consideration here is that any argument or debate takes place in a vacuum of insufficient factual data.

    The best way to resolve conflict or even negate the need for the argument is to remove the need for opinion. This is done simply through diligently and comprehensively researching and providing all the relevant supporting facts and data required.

    The less subjective the detail, the more readily it will be accepted, and the more (assuming it is the PM who presents it as a fact and not as their own ‘work’) professional credibility and respect one can earn, relatively easily.

    Classic ports of call in terms of factual data should include all the standard-issue research points:
    – market research on sizing, competition, CAGR, capability matrixes, recent wins, M&A activity, press coverage
    – technical competitive assessment
    – (truly) independent case studies
    – direct customer input (surveys, “user events”, vertical events)
    – direct (via support or account management) customer input
    – plenty of other input sources are available depending on the business and the product and the market. There are professional courses, of course…

    So once you are dealing with facts, opinions count less as many of the decisions will tend to “make themselves”.

    Having said that you will never quite eradicate the more “organic” or “creative” elements, especially when some of the stakeholders have a non-process or non-technology background, and this is very likely, so you need ideally to get as much of the “requirement” from them up front in the process, and manage those needs through with visibility and status.

    Finally, late changes in requirement should be embraced, not shunned. If we need to change direction, we need to. Don’t fight it; accept it. The PM is actually an agent of change (where change is a new “product”) – an alteration to an original plan is perfectly acceptable. All we need is a factual understanding of the ramifications and a decision (to change) based on a collective appreciation of this.

    If my boss knows that by him saying to delay a release to support customer x, we are going to lose a deal with customer y, then he can make the call. If I don’t tell him about customer y, that’s not his fault, it’s mine.

    Facts, visibility, management. PM 101… once you have taken the emotion away and replaced it with black and white facts, the conditions are much less favorable for the opinion virus to thrive…

    Steve Johnson of Pragmatic Marketing starts his course off (or at least did) with the eye-opening edict…

    “Your opinion, while interesting, is irrelevant”.


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