How to take on your adversaries and win

How to take on your adversaries and win

Dealing with difficult people and challenging behaviours requires positivity and a strategic approach

By Marion Thomas and Sarah Walton

Dealing with really (bloody) difficult people requires a strategic approach. Often the projects we lead will themselves elevate some challenge and opposition from those less engaged or in other scenarios, you could find yourself with a challenging or overly demanding customer that you have to work with.

There are some individuals whose behaviour is so unhelpful that they will cause real harm to your project and other members of your team. These adversaries are so difficult to deal with that it might seem easier to try to avoid them, but ignoring their behaviour is likely to give your greater problems. It is always better to take positive action, not least because you are unlikely to be able to remove an adversary from your project. It’s in your interest to find a way to work with them.

Here are some tips on ‘Taking Care of Yourself’* so that you don’t end up personally bent out of shape whilst keeping your project focused and on track.

Before continuing to read on, it is important to remember that no-one goes to work to do a bad job. When people are being difficult there is usually an underlying reason. Your job as a project manager is to understand your adversaries’ motivation so that you can help them to help you deliver your project.

When preparing to take action, remember the following points:

Do not take their behaviour personally.
It is safe to assume that they have a valid reason for acting as they do.

Make sure that you engage with the ‘whole person’.
Get to know something about them that allows you to build a personal connection alongside the professional one.

Use other people within your project Tribe to influence them.
Nobody gets on with everybody. If someone else in your team has a better connection with a difficult individual, use that relationship to get your message across.

Assess the impact that they could have on your project.
Some interactions can be uncomfortable, but the actual impact on the project might be minimal. Other obstructions might have a much greater impact.

Match your action to their impact.
For example, a critical team member who will not work to the plan and does not turn up to project meetings or deliver progress reports is an issue that needs to be addressed. A stakeholder who throws grenades into the process during private conversations, but is quiet in meetings, can be managed by adjusting your responses.

Try to find the value your adversary is adding.
Sometimes they are an excellent source of risk identification.

If they constantly try to derail your project meetings, do not compromise a project culture of accepting all ideas and acknowledging all inputs.
Instead use a ‘parking lot’ (a flipchart to record off agenda items) to keep the meeting on track.

Managing the situation

Ideally most situations with an adversary can be dealt in meetings by behaving in line with the project culture that you have chosen. Sometimes specific action is required. In these cases, which you need to develop a plan.

Before the interaction:

  1. Make a conscious decision to take action.
  2. Set a positive intention for the outcome.
  3. Asses the risk of the interaction making the situation worse.
  4. Assess the adversary’s personal style and meet or mirror it. If they are very directive, they are less likely to respond well to a democratic style or a plea for help.
  5. Where possible, choose an appropriate time and location. Once you have decided to take action, an opportunity will often present itself, and an over-engineered conversation will often not go as well as a more spontaneous one.

During the interaction:

  1. Do not allow the conversation to become confrontational.
  2. Ask for their help (having considered their preferred style).
  3. Listen. They will have value to add, even if it is only a conversation that allows you to get to see the whole person.

After the interaction:

  1. Review why they are acting as an adversary. Try to stand in their shoes.
  2. With the insight gained from the conversation, review their impact on you personally and the project.
  3. Look for ways to work with them and value their input.
  4. Find opportunities to engage with them away from the project. This is always difficult to do in an adversarial relationship, as we have a natural instinct to avoid uncomfortable interactions.
  5. Consider if another member of your team would be better managing the relationship. This might not always be possible if they are a key stakeholder, but there are always options to use other people to help influence them.

If all else fails and the adversary is derailing the project, be brave. Trust your instincts about whether you can help them change their interactions with the project. Have the conversation but also have a back-up plan to minimise their disruptive behaviour in case the conversation makes the situation worse.

Above all, remember that you won’t necessarily be able to change other people’s behaviour, but you can think strategically about how you can approach them, prepare fully for all potential interactions, and also simply by changing how you react and respond to it.

First published in the Summer 2019 edition of Project


* Taking Care of Yourself is one of the 5T’s of the ExtraordinaryPM Framework. A phrase often used when considering the work-life balance, but there is so much more to it than this.

Being mindful of how to show up as a leader, choosing how you respond to situations, ensuring you have a support network and protecting yourself professionally through ensuring your project has good governance and decision-making processes are just some of the areas we explore on the ExtraordinaryPM Mastery Programme.


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