How To Get Alignment With Tough Stakeholders

Too often we start our projects with a brief and vague direction, and without even understanding what our stakeholders really want.

Who is a Tough Stakeholder?

  • Critical and negative about project progress
  • Lack of buy-in, particularly mid-project
  • Poor communication and lost faith in the project
  • Can influence others with their negative attitudes

The SCARF Model for Understanding Stakeholder Behavior

  • The SCARF model is a framework that describes the five domains of human social experience.
  • Every human has a basic set of needs: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness
  • These needs are constantly being judged in our relationships with others
  • Stakeholders are particularly affected by three of these needs: status, certainty, and relatedness


  • Status refers to the social hierarchy or pecking order, where individuals rank higher or lower than others.
  • People are constantly dealing with the threat of losing status or the reward of being higher than someone else.
  • Threats to status, such as rejection or exclusion, activate the same pathways in the brain that physical pain does.
  • When someone’s status is threatened, they can react very negatively.
  • One way to increase a person’s sense of status is by publicly recognizing them. This generates a positive reward and can resonate for years.


  • Stakeholders want predictability and stability
  • They may feel threatened by uncertainty or change
  • Ways to increase certainty: provide clear expectations, communicate progress regularly, be transparent about risks and challenges
  • Providing access to more information can help put a stakeholder’s mind at ease


  • Relatedness refers to the need to feel a connection to other people and to belong to a group.
  • When people feel a sense of relatedness, a reward is generated in the brain, and they want to keep it coming.
  • When there is an absence of relatedness, it generates a threat response.
  • Allowing more time for casual conversation or more opportunities to participate with the team can help increase a stakeholder’s sense of relatedness.

Managing certainty, relatedness, and status with a vision meeting

  • Use a vision meeting to manage certainty, relatedness, and status.
  • A vision meeting provides a big picture and fosters team-relatedness. All voices are heard and everyone gets a chance to contribute
  • Make sure that key players are involved in the meeting. Participants feel like they are part of the team, There is a commitment to the project over the agreement
  • Ensure there is strong facilitation.
  • Start the meeting by building rapport and having an agenda.
  • When you have a vision meeting, you equalize the voices and reverse the influence.
  • You’re earning buy-in by having everyone feel like they’re contributing and involved.

Managing Status

  • Increase their status by recognizing their expertise, seeking their input, and involving them in decision-making
  • Hierarchy and status are relative and depend on the situation.
  • Being aware of the corporate politics and pecking order of a company is important when dealing with tough stakeholders.
  • Giving a stroke or complimenting stakeholders can help increase their sense of status.
  • Providing a third-party story can help defer to their status.

Ask questions and get stakeholders to generate ideas

  • Ask questions of stakeholders to get them to come up with ideas that are aligned with your own.
  • The goal is to make stakeholders feel like the idea is their own, rather than feeling like they’re being told what to do.

Managing certainty and relatedness

  • Increase certainty by providing clear expectations, communicating progress regularly, and being transparent about risks and challenges
  • Increase relatedness by building rapport and trust, involving stakeholders in social activities, and showing appreciation for their contributions
  • Address issues head-on and have difficult conversations if necessary

A facilitator is key

  • Choose a facilitator who is a good listener and has a presence
  • The facilitator must be objective
  • A good size for the group is between 7 and 12 people
  • Choose a quiet conference room or office for the meeting
  • Have an agenda in place for the meeting