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Saying No To Stakeholders

How does one say no to a stakeholder while maintaining a great professional relationship? Go through these 5 easy steps for guaranteed success.


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Dennis Lenard

3 years ago | 3 min read

If you find it difficult to say no, rest assured that it's only natural. We've evolved to seek the approval of our peers, and while this bettered our chances of survival, it also made us think twice before doing something to upset an ally.

Maybe you're the type of person who likes to go above and beyond at the workplace. That attitude makes you a valuable employee. If you're a project manager, the downside is that it can sabotage digital product design and development efforts. Wondering how exactly?

The downfall of most digital products is trying to do too much, too soon. As the PM at the helm, you have to be the one to separate the wheat from the chaff. It's in your hands to ensure that new features aren't piled onto the design and development team by an overexcited stakeholder.

So how can you say no to a stakeholder and still get invited to coffee afterwards?

1. Trust Your Decision

Don't be apologetic about saying "no". Products looking to fulfill a wide range of customer needs off the bat are destined for failure. Knowing your user base means being able to concentrate on solving their most pressing problem in a convenient manner.

It's normal to feel like exercising your authority in this instance might alienate the stakeholder. If you don't like disappointing people, or feel like this situation might anger the other party, it can be difficult to assert yourself. Do it anyway!

While it's important to be mindful of the stakeholder's concerns and feelings, you should be able to champion your case with hard facts when a request isn't feasible. If the idea sounds interesting, consider suggesting that it should be part of future design or development plans.

2. Empathize

To maintain a healthy professional relationship with the stakeholder, make sure they feel seen and heard. Allocate time to discuss their concerns. Try to understand the reasoning behind their request. Why are they asking for this feature to be implemented? How does it influence the UX design? It's also important to acknowledge their dedication to the project, the product, and the user.

While it's great to have solid arguments for saying "no", they can only get through to the other party if you use soft skills to communicate them. Maintain eye contact, practice active listening by asking questions, and pay attention to the other person's body language. Even if an idea isn't feasible, keeping an open mind about it fosters a healthy company culture.

3. Analyze

It's unlikely that a new digital product would benefit from added functionalities. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't ask the stakeholder why they thought the implementation of a new feature would improve the project outcomes. It's important to understand if they've identified another important need of the targeted user group.

Try to find out if customers would benefit from the idea and if it can be implemented in a different manner. Perhaps if the idea is actually strong enough, rethinking the UX design and development effort would actually be justified.

4. Take Your Time

If you rush to make a decision, the stakeholder will think you haven't taken their proposition seriously. Additionally, if the back and forth becomes tense during your meeting, it can save your professional relationship to take a break and regroup at a later time.

Project management is a balancing act. Taking too long or too little can send the wrong message to the other party. If the decision is weighing down on you, perhaps it might be helpful to convene the other relevant stakeholders and the design and development teams to ask for their opinions as well. This will help make the matter seem less personal.

5. Help If You Can

Saying "no" is part of the job description when you're a project manager. It's important to clarify and prioritize certain aspects when working on the design and development of a digital product. That doesn't mean that you're a bad colleague!

If you can think of alternative ways to implement the stakeholder's suggestions, let them know. Perhaps they've approached you with a personal goal in mind. Try to offer assistance that doesn't require adding an extra feature.

Wrap Up

Turning down someone's idea doesn't mean alienating them. Being a good listener and keeping an open mind can preserve a healthy professional relationship. If you enjoy helping others and consider yourself a proactive employee, then there's no reason you shouldn't be invited to the next business lunch with the stakeholder you said no to.


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Created by

Dennis Lenard

CEO of top UX agency Creative Navy. Passionate about embedded GUI design and medical device design. https://creative.navy


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