Don’t Let Progress Blockers Block Your Progress

How to keep difficult colleagues from derailing your communication project

You’re working on a benefits enrollment guide, an annual report, a new program rollout – or any communications project that needs input from multiple stakeholders. How do you manage recalcitrant reviewers? Whether it’s Negative Nellie, Harry the Hippo, Literary Lucy, the Legal Eagles, or Polly Perfectionist, each has their own, uh, “special” way of sending the review process spiraling into yet another round. Who are these people, how do they impede progress, and – more importantly – what can you do about them?

Negative Nellie doesn’t like anything the team produces and pooh-poohs everything from initial concept to final copy. She rarely has a positive thing to say, and her naysaying ways are starting to disrupt the team’s momentum. Her hole-poking habits may be an attempt to show she’s smarter than everyone else – or maybe she’s just naturally argumentative and thrives on debate.

How do you deal with Nellie? Seek her input and try to gain her buy-in from the very beginning. Make sure you understand her objections and fairly evaluate whether they have merit. Don’t let Nellie’s reputation prevent you from accepting her constructive criticism. But if you feel some suggestions are gratuitous, you may need to engage other reviewers with more clout to overrule her.

Who is Harry the Hippo? He’s the guy in the room (or on Zoom) offering the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. Often the most senior stakeholder, Harry feels it’s his job to influence outcomes and add value. Whether his questions and comments are genuinely useful or more ego-driven doesn’t matter. This one’s important, yet tricky, to manage.

How do you handle Harry? First, accept that he will have an opinion and it matters. And if he doesn’t know you well, or you’re not in his inner circle, he may be wary of your ideas. He needs to feel confident, though, so the key is to build a strong relationship, cultivating rapport and trust. As with Nellie, you should seek Harry’s buy-in well in advance of any formal decision-making session, to ensure he’s aligned with your plan. And if he’s questioning content in a document, be prepared to defend what it says and why.

Literary Lucy tends to overload documents with flowery language and convoluted turns of phrase. Maybe she aspires to be a best-selling novelist, but the team’s goal is a business deliverable, not a literary manuscript. Lucy’s copy may be eloquent, but it’s not effective in a business context.

How can you persuade Lucy to save the fancy prose for her novel-in-the-making? This can require a delicate touch. Gently remind her of the audience: They’re busy businesspeople who need clear, concise, actionable information. Encourage Lucy to self-edit so she has some agency in this effort. Remind her that in business, word salad should not be on the menu, and she should simplify her word choices. On the other hand, well-placed metaphors and images (her forte) can help readers better understand complex messages. And for communication that lends itself to storytelling – a highly engaging technique – Lucy may be your go-to person.

Who’s likely to eliminate creativity and lively copy in the name of protecting the company? Meet the Legal Eagles! With their vested interest in preventing lawsuits and avoiding bad looks, these folks have their red pens ready for markup. Whether they cut copy they consider risky, rewrite it to make it feel cold and choppy, or destroy readability with tedious legalese, their input can seem harsh. However, it’s feedback you just can’t ignore.

How can you manage the Legal Eagles’ input without sacrificing the upbeat tone you’ve worked hard to achieve? Try getting ahead of it by consulting with them early in the project. Ask questions. Get context. Understand and plan to address potential legal concerns before you start writing. When it’s time to send for review, frame theirs as purely legal: “Please let us know if you have any changes from a legal perspective – requirements, dealbreakers, or roadblocks.” If they offer more subjective suggestions or personal opinions, don’t feel compelled to incorporate them. Instead, stick to what’s strictly legal.

Finally, let’s consider Polly Perfectionist. She’s a compulsive editor and proofreader who can’t help but spot every error, no matter how small or insignificant (Full disclosure: This is totally me!) She tends to focus on the minutiae and lose sight of the bigger picture – sometimes slowing progress to a crawl as she points out every misplaced modifier and pesky punctuation problem.

How can you prod Polly along? Remind her that while perfection is certainly something to strive for, it can also be the “enemy of good.” With her eagle eye, she may be the only one who notices the fine details that will escape most stakeholders, and audience members won’t give them a second thought. High profile content, print communications, or anything with a long shelf life may merit Polly’s approach. In these cases, show your appreciation for her perfectionism – as long as her edits don’t slow down the production schedule.

Every project has it challenges – tight deadlines, changing priorities, limited resources. When the challenges come from fellow team members, it pays to be patient, flexible, open-minded, and diplomatic. Make sure your colleagues don’t think of you as Difficult Dan.