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Influencing upwards: How stakeholder engagement really works

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Eddie Kilkelly influencing upwards.jpg

Eddie Kilkelly outlines a three-step approach to extending your influence over senior stakeholders

Most of us will have experienced the challenges of engaging with multiple stakeholders, identifying them carefully so that when we need support we know precisely who to win over with our compelling arguments.

Frustratingly, a perfectly planned and executed argument may be well received by one stakeholder and provoke an angry reaction from another. The reason for this is that, in this saturated world of complexity, at a subconscious level our brain is constantly trying to find shortcuts to help us to cope.

There are three important parts of the brain, in this context. The Human, the Animal and the Computer. The Human is the most rational and articulate but also the weakest participant. The Animal is much stronger, is the most emotional and as a result can be highly volatile and yet this part of the brain controls decision making. Finally, the Computer is the most powerful and most capable of all parts of the brain.

The Computer makes decisions using mental models. Storing away previous experiences which we have learned and practised before. Every time our brain is faced with a challenge the Computer will try to match the pattern and when it finds a match, it will follow the same course of action as before without validating it.

Unfortunately, the brain has a habit of adding emotional tags to each of these models and so, if it was feeling unhappy or threatened or angry the last time it solved this problem, the powers of recall will also conjure up the same emotion that it felt last time.

The logical and articulate ‘Human’ portion of the brain does not then have the opportunity to rationalise your proposal because the two strongest parts of the mind are already made up.

In practice this means that your stakeholder may not be listening intently to your well-intentioned arguments because they have already reached a decision based on previous experience or emotion and one that they can’t necessarily explain.

Starting your influence with logic and rationale is almost certainly the wrong place to begin unless you have absolutely no other choice. The brain perceives opinion as challenge, challenge equates to threat and the brain will move into a fight or flight mode.

Real influence, on the other hand, is the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behaviour of someone or something. Drawing them toward you rather than pushing your logic upon them. To achieve this there are two other much better places to start and this has been scientifically validated in numerous psychological studies over many years.

Somewhere between 364-322BC, the philosopher Aristotle discovered the secrets to influence which he described as Ethos, Pathos and Logos. Ethos we know better today as ethics or credibility, Pathos means connecting with people on an emotional level and we would probably today describe this as Emotional Intelligence or EQ. Logos we would know as logic and rationale or IQ.

If you were to draw a Venn diagram overlapping these elements of credibility, relationship and reason, the area where they all overlap in the middle is known as the heart of influence. In order to have the greatest influence over our stakeholders, our aim should be to use each of these three elements in a planned way. What follows is a three-step approach to developing influence that any of us can deploy.

Step 1 – Develop your professional credibility

Influence is a long game and success comes from working on ‘brand you’ and the way you are perceived. This means not only showing your credibility in terms of skills, qualifications and professional recognition – which is important – but also understanding your own values and remaining committed to them. This sets the foundation for how influential you can be.

Simon Sinek(1) advises businesses not to start by telling their prospective clients what they do nor even how they do it but to start with why they do it? He calls it the Golden Circle. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it and yet we almost invariably start with reason and rationale when we are trying to persuade our stakeholders and this is often perceived as unsolicited advice or challenge.

Stakeholders don’t necessarily buy into what you are saying they buy into your integrity and credibility because that is what makes them feel secure. If they understand you and what you stand for then it will be easier to connect and if you form a strong connection, then it will feel more comfortable to buy into your proposals. So, your starting point has to be to ensure that almost before they meet you they can form an impression of who you really are.

In more recent studies Robert Caldini(2) identified that people are more likely to buy into you if you first take time to show them how you are qualified to help. While you may not feel comfortable doing this yourself, other people can do it for you in terms of testimonials, references and endorsements. Who do you know that is well connected to the stakeholder in question and who could provide you with a sincere introduction. You can also take the opportunity to make sure that every reference to you carries with it a clear statement of your professional qualifications and experience whether it is in your signature block, your LinkedIn profile or your CV.

Step 2 – Develop strong professional relationships

Next, work on establishing strong connections with those people whom you want to influence. Develop the relationships over time and without any agenda. Build rapport and empathy. Several studies at leading business schools in the US have demonstrated that students who establish a rapport based on ‘liking’ invariably became more successful in developing commercial relationships to their mutual benefit. Remember, also in this context, that reciprocity drives human behaviour. If you have done your stakeholder a favour in the past, then there is a powerful human drive for them to give you something back in return.

We all know that building our professional networks is an incredibly powerful thing to do and if we can develop an emotional connection then our reasoned arguments are more likely to be well received. A broad professional network will also provide greater opportunities for sincere professional introductions and testimonials.

Step 3 – Adapt your behaviour to the stakeholder’s preferred style

Finally, on the subject of making your case, this should arguably be the easy part. It is important to remember that an estimated 93 per cent of communication is non-verbal and so how we deliver the message is more important than what we actually say. This is where an understanding of behavioural preference is important and this is a rich topic in itself.

If we have managed to establish our professional credibility and built a strong relationship with our stakeholder then all we need to do now is deliver the message in ways that will appeal to their personal behavioural styles. Do they prefer fast-paced, high-level, positive solutions? Would they respond better to a thorough and detailed breakdown or would the react more positively to a fun, creative and stimulating approach?

Remember that by the time you deliver your message, you have already made the stakeholder feel confident of your ability and integrity and you have already built a professional relationship. The odds are already weighted in your favour.

By working on these three simple things: establishing your professional credibility; developing strong relationships, and adapting your behaviour to suit the preferences of your stakeholder you will proactively increase the size of your sphere of influence and thus increase the likelihood of a favourable reaction.

(1) Starting With Why, Simon Sinek.

(2) Secrets from the Science of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini and Steve Martin.

Learn more about stakeholder engagement from APM’s resource area, including stakeholder engagement vs stakeholder management, what’s the difference?

Image: Andrii Yalanskyi/Shutterstock


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  1. Louisa Baker
    Louisa Baker 04 August 2020, 01:55 PM

    Excellent and very helpful