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Is your programme being derailed by psychopaths?

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Have you ever had problems with a stakeholder? Do you find that sometimes stakeholders just won’t engage, but actively resist? Have you ever been a ‘not so perfect’ stakeholder yourself?

These days, everyone knows that if your programme or project is to succeed you must connect with your stakeholders. It’s hard to believe the word ‘stakeholder’ was once new, and had to be explained to project leaders. When I worked with project pioneers Colin Hastings and Wendy Briner at Ashridge in the 1990s, that was the battle we faced. I can’t recall the number of times I was told that I was wrong and that ‘only the most senior client’s opinion matters’.

My contribution was to move from a single point of focus to understanding the bigger picture with the invention of the stakeholder map. We told leaders to communicate with their stakeholders to find out what was needed, and to let them know how it was going.

The advice was sound, but there was a problem. I discovered that, in practice, some stakeholders did not respond. They would not engage. However much I communicated, they would remain hostile and resistant to change. The intention was communication, but the challenge was engagement. Why wouldn’t they engage?

My next breakthrough came when corporate psychologist Bill Acker helped with my research. Acker’s insight was that people suffer from a condition called ‘amygdala hijack and the habituating response’. Basically, a part of your brain responds like prehistoric man. It sees change as a threat and puts up an emotional blast wall. Logic, clear communication or invitation to engage can not penetrate that wall.

I needed a remedy. It became clear that it’s important never to surprise stakeholders, as this triggers a long-term emotional check-out. With my understanding of the habituating response (why, with time, what would have shocked you becomes normal and unnoticeable), I advised on how to thinly slice and repeat change to make it feel normal, without going too far at each stage. But it took a year and more psychological research to find the solution. It turned out that people automatically become emotionally attached to their own ideas and to acting on them. In caveman terms, they ‘never waste an idea to find more food’.

The secret is to introduce the issue with little fanfare, provide lots of concrete background information and data, and then ask them a question. Good questions focus on the future and what could be done. In answering the question, stakeholders inadvertently become emotionally attached to the outcome of the project. The issue-data-question-build (IDQB) solution format was born.

I then began helping clients on digital transformation projects. I mean real transformation projects, where you completely break what you have, create brand new digital models and manage the transition – all at the same time. Suddenly the IDQB superpower wasn’t working as well as it had. With about one or two people in a hundred, it just didn’t work. Their resistance was disproportionate and unexpected. Often, they would simply make up stories to prevent progress with the transformation.

Initially, I put these occurrences down to misaligned rewards, plus the normal human need to cover one’s tracks. Then, by chance, in 2015 I met journalist and author Jon Ronson. One of his books, The Psychopath Test, gave me an insight into what I was encountering.

Digital transformation is different from normal change projects and programmes. Transformation takes power from those with power; it makes people vulnerable. Because there is a lot of new stuff, people will often be wrong, or feel that they are wrong. That is exactly the wrong environment for someone with a mildly psychopathic profile. This type of brain anomaly means the person is not interested in things like the corporate mission or organisational good, but running their own agendas. Apparently, even mild psychopaths are attracted to roles where they can be in control.

Change and project professionals are beginning to realise the importance of new developments in neuroscience on their performance. But how do you even know if the person you are dealing with is in the one per cent of the population with psychopathic traits?

Psychologists use a quiz called the Hare Test. You obviously can’t tell your stakeholders: ‘Take this test so I can tell if you’re normal.’ For now, I use published advice on dealing with psychopaths, which is to set up crucial encounters as an ‘exchange’ or deal. If the person seems confused, I switch to IDQB for ‘normal’ people. I’m still working on another breakthrough in this area.

So, if you have problems with a stakeholder, or find that sometimes stakeholders just won’t engage, but actively resist, you know why.

And if you find yourself being a ‘not so perfect’ stakeholder yourself, perhaps you should take the Hare Test.

This article originally appeared in the winter 18 issue of Project, the official journal of the APM. APM members can read the full issue. Or you can request a copy.


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  1. Emile Fakhoury
    Emile Fakhoury 01 April 2019, 06:03 PM

    Interesting article and hope to hear more from you on the next breakthrough!