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Reading the room: how to win over tricky stakeholders

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Sarah Rozenthuler is a chartered psychologist who applies behavioural management techniques and neuroscience to tricky business situations. For a recent APM Corporate Partner workshop in Birmingham, she and the delegates shared experiences and lessons on how to reframe the way we think about project stakeholders.

Rozenthuler’s system breaks down into three core phases. 

  1. Discern your project’s purpose and narrative.

Not every project feels like it has a higher purpose. But stakeholders will be more likely to engage if they feel that it’ll deliver tangible results and mean something worthwhile to the organisation – and their own sense of self-worth.

Rozenthuler suggests creating exciting and explicit job titles to demonstrate that project workers and stakeholders are contributing. Suggestions for such titles from the APM workshop included: the project director who wanted to be ‘chief conductor and problem-solver’; the construction supervisor who thought ‘conscience of the contract’ was a more engaging title.

  1. Decide who your stakeholders are (and who’s missing).

Mapping your stakeholder groups on any project – or even project decision – is a useful sense check on where your existing relationships are weak; which stakeholders are in alignment with each other (and where the outliers are); and how you might address one who feel semi-detached. Equally important: who’s missing from the map?

“We’re going through a transformation right now that is going to mean redundancies,” said one APM Corporate Partner. “When I map it out, I can see the families of those people who are moving on are a key stakeholder group. How do we get closer to them? If we can manage it, that could have a profound effect on engagement with people still in the business, too.”

  1. Consciously build dialogue with them.

Perhaps the easiest change to make is improving communication with the stakeholders you’ve identified. But there’s an art to tailoring your communication. You need to make it as simple as possible – and that means knowing what types of person you’re dealing with.

Rozenthuler likes to use David Kantor’s categories when she reads a room. Remember, even project leaders fall into these types, and you can consciously apply your own bias towards one or other of these roles to propel your project:

Movers – these are the people who want to share ideas and contribute to the conversation. They respond well to ideas, too, and without their engagement, projects suffer from lack of direction and shape.

Don’t say to them: “We’re doing this…”

Do say: “We need to decide…”

Followers – add weight to initiatives and create energy by backing someone else’s moves.

Don’t say to them: “Whatever…”

Do say: “I support the suggestion to…”

Opposers – who challenge and confront moves. But they’re not necessarily negatives on the project. Without them, there’s less chance to course-correct. The key to being conscious as an opposer (or to dealing with a stakeholder who perhaps isn’t conscious of that role) is to be respectful.

Don’t say to them: “It’s not going to work that way…”

Do say: “One challenge we might need to address is…”

Bystanders – who seem passive but can bring a wider perspective on dilemmas or emerging problems. Without them, the project can lack perspective.

Don’t say to them: “Nothing to do with you…”

Do say: “I’m noticing that…”

As one APM Corporate Partner at our workshop admitted, “I’ve realised that I’m not very good at following. But I don’t say that I don’t agree with a particular course, either. That means that the project meetings can descend into conflict, rather than building up a constructive dialogue.”

Another added: “In our business, we don’t have stakeholder who can fulfil the role of independent bystander. Without that role in play, there’s less to stop things just going round in circles.”

But the core of using psychology to win stakeholder engagement is actually devastatingly simply: be conscious of your own biases and the roles you play in team dynamics; and develop empathy for your team and for your stakeholders. Nail those two dimensions, and a new world of engagement opens up.

APM’s Corporate Partnership programme provides a consistent approach and common language for your own project management community through access to APM’s digital resources, including the APM Competence Framework.

Brought to you by Project journal.


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