Early on in my career, I had a call from the post-room manager. She was confused – and angry. Bags and bags of extra mail had arrived, and she didn’t have the staff in to sort it. She had heard that it might be something to do with me.
I was happy that my project to insource a service had completed as expected. All the redirections were working – including the post. The only problem was that the post-room staff had never been on my radar. I’d never considered the impact on them. And the impact was pretty big.
That was my first ‘real life’ lesson about the importance of stakeholder engagement.
Engagement v management
For a long time, our profession talked about stakeholder management, as if it were easy to manage the reactions and behaviour of other people. As if filling in an impact and influence grid was the same as doing the real work of talking to others, getting out there and building relationships with individuals as people.
So let’s break that down.
- A stakeholder’s behaviours and actions can be managed – predicted, planned, organised and controlled.
- You have some kind of direct authority over the people to be managed.
Both of these statements are an inaccurate and misleading way of approaching the connections we need to have with others in a project context.
- Stakeholders have agency, preferences, interests, needs and control over their actions.
- You want to partner with them in delivering the change.
When we choose terminology carefully and talk about engaging people on project delivery work, we elevate stakeholders to the role of valued partner, instead of simply a ‘resource’. They become an equal – someone to work with instead of for.
But we need to move beyond labelling things to actually taking action, because action-takers get projects done. Here’s how engagement breaks down:
UNDERSTANDING + ACTION + INFLUENCE = ENGAGEMENT
I talk more about that engagement formula in my book, Engaging stakeholders on projects: How to harness people power, but for now I want to share six quick tips to boost stakeholder engagement on your projects.
- Change the message
If you don’t currently use the language of engagement, your challenge begins today: stop talking about stakeholder management activities and switch to talking about engagement. Give it a week and see what difference you’ve managed to create in your stakeholder communities and project teams.
Engagement happens when you understand someone else’s perspectives and can respond to those. Practise active listening. Drop in to working sessions like process mapping or system testing and listen first-hand to how things are going.
- Follow through
People engage with those they trust, so be trustworthy. Show up, be consistent. If you say you are going to do something, do it – or have a really good reason why you didn’t.
- Be likeable
People like doing business with people they like. Think about how you come across. Focus on body language, small talk, smiling. These are all things you can practise. To many project managers who pride themselves on action-taking, they might not seem important, but they are the foundation for workplace relationships.
- Invite feedback
Change your email signature to include a link to a project email inbox or ‘contact us’ form. Ask people for their feedback regularly, through formal channels like lessons learned and retrospectives, but also when you meet them in the corridor. ‘What else could I be doing for you?’ is a good question to start a conversation.
- Be grateful
Engagement is a two-way street. They give you their input, time, resources and energy, so give something back. Say thank you. Cake works too.
When we work with people it can feel iterative, messy, uncoordinated, rushed and stressful.
Don’t worry. Even if it feels awkward for you, your stakeholders will see someone who cares about their views, wants the best for the organisation and the project, and is trying hard to make a positive difference.
The post-room incident marked me, but the thing I remember most about the manager’s reaction was that she accepted my apology, moved on and buckled down, dealing with the mountains of mail I had sent her way. I didn’t get in trouble. I learned.
The lesson was simple: remember that you and the project’s stakeholders are people first and ‘resources’ second (or even third, fourth, fifth or more). We all have good days and bad days; be kind to each other.
- Engaging stakeholders on projects: How to harness people power
- Engaging stakeholders (APM Learning Module 🔒)
- How inclusive is your stakeholder engagement?