Leadership Influence and Stakeholder Management
In her children book: “Bear feels sick“, author Karma Wilson describes how the hero bear is sick and is playing on his friends to cater to his needs. His lovable smallish friends help out, and perform many chores including cooking, preparing tea and keeping the sick bear company. The bear remains ill throughout the book until, suddenly he is miraculously cured. Most of the book describes how his charade convinces even the otherwise envious raven, the badgering badger, and the ever so efficient mole to continuously and wholeheartedly tend to his needs. While I believe that Karma Wilson didn’t consider her children’s book an analogy to influencing stakeholder in the matrix organization, there is one important lesson that this book teaches us: the significance of stakeholder management. The shrewd sick bear skillfully identifies the stakeholders, analyzes their attitudes, and convinces them in a passive aggressive way to help out while he is relaxing in his sick bed.
Much can be learned from this story, this chapter presents a discussion about stakeholder management, it investigates the concept that stakeholders differ in their perceptions and introduces a strategy for influence.
Stakeholders – person or organization (e.g. customer, sponsor, performing organization, or the public) that is actively involved in the project, or whose interests may be positively or negatively affected by the execution or completion of the project. A stakeholder may also exert influence over the project and its deliverables. (PMBOK®)
In this book I will be using the term stakeholder in a boarder sense – any individual who can impact your work and activities, which can be non-project related.
Keeping the Nice Bears Close to you
The first step in building support within the greater stakeholder community is identifying the various stakeholders groups and individuals impacting the project/activities and analyzing their attitudes. Identifying stakeholders can be completed alone or with a small team. Since analyzing stakeholders is a sensitive undertaking, it makes sense to perform the activity with the kernel project team, ensuring that the output of the analysis remains within the team.
The objective of stakeholder analysis is to produce a list of stakeholders that might influence the outcome of the project. Once the list of stakeholders is produced, each stakeholder is assessed according to his power and interest. Power in this regard is the stakeholder’s ability to impact various aspects of the project either positively or negatively, interest is defined as the level of concern the stakeholder has with the project. Both the power and interest of the stakeholders are assessed in respect to the task, activity, project and even towards a specific project objective.
The widely used two axes power and interest grid has four quadrants:
1. High power high interest stakeholders;
2. High power low interest stakeholders;
3. Low power high interest stakeholders;
4. Low power low interest stakeholders.
Experience shows that project managers and teams who do use this tool, perform the analysis only once at the start of the project and don’t revisit the analysis later on. This undermines the value which can be realized using the tool. Actually, stakeholder analysis is an ongoing task, which should be performed on a monthly basis in order to increase the opportunities to influence stakeholders. What’s more, throughout the project, new stakeholders become relevant while stakeholders who were part of earlier analysis might become irrelevant. The analysis of power and interest is also an input for communication planning. Each quadrant in the stakeholders’ assessment grid has a directive explaining how to manage the stakeholders within the specific quadrant. The general guidelines for each quadrant are as follows:
1. High power high interest stakeholders – manage closely;
2. High power low interest stakeholders – keep satisfied;
3. Low power high interest stakeholders – keep informed;
4. Low power low interest stakeholders – monitor with minimal effort.
The project team needs to detail further each general guideline into specific communication tasks and activities. The guidelines differ from team and project. Note that direction to closely manage stakeholders in the first quadrant, relates not only to the extent of communication activities performed, it also defines the intensity of the process itself. Stakeholders who are managed closely are also queried often, on how much communication they would prefer. So, it might happen that some stakeholders in this group receive fewer reports and updates compared with members in the keep-informed quadrant, since they opted to receive less information.
This is important to understand: Manage closely, similar to the other communication guidelines in the grid, doesn’t imply that stakeholders receive more bits of communication; rather it means that the stakeholders are allowed a customized communication approach compared with the stakeholders in the other quadrants.
The stakeholder analysis grid detailed above, while useful in the context of creating a general understanding of stakeholders support, lacks a more in-depth view of the actual relationships and forecasted behaviors of the stakeholders, towards the specific efforts.
To understand these better, an alternative view on the analysis of stakeholders is suggested. In this view stakeholders are analyzed based on their perceived support, implicit or explicit. A four quadrants grid is likewise employed with two axes as seen below. The axes are trust and agreement. Stakeholders are divided into four groups: allies, opponents, accomplices, and adversaries.
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Stakeholders in the Allies quadrant are the advocates of the project effort, having both trust in the project team and being in agreement with the objectives and the approach used to manage the project. They are supporting unequivocally, and will provide assistance when required, help when needed and advice when requested (sometimes even when it’s not requested).
Stakeholders in the Opponents quadrant are openly and objectively criticizing elements of the project or the effort. They are, to a degree, not in agreement with some objectives of the project and might be questioning the methods employed by the team to achieve the objectives. However, there is mutual trust between the project team and these stakeholders which translates into ‘fair play’ in solving disagreement. The project leader and the team are certain that disagreements can be solved in a reasonable, unbiased and honest approach. While these stakeholders aren’t unequivocally supporting the process and the objectives, they prove to be a much required judicious group of stakeholders who can objectively challenge project decisions.
Stakeholders in the Accomplices quadrant are outwardly accepting and collaborating with the project team in the process and supporting the objective. These stakeholders are also said to be giving lip service. It might seem that they are in agreement, however since there is little trust between the project team and these stakeholders, the continued support isn’t granted. The project leader and the team can’t depend on the seeming support that is displayed by this stakeholder group, as it can easily be substituted by sharp defiance as soon as the environment changes or as soon as the project team is out of hearing range. This makes the accomplices group of stakeholders quite dangerous. Project teams and managers are advised to build trust with these stakeholders. The influence techniques in this guide can be employed to establish trust, specifically the strategy of Liking mentioned later in this chapter.
Stakeholders in the Adversaries quadrant are un-accepting and not collaborating with the project team in the process and are in disagreement with the objective. There is an evolving conflict building between the project team and this group of stakeholders. The project leader and the team can’t depend on receiving support from this group, which tends to employ manipulative means in propagating disagreement. Naturally, the group of adversary stakeholders is the most difficult to influence and lead. Theoretically, project teams and managers can invest time and effort to build trust and agreement with these stakeholders. Practically these might be wasted efforts, leading to the opposite result (see more below). Actually people by and large, project teams and managers included, invest too much effort in persuading and convincing the adversary stakeholder group with little valuable results. The focus on this group develops into an open hostile conflict which resonates with the other stakeholder groups and can create a landslide in the overall level of support.
Our behavior of increased focus on the adversary group is human and evident in many similar interactions. Imagine a teacher in classroom, where from 30 pupils, 3 are in distrust and conflict with the teacher. In most cases more than half of the teachers’ attention is given to these pupils at the expense of the others. Obviously, the teacher needs to create an environment supporting learning in the class, however the focus on those disturbing the class is counterproductive as it provides opposite results.
So why do we focus on the adversary group? Psychologically speaking, we have a need to be accepted and loved (or at least liked); we find it extremely difficult to be in a position where people are un-accepting of us. We go to great lengths to receive appreciation and support from groups of people who are in disagreement. Take a minute to reflect on your efforts in gaining liking and appreciation from everyone, investing great efforts to please those who are in hostile conflict and distrusting disagreement at the expense of investing your time building positive relationships with others more supporting individuals. Letting go of our explicit need for unanimous all-encompassing acceptance isn’t an easy task and requires a mental and cognitive shift in how we perceive ourselves and our interaction with the environment in which we operate. Achieving this improved psychological condition enables moving away from focusing on those who aren’t accepting us, rather, investing time and effort in those who are supporting or those who haven’t made up their mind yet – more on that later. In the teacher example above, the class, the teacher and the learning environment would benefit greatly from focus on the main group of pupils who are sitting on the fence, so to speak, waiting to see how the conflict between the teacher and the adversary pupils plays out before deciding which side to choose.
Notwithstanding the two models for stakeholder analysis presented so far, at the outset of each stakeholder interaction such as a kickoff meeting, a conference call, a town-hall meeting or similar gatherings, there are three main attitudes apparent. These attitudes are easily observed by reading body language, words used and tone of voice. Roughly speaking there are stakeholders who immediately support, those who are against and a big group who are, so to speak, sitting on the fence. Stakeholders, who are fence sitters, are waiting to see how things will play out. They haven’t decided yet who to support and are making up their minds.
As a general rule of thumb in any interaction that you might have, approximately 5% of the stakeholders will be against, 5% of the stakeholders will be in favor, and the remaining 90% of stakeholders will either fence sitters or paying some amount of lip service.
As detailed above, placing emphasis and overly focusing on those against, is a fatal mistake in building your support coalition and your informal power base. It is also the most common mistake.
I wish to repeat that: do not forget that usually when trying to build a support coalition you will put too much emphasis on the stakeholders who are against, which will lead to a failed effort.
In an analogy to the teacher example, imagine that you are giving a presentation to 100 participants. The presentation is about some change project in marketing that will greatly impact the manufacturing and maintenance, operations, IT, engineering and sales departments. This is a high profile project with many interests. You are holding a formal kickoff presentation and it is vital that you gain support for this endeavor. As explained above, about 5 to 10 participants will be totally in favor of your approach, about 5 to 10 participants will be totally against whatever you propose. The remaining participants have not made up their mind yet. This presentation is your opportunity to build a coalition and to influence the stakeholder community to support the project as you’re moving forward.
Most presenters will aim their influence efforts at those opposing, sometimes engaging in verbal confrontations with them during and after the presentation. This is folly, since you’re unlikely to gain much by arguing with this stakeholder group. The byproduct of discussing the merits with them is that some ‘fence sitters’ will actually join the group of naysayers. This is a common outcome which mirrors human tendency to side with the underdog, in this case if you are leading the presentation and have the stage, the underdog will be the blockers.
What you want to do is to speak partly to the supports and partly to the fence sitters. You wish to create an explicit path of trust for those sitting on the fence to become supporters.
Tip: You can easily recognize those supporting, those against and the fence sitters. As a rule of thumb those who are supporting will be sitting in the front rows, and those opposing and blocking in the back rows.
When is a Bear not a Bear
We tend to think that others think in the same way that we do. This makes sense, as our personal thinking process is the only one with which we are familiar. Philosophically, we actually can’t be certain that others are experiencing events anywhere nearly the same way we do. The axiomatic assertion concerning colors is a good example as my experience of yellow is probably different compared to others experience of the color yellow and I can’t relay this experience in any concrete way. I assume that when I say that a certain color is yellow, others perceive the same emotional range, cognitive experience and mental state as I do. It is human to assume others are experiencing the environment similarly to us, however it leads to obvious communication challenges.
When interacting with stakeholders, the fallacy that others are viewing situations, scenarios and the environment in general, as we do is detrimental. Working with stakeholders, assuming that their perception of a certain situation is identical to ours is at the basis of many failures to influence. Being able to move away from our perception of the situation which is based on our emotional, mental and cognitive states is crucial in gaining the support of others. Concepts such as active listening, empathizing and WIIFM (what is in it for me) spring to mind, these are actually the techniques which assist us in moving away from our perception and identifying the perception of others.
More about Perception and Communications
Widely held communication models – ones that are presented in books and articles – depict two equal participants in a communication dialogue: the sender and receiver. The Shannon Weaver model is a relevant example – see below.
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In 1947, Shannon and Weaver suggested a model to describe communication between computer systems. The model can be used to depict TCP/IP (Transmission control protocol/internet protocol internet communication). In the model there is a communication source, an encoder for encoding the message, a channel through which the message flows, a decoder of the message and the receiver. The receiver sends feedback of message reception. In the communication channel there can be interference and noise, for example the dropping of IP packets in an ADSL line.
The model was adopted to illustrate interpersonal communication. In workshops, I often joke that psychologists are science envy, therefore borrowing on scientific models and concepts to explain elements of human behavior. This is the case with the adoption of the Shannon Weaver model into interpersonal communications; it doesn’t explain well the causes for miscommunication. Social sciences practitioners added elements to the original model to illustrate perceptions that interfere with the message; however the fundamental application of the IT model to interpersonal communication is flawed. Communication between humans, in contrast to machines, is not linear and balanced; rather it is haphazard, contingent context based and associative. In order to understand how human communicate we need to understand how children develop the spoken language. One of the pioneers in the research of language and cognitive development is Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist and philosopher known for his epistemological studies with children. Piaget demonstrated that children learn words through a bottom up approach, in contrast to the belief that it is developed through a top down mechanism. They impart a meaning to an object by processing many encounters of different versions of that object.
For example – most of us looking at the following:
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Most individuals globally, have this as a model of a table. When asked to draw a table, most would use the above conceptual model and draw something similar to the above.
However, these are just a two-dimensional drawing of lines connected to a parallelogram. How is it that we consider the drawing above as a table? Piaget would say that as children, we have seen many examples of tables, probably none that resembled the one in the drawing above. Each time we saw a table, the people around us would say a mostly unintelligible (as we were only babies) sentence which included the word table. After several hundreds of such occurrences, the word stuck, and we were able to build a lasting image of the essence of the functionality of a table. Almost like magic the conceptual model of a table, as presented above in the drawing, materializes for the word: table.
Each and every one of us builds the conceptual dictionary based on individual experiences. While the model might appear similar, especially for concrete objects, the meanings that we allocate to the model can be vastly different. As a result, while the Shannon Weaver model assumes that people’s mental models for words and concepts are identical, they actually aren’t! Communication based on the assumption that two stakeholders mean the same thing when they say a certain word is doomed to fail. Since, though we have the same mental model for a table (the cover and the four lines) the context and associations that we have for the concept are vastly different.
When I say: bear – the immediate picture that spring to my mind is the Alaska encounter. What is your mental image when you hear the word bear? What is your mental image when you hear the word: project? How about: rapport, liking, PMO, leadership, influence?
The more abstract the concepts, the larger the variance in the connotations, associated with the concept. Communication is hardly an orderly Shannon Weaver model; it is more a tornado of context spiraling down, the base of the tornado is where mutual understanding is achieved. Our ability to understand each other is based on investigating the associations and context more than the message itself. What more, it is the receiver rather than the sender who assigns meaning to the communication. Project managers assume that stakeholders understand what they communicate in words. In fact it is the stakeholders who decide what to glean from a message, the context and the associations. In order to validate the intention, the prudent project manager should spend time in understanding the meanings which the stakeholders assign to the words, sentences, reports, presentations etc.
Above: Communication inferences tornado
From Michael’s bestselling book Bear in Mind – Influence and Leadership