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3 Ways to Influence Stakeholders

Anna Burgess Yang
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Communication
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Every project manager knows that buy-in from stakeholders is critical for overall project success. If your stakeholders are not on board or are only lukewarm on the project's importance, it can impact everything from resources to overall company adoption. Therefore, it is important to not only receive sign-off but have stakeholders in your camp throughout the project.

The larger the project, the more you will need to employ a stakeholder management strategy to receive the necessary support. A project that impacts a single department may have stakeholders that manage the impacted team. Large projects that may achieve business transformation may have stakeholders that are key decision-makers within the company.

Your management of your stakeholders may make or break your project. But how can you use your skills as a project manager to wield influence?

This article will talk through understanding your stakeholders and how you can use different techniques to gain the support you need for your project.

The Influence of Your Stakeholders on a Project

As a project manager, you know how to get things done. You can keep track of tasks, resources and maintain sight of the overall project goals. 

However, dealing with stakeholders is different than managing the resources of a project. It isn't about the stages of your project or your progress reports. Instead, it is about understanding the motivations of that stakeholder and effectively communicating the value of the project.

You need to rely on your "people skills" when dealing with stakeholders more than any other aspect of the project. If you fail to win them over - and continue to receive support - the entire project can derail.

Challenges of Stakeholder Influence

In a perfect world, your stakeholders will understand the overall goals of your project. Assuming this is not always the case, you need to be aware of potential challenges. Here are some red flags that can signal that your stakeholder might be difficult.

Lack of Communication

You need to capture the attention of your stakeholders and hold their interest throughout the project. Your project should have clearly defined criteria and goals.

However, while you may communicate through a project status report and other regular updates, your stakeholders may not be hearing the progress. If you sense confusion or that your stakeholders aren't really paying attention, that is a cause for concern.

Along the same lines, if you reach out to stakeholders via email or phone, and your attempts to make contact are unanswered, that is not a good sign. Lack of communication shows that stakeholders are disinterested in your project overall. It can also mean that they don't understand the project and aren't bothering to learn more.

Poor communication with your stakeholders makes the project that much harder to manage.

Differing Opinions

As a project manager, you know how to assess the status of the project every step of the way. You can tell if the project is on time, on budget, and progress toward the final goals.

Some stakeholders may have a different idea. The problem is that they are not involved in the details.

They may express opinions that the project is not moving fast enough or that they do not see results. Being overly critical of your efforts can reduce your effectiveness as a project manager among your team.

Differing Timeline Expectations

At the onset of the project, you will have mapped out a timeline for the project based on the resources and any dependencies. Your stakeholders need to have the same level of urgency and understand the factors that went into the timeline preparation.

Stakeholders that think the project should be moving at a different pace can cause stress. They may expect the project to be delivered more quickly, without any additional resources. Or they may be content to sit back and let the project move at a leisurely pace.

In either case, your project can quickly get off track if your stakeholders do not understand the overall timeline.

Resources

Your stakeholders may not understand the value of the resources involved. They may see resources only as "tasks," and if not enough "tasks" are completed, they can pull resources from the project.

However, you know exactly how the resources impact a particular project and why the resources are needed. You need to make a case for resources to stay on the project or risk quality issues and delays.

Identifying Your Stakeholders

Stakeholders may exist at varying levels within your organization. Your first step in your stakeholder management strategy is to identify the relevant stakeholders.

Because your job is to build bridges, you need to understand the destination. Your stakeholders could be any of the following:

  • Department leads who authorized the project
  • Company board of directors
  • CEO or company owner
  • Senior executives

Your team members are also stakeholders of the project since the outcome directly impacts them. However, if they do not directly influence the project, they are less likely to change its trajectory. However, don't overlook team members entirely since their resistance could also cause problems within a project. 

Once you have identified your stakeholders, map out their level of support. This can be as simple as labeling your stakeholders as either supportive, neutral, or concerning.

While stakeholders that are potential roadblocks are your primary focus, spend some time considering those that are neutral. If you have more several stakeholders and they all fall into the "neutral" or "concerning" category, then you don't really have anyone in your corner.

Determine the Motivation of Your Stakeholders

Your stakeholder management strategy is most likely to be effective if you can determine your stakeholder's motivation. Your approach to influencing stakeholders cannot be "one-size-fits-all." Instead, you need to focus on their concerns and how they operate.

By identifying your stakeholders' motivations and using the right stakeholder management strategy, you can effectively change their perception of your project. They will see you as the project's guide and rely on your judgment as a project manager.

Business Impact

Some stakeholders are primarily concerned with the needs of the business. They are constantly asking the question, "How does this help the business?" These stakeholders are pragmatic and results-focused.

For these stakeholders, you need to produce evidence that your project will have a tangible impact. Whether it is increased efficiency, increased revenue, or another change that benefits the business, you need to clearly outline the project's purpose.

Information-Driven

Many executives and other decision-makers are influenced by data. It is not enough to simply say that the project is successful: they want the proof. These stakeholders are looking for details.

You'll need to collect the metrics and information around the project, both upfront and throughout the project. Not only is the information you provide important, but how you communicate the information is equally critical. You need to be clear and easy to understand. You don't want to leave any questions unanswered. 

Level of Understanding

Some stakeholders will be more supportive of projects that they understand. This can be tricky if your project is very technical or nuanced. Stakeholders may resist because they don't understand the purpose of the project.

It's a common human characteristic. People tend to push away things that they don't understand.

As a project manager, you'll need to find ways to break down a complex topic into simple-to-understand terms. Whether you use visuals, storytelling, or other techniques, you need to ensure that the project is fully understood.

Level of Influence

Your project's overall success may reflect on the stakeholders. If their overall reputations are on the line, it could be driving their resistance to the project. 

Think about who your stakeholders report to and who they influence. These could be both internal and external. For example, your project may have an overall impact on your company's customers.

Think also about the level of influence of the project itself. Your stakeholders may be more motivated by larger projects, and you may have to work harder to influence stakeholders for projects that are smaller or less visible.

Influencing Stakeholders: 3 Strategies

Once you understand what motivates your stakeholders, you can begin to form a strategy to influence them. This influence should begin to take place from the moment your project enters the arena.

You will need to continue your efforts to influence your stakeholders throughout the project. You may think that you've achieved the level of buy-in you want at the onset of the project, but things can change. Outcomes of various phases of the project can cause your stakeholders to revert back to their initial reasons for resisting.

Think of your stakeholders as a relationship that needs to be nurtured. Your efforts to influence the stakeholders should remain constant. Don't get too mired in the details of your project and neglect the relationship with your stakeholders.

1. Persuade

There are many ways that your stakeholders' priorities can conflict with your project. They are often pulled in so many directions that they simply are not giving your project the right amount of attention.

However, this lack of focus can translate to a lack of support. Stakeholders may either intentionally or unintentionally throw up barriers that will block your project's progress. 

Your goal in this situation is to persuade. You want the stakeholder to see you as likable and see the project as important. You want the stakeholder to be "on your side," which is more apt to happen if the stakeholder likes you.

Don't come on too strong in your attempts to win over the stakeholder. Instead, take a gentle approach. Sometimes, stakeholders are driven by wins, and you can get stakeholders to see that by supporting you, they are on a winning team.

Other stakeholders can be persuaded by feeling like they are contributing to the project. You can seek advice from stakeholders, so they feel that they have meaningful interaction with you. Whether you follow such advice is another story, but the stakeholders will feel that they are part of the team. 

2. Trade 

When you influence by trade, you are effectively offering something in exchange for support. Not all stakeholders can be influenced by persuasion. Instead, they see support as currency, and you need to offer something of value in return.

Your ability to trade will depend on your level of authority. Some trade tactics are more tangible than others. For example:

  • Trading on budgets or resources
  • Trading on information and responsiveness
  • Trading on future projects or initiatives
  • Trading on recognition or influence
  • Trading on excellence or social impact
  • Trading on a personal relationship or support
  • Trading on autonomy or discretion
  • Trading on gratitude 

You can approach a stakeholder with a simple question: "How can we help each other?" Then consider how you can trade in a way that the stakeholder sees as mutually beneficial. 

Don't get into a situation where you cannot make good on your trade. Pledging a reduction in the project budget does not help you if you cannot make that happen. Instead, focus on what you can offer.

Remember, your ability on the trade will impact not only your current project but potentially future projects as well. If you feel that you are making concessions for the sake of your project, you can bank your trade as currency to use with the stakeholder on your next project.

3. Compel

While most people want to avoid this situation, the support from stakeholders on a project may come down to a power play. Your stakeholders may use their influence to control decisions, resources, and budgets in a way that is detrimental to your project.

In this case, you are compelling your stakeholder to choose a different path. This path may be in the opposite direction of what the stakeholder might otherwise choose.

More than likely, compel is not your first strategy. Instead, you may try persuasion or trading. If both of these fail, compel may be your only option.

In order to compel, you must have the leverage to do so. This may happen through support from other stakeholders to "force" a different outcome from the stakeholder that is resisting. Depending on the stakeholder's position in the organizational structure, it may also involve going higher up the food chain for support. 

Power play comes with a cost. More than likely, you will end up at odds with the stakeholder you are trying to compel. You risk diminishing that person's influence within the company or creating difficult lines of communication for this and future projects.

Not only that, but your efforts could backfire. If you try to summon resources to compel the stakeholder and fail, you will end up in a worse position than when you started.

You should only use a compel strategy if you are sure of its success, or if your entire project is at stake and you have no other options.

Meeting With the Stakeholders

In order to make your strategy to influence your stakeholders effective, you likely need to meet with them one-on-one. A large meeting with many stakeholders does not allow you to focus on the needs of each individual stakeholder. You'll need to find an opportunity to meet with each stakeholder to discuss the project.

In a large group setting, resistance from stakeholders can have a negative impact on others. Other stakeholders that were more neutral, or even in support of the project, can quickly become uneasy if other stakeholders are outspoken about their concerns. Negative opinions can quickly seep into the minds of other people and shift their support. 

One-on-one meetings also take the pressure off. Not only will your stakeholders adopt a different tone in a one-on-one meeting, but your focus is not split. You can have more clear and calm communication.

As you head into a one-on-one meeting with your stakeholders, there are ways to make the meeting productive.

Preparation

Don't go into a meeting without everything you need. If your stakeholder is motivated by information, bring the information. If your stakeholder lacks understanding of the project, prepare to answer any questions. 

State the Goals

This is your chance to restate - and frame - the overall goals of the project. You want to align the goals with your stakeholder's motivations, not simply rehash the overall goals of the project.

Think of the meeting as an opportunity to share the benefits. Outline not only how the goals of the project will influence the company but also show the stakeholder "what's in it for them."

Inspire Confidence

You want the stakeholder to have faith in your efforts. If you display confidence in the project and your skills as a project manager, it will go a long way. You want to show that you have a deep understanding of the project and also control over the project management process.

Build Trust

You cannot influence a stakeholder if the person does not trust you. You must be transparent about the project and its progress, including any challenges that you face. Talk about decisions that you are making throughout the project and your reasoning behind those decisions.

The stakeholder must see that you have the best interests of the project and the company at heart. If you are honest and straightforward in discussing the project, it will go a long way in building trust. Stakeholders that trust you are more likely to follow your advice.

Tips for Effective Communication

With any strategy that you use, communication will be one of the primary drivers of your success. You are juggling the roles of diplomat, confidant, cheerleader, and authority figure.

However, your project's success can often turn on these meetings with stakeholders and your ability to communicate. While you will be armed with understanding the motivations of your stakeholder and prepared for the meetings, what happens inside the meetings will determine your path forward.

Here are some tips for effective interpersonal communication.

Body Language

Pay attention to your body language throughout the meeting. You want your body language to reflect your strategy and not send mixed messages. If your body language is sending negative signals, communication can break down.

Listen

Often, the stakeholder wants to be heard. Let the stakeholders spend as much time talking about their concerns as needed.

Don't interrupt and listen actively. Not only that, but encourage the stakeholder to keep talking. You may learn more than you knew previously about why the stakeholder is resistant to your project. 

Choose Your Words Carefully

Think before you speak. Until the situation dictates otherwise (with a compel strategy), keep your tone neutral. Avoid being defensive or attacking the stakeholder.

Stay on Point

Don't allow the conversation to go off on tangents. Stay focused on your purpose of the meeting and guide the stakeholder back to your project.

Be Specific

Don't speak in generalities. Help the stakeholder understand how specific actions will lead to specific successes within the project. Don't leave anything open to interpretation.

Stay Positive

You want to approach your communications with stakeholders in a way that will benefit you and the project. Focus on how successfully communicating with the stakeholder will influence the project. 

Keep Your Project Moving Forward with an Effective Stakeholder Management Strategy

The importance of your stakeholder influence cannot be overstated. Choose a stakeholder management strategy that reflects your stakeholders' motivations and can help you achieve your stakeholders' support.

Project management is about your relationships with stakeholders and the team. Project management tools can make it easier for you to provide information at the right time throughout the project.

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