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Patrick Mayfield



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Stakeholder engagement is key to successful change

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Many have been led to believe that project management, change management and related fields, are simply a matter of organisation – working the right processes and tasks, writing the correct documents and having good governance mechanisms in place and so on. People just distract and get in the way. Some tend to concentrate on these technicalities rather than leaning towards people, resulting in huge waste.

Because relationships are the critical factor when leading change, to ignore them is likely to lead to a dissatisfied workforce and an unsatisfactory outcome.

I believe that the term ‘stakeholder engagement’ is preferable to the more common ‘stakeholder management’. If a stakeholder is defined as anyone with an interest in a project or its outcome, then the project leader will be engaging with those over whom they have no direct authority, such as those from different departments or external customers or partners.

So how can we claim to ‘manage’ them?

Organisational change will always cut across different business functions, boundaries and across silos of working and this is where stakeholder engagement will lead to successful outcomes. I have another fundamental concern with the concept of managing people. In my view, we manage things, not people. We lead, direct or motivate people, but we don’t manage them.

For successful change, buy-in from senior management is essential. There may also be internal partners, such as departments or teams within an organisation, or external partners like consultants or trainers who will all need to be fully on board.  Those less directly involved with change can still be affected, particularly with respect to resources. For instance, if additional or different resources are needed for them to be effective in the change, these external parties will need to know what’s expected of them and given encouragement and support.

From my own experience of leading programmes and projects, talking with other practitioners and reading literature on all aspects of human nature, of influencing people, motivation and shaping change, I have identified a number of principles specific to engaging and influencing people. These principles serve as compass points in the sometimes chaotic world of change with people of all kinds and serve to be universal, self-validating and empowering.

Listening is a powerful strategy

Ask the person you are looking to influence for their thoughts, aspirations and fears, to show that you are genuinely interested and begin to break down any barriers to change. This helps to focus on the need for change rather than present the solution first. Often, merely listening  to someone helps them open up and buy into what you are trying to achieving as you both look at the problem together.

Leading change

Leaders give a clear reason why something needs to be done and if managers are able to adopt a stronger leadership role, then change is more likely to happen smoothly and have a better change of sustainability. Although it is important that the future vision is explained by senior management, it also needs to be unpacked by the direct line manager into the practical implications for the individual concerned. Stakeholders in change expect purpose, meaning and a picture of the future you are aiming to realise.

Develop new habits

The goal of change is to develop new and often better habits, but people’s behaviour is not going to change overnight and old habits are going to take a while to change. In fact, such are the strength of old habits and such is the effort needed to summon up the energy to develop new ones, there is often resistance to change.

The answer is to ‘unfreeze’ old habits, before moving on to positive change. Unless this is done carefully, people will revert back to the old ways, because it is easier. So involve and engage all stakeholders with the change and establish new ways of doing things by rewarding the desired outcomes to help make the change permanent.  

Minimise the pain

Embracing the early signs of denial, anger and resentment (the unfreezing) will help to guide stakeholders through a crafted change strategy, effective implementation plan and into the process of accepting and internalising change. Recognising and looking for ways to minimise the pain of change or of the current situation, are likely to lead to successful change.

Make an emotional connection

There is little doubt that people engage with their stakeholders better if there is some kind of emotional connection. We can draw a parallel with public speaking, where we would all much rather listen to someone who presents with genuine passion rather than read from notes or give a dull PowerPoint presentation.

When people go to work they are inclined to behave quite differently than outside work, they bring a professional persona with them. But this doesn’t mean that change leaders have to be devoid of emotion. Employees need to be led by people who aren’t afraid to reveal their more sensitive human side, who are trustworthy and can be counted on to keep their word.

Honesty is the best policy

Sometimes stakeholders are used to being treated with duplicity and deceit and it may take a while and some courage before they start to believe and trust you. A reputation for integrity, however, will reap rewards when faced with adversity. Give people the benefit of the doubt, under promise and over deliver and deliver any bad news early. Tell people what you don’t know, figure it out, then provide an answer and, if you have a conflict of interest, be honest and say so.

Building relationships

As with most life situations, different people respond to change in different ways and it is important to explain to those who will be affected exactly how this will be in an open and honest way. Yet it is equally as important to create an environment of excitement and anticipation, a sense of need for change and for all stakeholders to understand why ‘now is the right time’.

Whether change has a positive or negative outcome will depend entirely on the people involved. All parties should be allowed to express their own views, talk about their fears and desires and ask questions about the future if blockages to change are to be avoided. Only by building relationships and engaging with stakeholders, giving them the confidence in their own abilities to use change to their own advantage, will an organisation achieve sustainable and  breakthrough change. 

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Patrick Mayfield


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