Part 1 of Keeping Stakeholder Relationships on Course introduced a process for identifying stakeholders, analyzing their impact and setting an influence strategy. Here I will discuss how to implement your influence strategy.
Once you have set a strategy for each stakeholder group, identify the communication actions that will get you there. Answer the following questions for each action:
- Who is the communication for?
- What is the message?
- How will the message be delivered (in person, email, presentation, social media, webpage, etc.)?
- When will you complete the action?
- Who should deliver the message?
Group communication actions. Planning the same communications for stakeholders with similar interests/impact will save you time and effort. If you decide to write a biweekly tech update, send it to all stakeholders who have a technical interest in the project. If you plan a one-on-one meeting with each of your supporters, prepare a common list of questions to probe their needs.
Send the right messenger. The person who delivers the message should have credibility with the target audience. A finance-savvy business analyst might be right for stakeholders from marketing, but might not be the best person to present to R&D.
Schedule in your calendar. Plan time to develop the message and rehearse the delivery as needed. Don’t leave important stakeholder communications to chance encounters in the coffee area.
Apply Influence Principles
Often, you must influence the opinions and actions of management stakeholders more senior than you. Since you can’t force, threaten or cajole these people into supporting the project, you must rely on more subtle (and more effective) means.
Fortunately, you can draw on a well-researched body of knowledge on influence and persuasion. Social Psychologist Robert Cialdini has identified six highly-effective influence principles.
If I scratch your back, you’ll scratch mine. Help stakeholders before you need their help. A good deed usually will be repaid in kind. Caution! Reciprocity applies for deeds already done. Your promise to help in the future is unlikely to trigger someone to help you today. “Pre-ciprocity” may work if you have a reputation as someone who delivers on their promises (see Authority, below).
A project manager I know likes to send people articles of interest. The articles are relevant and valuable because he has spent time learning about each stakeholder’s interests. He also knows that it is much easier to ask someone for support if he has helped them recently. Doing someone a five-minute favor is a great way to build up your reciprocity bank account.
Going once, going twice, sold! People are attracted to things that are rare, exclusive or temporary. To influence stakeholders, communicate what is truly unique or uncommon about your project.
Fear of loss. Decision researchers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky demonstrated that people will go to great lengths to avoid a perceived loss. We are roughly twice as motivated to take action to avoid a loss than to make an equivalent gain. An effective influence tactic is to honestly describe what will be lost if the other person does not take action. For example, “Without your budget approval, we will miss our milestone and may lose a key customer.”
The best arguments remain ineffective until you have demonstrated credibility. People are more likely to act on information that comes from a credible authority—someone with the right combination of knowledge and trustworthiness. Who that person is depends on the stakeholder. Get the techies to talk to technical stakeholders. Bring a numbers whiz to your meeting with the CFO.
Trustworthiness is built by demonstrating honesty and reliability over time. While credibility may take years to build, James Kouzes and Barry Posner point out it can be lost through dishonesty in a moment.
I’m perfect (…except for my flaws). According to Cialdini, you increase your trustworthiness when you mention a (minor) weakness just before making your strongest argument. You are more believable when you admit that not everything about your project is perfect.
Commitment & Consistency
I feel good…I knew that I would. People prefer to take actions that they perceive to be consistent with what they have already said or done. When I make a commitment and follow through, I feel good about myself for being reliable, faithful and honest. If I fail to keep a commitment, I must find reasons to justify my lapse and the contortions don’t feel good.
Get a public commitment. We can influence a person’s future behavior by getting them to make a public commitment today. The best way to do so is simply to ask for a commitment and then wait for the person to give it. Ask your stakeholders (especially supporters) for their commitment.
“Will you…” These two words have the power to elicit a commitment! Tack them on to the front of a question and then wait for the answer.
“Will you help me solve the technical problem?”
“Will you help get the budget approved?”
Commitment works both ways! Be careful what you commit to and honor your commitments to build credibility.
Consensus & Social Proof
Show ‘em, don’t fight ‘em. People are strongly influenced by the behavior of others. We are social animals, after all. Use this to overcome resistance. Instead of beating them with arguments (which they’ve heard before), just show your blockers how much support you already have! If everyone and their sister is already supporting the project, a blocker will be less likely to oppose you, because her perceived risks in doing so are higher.
Activate your supporters. If you expect resistance at an upcoming meeting, brief your supporters in advance. Ask them to kick off the event with positive statements about their experience with the project. Often, this is enough to take the wind right out of the opposer’s sails. Most people do not want to risk an argument in front of their peers.
Social proof can also increase the impact of low-impact supporters. By drawing together isolated supporters, you increase the chance that their voice will be heard. As an added benefit, you may also gain useful suggestions on how to improve your product or service.
People like to say yes to people they like. Liking comes from having common goals, shared interests and experiences.
How can you build positive connections with your stakeholders? The simplest way is to show interest. Pay attention to them! Look for things you have in common and start the conversation there.
Staying on Course
According to the Project Management Institute, a project manager spends up to 90% of her time communicating. Much of this communication is with stakeholders. Applying influence principles to your communication actions will keep your stakeholder relationships on course.
Cialdini, Robert. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Collins Business Essentials, 2006.
Photo credit: Damian Gadal