8 steps to influencing difficult stakeholders

Ever been in a meeting and realised you’d unwittingly stepping into a gladiatorial arena? Maybe everyone has been blown off track by the off-topic debate that has broken out, or you’re coming under an attack that will stall your project for months. And then someone releases a tiger. Nightmare.

Still from Gladiator (2000)

Effective digital transformation programmes require an understanding of how teams and individuals respond to change. Regardless of whether you’re selling a small change to an existing process or a major shift in a fundamental way of working, change can be unsettling and cause people to display negative behaviours. This can delay your programme while you deal with misunderstandings or, at worst, sabotage.

Delivering your messages while anticipating and responding to the concerns of your audience is a vital skill when establishing trust with difficult stakeholders. But by using some simple techniques, you can increase the likelihood of a positive reception from your stakeholders and keep your programme on track for delivery.

Here are my 8 steps — what are yours?

Be prepared

  • Do you homework and don’t be afraid to meet with support staff to get context
  • What has their experience of digital transformation to date?
  • What is their level of technical understanding or expertise?
  • How do they like to receive information?
  • Who else is going to be in the room and what are the relationships?

Take control

  • What are their expectations / preconceptions of you or your message?
  • Could changing the location change the tone of the conversation?
  • Make sure your body language is positive and consistent with your words

Speak their language

  • Use the team — who is best suited to win the trust of this difficult audience?
  • You don’t always have to use technology or be overly creative in your delivery
  • Everyone loves simple messages which are easy to explain to others
  • Use their own words and show how your message contributes to their objectives
  • Camouflage yourself to give yourself the best chance of not being eaten

Be compelling

  • Explain the vision in simple terms and plain English
  • Show how it benefits them both as a collective as well as individuals
  • Set the parameters and don’t unwittingly throw them bones of contention
  • Be infectious — remember you’re an ambassador for the programme

Listen twice

  • Read the room and spot those who are influencing others — can they become your allies?
  • What’s the gap between what you’re saying and what they’re hearing?
  • Show you’re listening by acknowledging their concerns
  • Use non-verbal cues to show you’re listening and open to collaboration

Play the long game

  • Don’t be afraid of reshaping your ambitions to reflect mood in the room
  • If everything else fails, find some common ground and stay there
  • Remember trusted relationships take time to build
  • Mind your manners — follow up promptly and generously
  • Get well away from the room before you let off steam!

Influencing is an art, not a science

  • Keep learning and improving — experience is hard won
  • Ask others to share their techniques and past experiences
  • Get feedback from colleagues and, if possible, from your critical stakeholders

Keep learning and sharing

Postscript

  • Remember that you can’t always do it without [your stakeholders] and that you don’t always know everything (Jen Goodison)
  • Many (most? / all?) apply beyond the digital, to any meeting where one is seeking change. Encourage positive responses by asking ‘My (proposal / presentation / research) would be even better if…’ (Brendan McNamara)