Innovation Insight: How to Deal with Challenging Stakeholders

Dan Sly
Mon 04 Feb
Innovation Insight: How to Deal with Challenging Stakeholders

At January’s Innovation Day, we welcomed Dr Christine Unterhitzenberger, Senior Teaching Fellow in Project Management at Lancaster University Management School.

Within the world of business, stakeholders are regarded as the key individuals or groups that have a vested interest or active influence over the objectives and actions of an organisation. Stakeholders can effectively make or break an organisation’s reputation, with research showing that organisations who take a long-term “stakeholder first” approach are more likely to achieve long-term success and increased profitability. With that in mind, it’s logical to suggest that our ability to form and maintain relationships with those who play a pivotal role in an organisation’s success and longevity, must not be underestimated.

Dr Unterhitzenberger highlighted the importance of developing coping strategies when dealing with projects which involve difficult stakeholders. Traditionally, we tend to employ one of two styles of coping: Emotion Focused or Problem Focused. The coping style we tend to employ may well depend on the degree of influence we feel we have over the processes taking place.

Furthermore, Dr Unterhitzenberger also drew attention to the Iron Triangle, which represents the three key factors that should be considered when developing a project: Time, Cost, Quality. Generally, “scope” is regarded as the centre of the triangle, however, without people, the project will fail. As such, ensuring the dynamics between stakeholders are positive ones is essential for the triangle to remain strong.

So, what should we do about it?

Employ coping strategies. It is beneficial to actively engage in processes whereby consideration is given to issues which may impact upon the project. This may result in attempts to restructure the nature of the project or provide additional support roles, in an effort to help enhance stakeholder engagement. On a personal level this can be resolved through a problem focused strategy such as relationship building or emotion focused strategies such venting or self-reflection.

Communication is king. It’s an obvious point, but an important (and often underappreciated) one. Stakeholders have a strong influence over organisational practices. Whilst there may be disagreement and conflict at times, it is important to remember that it is the people who exist at the centre of the iron triangle. So make sharing, reflecting and relationship building as important to the project management process as the project itself.

Identify “why” the stakeholder is difficult. We now know there are multiple variables which can help explain why dealing with stakeholders can be a difficult and challenging process. We also now have a greater sense of self-awareness regarding where these difficulties lie. With that in mind, ensure you are proactive in taking time to assess environmental, social and personal factors which might impact on the successful completion of the project and the successful retention of positive stakeholder relationships.

These are just some key highlights taken from January’s Innovation Day. Each month, clients of the Innovation Programmes receive a full ACT report, capturing the guest expert’s research, the implications and next steps for leaders to apply back in their team and organisation.

Next month, clients will learn more about the attributes of inspiring leaders and explore what it takes to create inspired followers. For more information, please view the Innovation Day page.

Sources: Unterhitzenberger, C. (2019) ‘The Stakeholder Challenge’, KnowledgeBrief Innovation Day Presentation, 16 January.

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