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June 1st, 2017

Influencing Stakeholders

Lesley Fleming (Senior Consultant at Bourton Group – June 2017)

Research has consistently shown that 70% of change initiatives fail to deliver the anticipated results, and first among the reasons behind this is ‘people’: leaders failing to engage the workers; or workers being either unwilling or unable to adapt to change.

Dr Kotter (professor of Leadership at Harvard) reinforces this message in his seminal work ‘Leading Change’. He lists ‘under communicating by a factor of 10’ as one of the eight fundamental miscalculations made by leaders in the pursuit of organisation transformation.

So, how should you go about navigating the tricky minefield of managing relationships with stakeholders, bearing in mind every one of them will have differing aims and aspirations, differing levels of interest in what is going on, and differing opportunities to influence the situation?

Why does it all go wrong so often?
How can you reduce the risk of falling into the trap Kotter identified?

Firstly, there are useful Stakeholder Analysis tools which you can use. These can be invaluable in mapping the starting positions of key relationships and in determining your engagement and management strategies.  For example, it may be prudent to secure the early and direct involvement of those stakeholders who have a high level of influence in what is happening and who will be significantly affected by it. This may be through the identification of problems, development of alternative thinking and the ultimate implementation of change. For those less affected with little opportunity to influence, it may be more appropriate to simply keep them informed of progress and outcomes.

Secondly, there is now a plethora of communication channels that can be adapted to facilitate high impact, real time communications. Electronic communication has the potential to deliver the perfect balance of quick, inexpensive and good. Professional use of applications are raising the design stakes in delivery standards, and social media has the capability to generate instant conversations, elicit in-the-moment feedback, and track response levels to rapidly changing plans.

However, a communication strategy that focuses on glossy events and mass messaging will fail to take into account the crucial nature of building interdependent relationships with, and between, key individuals.  As much attention must be paid to how messages are received, interpreted and acted upon, as how they are delivered.

So, how well do you know the person behind the job titles?
How closely do you tailor your message to them to achieve your specific desired outcome?

A useful model, based on some of the principles of NLP, can help you to understand why the same message can be interpreted so differently by people.

This model asserts that everyone has a set of internal filters, peculiar to them, through which external stimuli are passed. These filters are born of how people see the world in terms of time and space; the language that they are used to hearing and using; their memories, values and beliefs.

The effect of these filters is to subconsciously shape the message before it meets the conscious, processing part of the brain: parts of the message may be deleted (or ignored), generalisations may be made specific; focus may be distorted; and specific elements made into sweeping generalisations.

The effect of this filtering is to assign meaning that has specific relevance to the individual recipient. That, in turn, affects how they feel about the message and subsequently behave as a consequence. For example, large shareholder dividends may send a message of success to the city analyst who is looking for long term growth in a global market, where they have previously seen successful performance. However, as a consumer, I might feel I am personally subsidising fat cats through inflated prices. The investors will acquire more shares but I will go somewhere more competitive for my goods and services.

Gaining insight into how individuals ‘filter’ your efforts to communicate with them and how they will subsequently interpret your message, and act upon it, can help you to fine tune your stakeholder management interventions with sensitivity. So, take the time to understand how previous experience, current challenges and future aspirations may shape people’s reactions to your overtures.

Tailor your message to avoid falling foul of the ‘filters’ and ensure that your subsequent behaviour and actions reinforce, rather than undermine, your message.

Finally, the best way to test the effectiveness of your communication is to check if people have responded in the way you wanted: have you directly experienced them thinking or acting or talking in the way you hoped they would. If so, great – continue to foster your relationship with them in the same vein. If not, find out why: what filters were preventing your message getting across; how might appealing to a different motivation elicit a more constructive interpretation; how could using alternative language and delivery methods help get past the filters? Remember that their communications will also have run the gauntlet of your own filters!

As George Bernard Shaw said:
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

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