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Who’s afraid of the big, bad boss? 

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Who’s afraid of the big, bad boss? 

The perks of being an internal communicator are well-documented, but even the best jobs have a downside, and for many IC pros, it’s the senior stakeholder. But does it have to be that way?

The boss from hell has long been immortalised in popular culture. In recent years, we’ve cringed at the antics of David Brent, not known whether to laugh or cry at Malcolm Tucker’s outbursts in The Thick of It and been hugely intimidated by Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. And while hopefully none of us have worked for anyone that extreme, challenging stakeholders are part and parcel of being an internal communicator.

‘Managing stakeholders’ is a term that gets bandied about a lot, and often with good intentions but it still often ends up with their latest whim being agreed to and us grumbling over a pint in the pub later that evening. But maybe the problem is with the term itself. Stakeholders aren’t there to be managed, what they need is a team of trusted advisers.

But if we’re to truly be trusted advisers, rather than stakeholder managers, we need to get under the skin of the boss and take a walk in their shoes…

The corporate food chain

If your stakeholder is on the warpath and you’re right in the firing line, it can be difficult to empathise with them when you’re desperately trying to defend yourself from the inevitable onslaught. But it’s worth remembering they may be being difficult with you because someone is being equally difficult with them. The business world can be like a food chain – your main concern is the predator above you, but chances are they’ll have an even scarier predator above them!

THE SOLUTION: While it’s never acceptable to treat people poorly, especially as it can be exceptionally detrimental to people’s confidence, it can be helpful to remember that a lot of the time an outburst won’t actually be about you. So, rather than going on the defensive, ask them how can you help, how can you make this situation better? Position yourself as a fixer, not the fall guy.

The fear of losing face

Black Box Thinking was reviewed in the latest #ICBookClub and one of the areas it covers is hierarchy and how junior employees often struggle to challenge those in senior positions. It also discusses the concept of cognitive dissonance and how the more strongly you believe something to be true, the harder it is to back down from it in light of new evidence.

Many times when stakeholders are being difficult and sticking to their guns, it’s important to realise that they feel they have a lot to lose by admitting they were wrong.

THE SOLUTION: Constructively challenging stakeholders is part of your job, but consider how you go about it. Raising it in front of the entire team or cc’ing in one of their peers to an email probably won’t earn you any favour. Instead discuss it one-to-one and over time, coach them to realise that people want their senior leaders to be human, and that sometimes means owning up to mistakes.

The F Word

We all know that when someone says they’re ‘fine’, they’re often very much not fine. So, it can be excruciating to receive a response from your stakeholder, with that one lone word in amongst all the white space of an email.

It’s not uncommon to then spend hours trying to analyse what it really means. Were they underwhelmed by your idea? Your email contained three questions – were they saying fine to all of them or just one? Did they even read it properly?

Chances are they meant exactly what they said – it really was fine. To you, your project may be consuming all your waking thoughts, but for them it’s one of many and time is a precious commodity.

THE SOLUTION: Try to remember that if they didn’t like what you were suggesting, they would tell you. And if it’s a particularly important project and you feel more than a one word answer is required, try to speak to them face-to-face, even if it means walking and talking as they make their way to their next meeting.

Constantly moving goalposts

It can be infuriating to spend ages on a piece of work, only to have it pulled apart by your stakeholder. What’s even more frustrating is when you’ve followed their instructions exactly but they’ve changed their mind in the meantime. It’s understandable that goalposts move, especially in a fast-paced world but that’s entirely different for being told you’ve done a bad job if you’ve followed orders.

THE SOLUTION: If you’re taking a verbal brief, it’s always advisable to jot down the key actions and who’s responsible in a list of bullet points and email it to the stakeholder saying this was your understanding of your discussion and you want to confirm it’s correct. And always expect briefs to change as the project evolves – and remember it’s not a reflection of the work you’ve done so far.

Unrealistic expectations

It can be very tempting to say yes to everything, especially when the request is coming from a stakeholder. You’ll know there isn’t enough time, that it doesn’t align with the strategy, that it will clash with, or cause the cancellation of, other planned projects, and the budget just isn’t there. But that all fades into insignificance when the request comes from above.

THE SOLUTION: To challenge effectively you need to have built a trusted relationship with your stakeholder. Start by doing what you say you will, when you say you will. Have a comprehensive IC strategy that’s signed off by them that clearly sets out the approach you’re taking – it makes it much easier to challenge if you can back up your reasons why. And lastly, fight the gut reaction to say ‘yes’, and instead say ‘why?’. It may be that with wider context it’s a completely reasonable request, but you still need to be able to set an expectation of what’s achievable in the timeframe – and it may cause them to stop and think.

Stakeholders are people too and often the top is a very lonely place to be. They may exude confidence but chances are they also suffer from imposter syndrome and have crises of confidence on a regular basis. So, we have a real opportunity to position ourselves as trusted advisers and remember that our big, bad bosses may be human after all.

By Helen Deverell for Alive!

“I feel like they own and care for the project as much as we do! I would not use anyone else for my creative work and think Alive is ahead of the game.”

Jo Hobbs — Communications Manager

“Thanks for all your help. We are delighted with the campaign, both in terms of the creativity and messaging but also the thought taken over the rollout of the materials. All looks absolutely fabulous!”

Sarah Crowdy — Campaign and Media Officer Communications, South East Water

“We went to ‘Alive’ for ideas on how to run a specific employee program in Europe. Alan and his team were brilliant in coming up with fresh, creative and practical approaches. The team took charge and executed brilliantly. We are pleased with the progress made so far and hope to have the same level of partnership and commitment going forward.”

Sobha Varghese — Tata Consultancy Services

“Alive helped us create a video of our response to the floods of winter 2019. Our Chief Officer received messages from all round the country praising us for it and was really pleased with both the video and the response to it.”

Alexander Mills, Communications Manager — South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue

“We had the privilege to work with the Alive team. It was our first time to be involved in creating an animation for our patients within paediatrics. The team were approachable, friendly, creative and very accommodating. Your vision for what you want to create, is at all times acknowledged, appreciated and accommodated by the team. They worked effectively and with great passion towards our project and worked not only alongside health professionals but also our patients who really enjoyed the experience of working with the Alive team. It has given our team the confidence and inspiration to do further projects in the future. We highly recommend Alive and their exceptional team.”

DR ELENI ATHANASAKOS, Lead Paediatric Clinical Scientist — NHS Barts Health

“‘The short animation developed in co-production with clinicians and young people is outstanding! Informative, developmentally appropriate, vitally fun and engaging. We are really grateful for the expertise of the Alive with Ideas team for their innovative approach in building children’s health literacy.'”

Kath Evans — Director of Children’s Nursing at Barts Health

“Our mission was to update our brand visuals to better reflect our innovative and forward-thinking organisation. After receiving numerous pitches from different branding agencies, Alive stood out with their clear passion and understanding of our identity and goals. We thoroughly enjoyed working with the Alive Team to create an engaging new brand that we are immensely proud of.”

Lianne Springer — Communications and Engagement Lead

“Alive wowed us during the pitch process and they didn’t stop wowing us throughout the whole project. Every person we worked with at Alive were so friendly, knowledgeable and clearly passionate about what they do. They have worked with us to really understand what we do and have created a new brand and website that really stands out from our competitors. Thank you!”

Louise Burnard, Head of Marketing and Communications UK — Be | Shaping the Future

“I think the team have done such a brilliant job, particularly with responding to our requests. It's one of the best mental health videos I've ever seen. Very proud to be associated with your exemplary work. Thank you so much.”

Dr Anna Batho — Clinical Psychologist – Critical Care, UCLH

“We have worked with Alan, Caroline and the wider Alive With Ideas team for many years. In that time, they have provided a dedicated service that is second to none. We appreciate their attention to detail and creative approach to bringing our brand, communications and stories to life. And would recommend them to anyone looking for creative communications support.”

Georgia Beech — Internal Communications Specialist, Ocado Group

“This is brilliant. I wanted to give my heartfelt thanks to all of the team who worked on this. You all understood exactly what we wanted to communicate and why, and then managed to do it in a way that was far better than anything I could have imagined. I’m a bit choked up to be honest!”

Sarah Wright, Head of Communications and Campaigns — NEA

“Each time I work with the team, I am always stunned at the effort and creativity that goes into each detail and am always eager for the end result. The team is extremely accommodating and always provide a fresh approach to our projects that elevates our communications materials!”

Alana Khaytin, Communications Specialist — Braskem America

“What I really appreciate about Alive is that they work with us as partners, and care as much about getting it right for our patients as we do.”

Sara Langston, Patient Engagement & Marketing Manager — italk

“Alive are unique in how much they deeply listen and invest in you and your ideas. I have not come across a company that listens as much as they do to ensure your needs are understood and met (actually - they always exceed my needs and expectations). Everyone I recommend Alive to has an equally brilliant experience. When you work with Alive, you are not only getting some genius creativity brought into your life, you are also hanging out with some of the best examples of human beings I’ve ever known.”

Steph Tranter, Hybrid Exec Coach & Psychologist —

“The (Alive) team were able to creatively pull together and document (in just over 2minutes) everything our service has achieved over the last few months, from thousands of prescriptions deliveries to hundreds of phone calls made to the vulnerable. The final product was so powerful and reflective of what our service has and continues to achieve. It couldn’t have been better received within the service – thanks Alive for once again helping us to communicate our vision!’”

Emma Wright — South Yorkshire & Rescue

“We worked with the team at Alive to create our staff recognition video.
At a time like this, its never been more important to share the amazing work that our staff have done and continue to do on a daily basis under very difficult circumstances. We wanted to shout about this and recognise that when the time came, South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue stepped up to the plate. We didn’t want an ordinary thank you post on social media or a basic email sent out internally, we wanted something special. Enter Alive. ”

Emma Wright — South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue

“Our company is fun, we have great brands, but most importantly we’re all about our people – and I wanted an agency who would understand that and help us bring it to life through our website and other comms. Straight away I felt that Alive ‘got’ us and provided the creative inspiration exactly where we needed it, as well as the technical expertise to deliver a well-functioning website.”

Keren McCarron, Head of Corporate Affairs & Communications — KP Snacks

Thank you so much. Incredible work done at incredible speed by incredible people.
Outstanding work as ever and what a turnaround. As for the concepts – wow. These are that good it would be an insult to describe them as just good. It’s a joke, quite frankly. This is exactly the Alive effect I was after. Right now I feel like I am living in an Alive With Ideas wonderland. Thank you!”

Jack Grasby, Campaigns Manager — SYFR

“If you are looking to improve creativity and build teamwork, I highly recommend a session like this for your team. No matter where you are in your creativity journey, a workshop like this can give your team a boost of energy and ideas to invigorate their creative thinking.”

Amy Lilja, IC Manager — Hennepin Healthcare

“Alive were there to help when we were working every hour to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. They gave us the creativity, ideas and support we needed to deliver campaigns which empowered our residents in the most difficult time most of us have ever seen, personally and professionally. The team understood what we needed, worked closely with us and delivered fast without any compromise on quality. Working with Alive has been a joy in the darkest of times and I have no doubt will have helped to save lives. Thanks team x”

Julie Odams, Assistant Director of Communications & Customers — Derbyshire County Council

“We got 'Alive' involved to help us shift mindsets across our organisation and they delivered! Using simple, clear and creative ideas the team have delivered us a campaign which has seen a dramatic increase in idea sharing and development. They’ve also played a significant role in creating a culture of shared success. I wouldn’t hesitate to work with again, in fact, we already are!”

Gavin Buckle — B&Q
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