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.
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!