How to Engage Stakeholders

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Of all the engagement scenarios in the world, stakeholder engagement is notoriously one of the hardest.

It is a massively tricky process because when it comes to having a stake in something, people are rightly precious about it, and have their own desires and intentions for the project or entity at large.

Essentially, everyone has their own patch. And they don’t want their patch to be ruined!

But, when we understand every stakeholder as a patch, we can help them understand how the bigger vision of change will actually help their patch, not threaten it.

Thus my process for engaging stakeholders is to think patch:

  • Point to the bright spots
  • Assure people that you recognise and understand their concerns
  • Tell stories that make the change real
  • Create opportunities for involvement
  • Have an empowering-only policy

Let’s look at each one in detail:

1. Point to the bright spots

It is all too easy when engaging stakeholders to get up in turf wars, that whilst very important to those involved, don’t affect everyone, and certainly don’t tell the true story of the change you are bringing about.

Pointing to the bright spots means to keep the end in mind at all times, and reaffirms that the change you working towards will bring benefits to all.

Pointing to what’s good shows stakeholders what’s working.

2. Assure people that you recognise their concerns

There’s a saying that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. This is the essence of the second step: assuring stakeholders that we recognise their concerns and understand what they could lose.

It is all to easy to be so enthusiastic about the benefits of change that we forget about the casualties of change, or even that other’s may not be as enthuasiastic as us.

To get stakeholders on board you must listen, relflect and truely understand their point of view, and the concerns they raise. In fact, you bulid trust quicker when you demonstrate knowledge of concerns, because it shows you to be empathetic and considerate.

Most essentially, you cannot move forward with a stakeholder until you understand what they might have to leave behind.

3. Tell stories that make the change real

Stakeholder engagement occurs because we are moving to a preferred future, but sometimes that future is hard to explain, and can simply not be enough to motivate people.

Telling stories about other patches that are improving by the changes you’re advocating brings the future into the present. It makes the journey real, concrete, and here-and-now.

They say that in theory there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is. Stories make your theory of change a practical reality.

4. Create opportunities for involvement

We all recognise change happens, but none of us like to have it forced on us. When engaging stakeholders it’s crucial that there is access for them to not just have a say but have a steer in the decisions. At the very least, they should be able to participate in helping make the change happen.

Knowing they have a chance to be at the centre of change assures stakeholders that the process is open to their input.

When creating opportunities, I recommend you create three tiers of involvement, similar to the buttons, dots and containers framework.

5. Have an empowering-only policy

The temptation with stakeholders is to get detailed about things that don’t matter rather than focus on the big points that do matter.

This is like when someone is worried about the colour of paint on the wall while the buiding is in threat of falling down. Change leaders of all kinds can end up getting caught into the issue of wall colour, when really, it doesn’t matter.

The best thing to do is have an empowering-only policy. This means that I will empower my stakeholders (and will have tough discussions on isues that affect how empower people are if necessary), but I won’t get into conversations about small issues that are likely to change anyway.

To put it bluntly, engage on what really matters, leave what won’t matter.

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