Bring Them On Your Side: How to Foster Better Relationships with Project Stakeholders
Are you a project manager who has been tasked with delivering an end result that seems a little shaky and ambiguous at the moment? Are you leading a team with many different viewpoints and project stakeholders that don’t necessarily see eye to eye? Are you wondering how — in a limited amount of time — your team is going to be able to make decisions and deliver a project that meets the needs and expectations of the higher-ups in your company?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you are facing a very common conundrum that make people involved in project management face every day. The business world is like the psychology world in that different people work together in different ways. They communicate differently, they bring their own viewpoints based upon their life and work experience, and they add different contributions to the team.
But even the most opinionated or disgruntled group of project stakeholders on your team can produce an impressive project. The key, however, is really in how you learn to understand the individual team members and their dynamics — and then effectively lead them in working well together.
The best project managers have learned quickly that to engage with a team of people who may have strong differing views on how a project should be handled that you have to treat everyone as if they have true value to the team — as they truly do — and you have to listen to all side effectively. From there, you can work toward consensus — and most team members will be able to arrive at a decision that may not make everyone 100 percent happy, will combine all of their ideals and objectives on some significant level.
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Getting to that point is a process — and you can learn it. Read on to get our five don’t-miss tips for fostering better relationships with the project stakeholders on your team. These five steps aren’t always easy at first, but with time, you’ll develop the know-how, the confidence and the leadership intuition to know how to lead them to consensus and to produce a project that can make everyone on the team proud.
Whether you are are just starting out as a project manager or you are mid-level manager who wants to remember the tricks of the trade that will continue to bring you success as you move forward, read on to get our five critical tips for building those business relationships that will really last — and benefit your latest project!
Step #1: Determine Who the Stakeholders Really Are
The first step in meeting the ultimate goals of your project are to determine who the project stakeholders really are. You need to get everyone in the same room to hear their aims and to understand their goals.
Now, this isn’t always an easy objective — and this is where great project management comes in and separates itself from average project management.
You need to vet everyone’s opinions through the ultimate project goal. Write it on a piece of paper and carry it with you into the meeting. As you are talking to the team, write the project objective on the whiteboard for everyone to see. Repeat the project objective at the beginning of each meeting and gently remind team members of it as you get into the weeds of discussions on how to do the project.
But before you even get to that first meeting, you’ve got to know who you will be working with by identifying the project stakeholders. What is a project stakeholder definition? To define project stakeholder in simplest terms, it is a person or organization that is affected by a decision. It doesn’t matter if the stakeholder is affected negatively or affected positively. The bottom line is if they are affected at all, they are a stakeholder.
Now, there are varying degrees of the power of the stakeholders — or their ability to make decisions — and that also will be a defining factor in who ultimately is on the team. However, for now, you need to decide who is going to care about the end result of this project?
Ask yourself these questions as you begin to define the key stakeholders that need to be involved in the project:
- Whose area of the company does this affect?
- Who is likely to have expertise in this area?
- Who is likely to be upset by the end result of the project?
- Who is likely to be happy about the end result of the project?
- Who has a supervisory role that needs to be consulted about who should best serve on this team?
- Who will be affected by the decisions of the team and the project?
- Do I need to seek permission from anyone before moving ahead on any aspect of this project? If so, that person could be a stakeholder?
After you have answered these questions, begin dividing people into categories and ranking them as stakeholders. For example, a good way to do this is by their power to make final decisions. You might group them as “supervisors, project managers, assistants” and so on.
After you have a ranking of the stakeholders, you can get buy in from the decision-makers — such as the supervisors or team leads — to determine who should be on the team and can speak for the department. It’s important to have diverse voices on a project team who can represent the opinions of the stakeholders of their departments. It doesn’t always have to be the most high-ranking employee that is on the team that will plan and deliver the project. So get buy in from the team leads and supervisors before making final decisions.
Also, this can get political, so remember to communicate with all employees that you are selecting a team that is representative of all the departments — and that doesn’t mean the most senior people always will asked to be on the team. This helps create a culture of accepting different skill levels and expertise as well as the importance of a variety of diversity in jobs on the project team.
Finally, keep in mind that some key stakeholders will need to be involved in the project from the beginning to the end. Every team will be different — and you’ll need to figure out the right mix based upon the needs for the project.
Step #2: How Do the Project Stakeholders Communicate and Engage with Each Other?
What is very common when you get a group of diverse people together to work on a project is that they bring very different communication styles. That can work for the good of the group if they are understood — and it can create confusion and annoyance without patience and good listening skills from every team member.
As the project manager, it will be your role to determine the communication styles of teach stakeholder on your team — and to learn to use that to the advantage of the group. For example, usually you will have a mix of naturally vocal team members and more reserved ones.
This can be a great benefit if the team learns to respect one another and stretch in areas. If you have someone on the team who is dominating the group discussion, you might affirm what the person is saying and then ask one of the more quiet members to voice his or her opinion. As the project manager, you’ll need to learn to draw more reserved members into the discussion in a way they feel comfortable so that they can offer their ideas and agree or push back on what others are saying. Each person has a voice and a unique way of communicating — and it take time for a team to gel, to get to know one another and to get into a good work flow.
As the project lead, you can be successful in creating good communication expectations by observing how the group interacts at the outset, intervening when you need to, and being proactive in slowly down those who jump in too quickly and drawing out those who are not at the ready to offer their ideas. By doing this, you’re also modeling a good management and interpersonal skill — respecting the voices of the group and showing all stakeholders that everyone’s opinion matters due to the way they will be affected by the project. We need to hear all sides at this juncture in the process!
Step #3: Who Has the Power? Who Can Make the Decisions?
At the end of the day you have to remember that while everyone has a voice — and that the voice of each individual really does matter — there are some stakeholders who are more powerful than others. What we mean by this is: There are some stakeholders who because of their position in the company have the ability to make things happen. Naturally, those stakeholders will have more of a sway when it comes to some elements of the project.
It’s good to know who the decision-makers are on the team because this will help you as you negotiate a project plan or begin forming your pitch for the project as it nears the end. You want the decision-makers on your side when launching and executing a project. You want them to believe fully in the project and agree on where it is going — because they’ll have the authority to execute it.
It’s also good to remember that the decision-makers on your team may carry some very strong opinions. That doesn’t mean the team needs to accept them without a diplomatic discussion or a fight!
It simply means that when you know who in the group has the power and authority to make a real decision about a project, then you know who you need to bring on your side. You know who you need to be behind the project — because that person will go on to convince others who have equal or more power in the project’s end execution.
Your top stakeholders are not always going to agree with you. They will be invested for a good reason, and they’ll want things done a certain way to reach their department’s needs. However, if you can bring them on your side, by finding a little consensus, then you’ll be able to break the bad news and hopefully still produce a win-win.
Ultimately, that’s why your relationship with the key stakeholders is so important. In some ways, you’re playing a bit of a game if you have to convince a difficult stakeholder to see your side and to make some amendments to his or her opinion on the project’s end result or pathway. However, it’s simply knowing the power rankings of the stakeholders on your team that will help you become that diplomatic and strategic negotiator.
And, hopefully in the end, you still have a solid relationship because of the communications skills you’ve used to get there with the power-holders on your team.
Step #4: How You Determine the Best Delivery Methods for Data and Reports
Just like every stakeholders personality and agenda is different, the way your stakeholders synthesize information also will be different. As a project manager, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and headache by determining ahead of time how your stakeholders like to receive information about your project including data, reports, presentations and more.
Some stakeholders will be more visual than others. Some will like to see numbers and reports. Others will like to hear you give them a weekly or monthly check-in. You’ll need to learn how to communicate to them the best way possible — or you risk your pitch falling flat.
The worst outcome is to work so diligently and creatively on a project only to have the higher-ups miss it because they couldn’t understand it — or they didn’t get it because you didn’t communicate in a way that they could digest it the most easily and efficiently.
Now, you certainly can’t waste your time catering to every stakeholder down to the details of the way they prefer to be communicated with — but you can give them all a short survey at the beginning of the project asking them about their preferences. Some questions you might ask are as follows:
- How often do you prefer updates (daily, weekly monthly)?
- How would you like to read or view results (reports, visual presentations, graphics, email notes)?
- What should I know about your communication style?
With three simple communications questions, you’ll get a sense of not only your stakeholder’s personalities but you’ll begin to understand how they digest information and how you can be “heard” when it comes to your project. Getting heard literally is half the battle — because if they cannot hear your message, they aren’t going to care. And if you end of up pitching a creative but risky idea at the end of the project, you want to be sure you have every chance possible to fight for the work of the group and to get the chance to try the idea.
That begins with good communication as a project manager!
Now, if you don’t want to ask for individual communication preferences of your stakeholders, that is fair. You may not have time. As an alternative, consider being proactive and setting the expectations for how you will communicate with the stakeholders. Then, ask for objections or requests so that you’ll know if you need to make small changes. Here is an example of a short email you could send to your stakeholders at the beginning of a project, asking for their buy-in and setting the tone for how you will communicate with the group moving forward:
I’m excited to lead this project with you — and I look forward to our first planning meeting on Friday. I wanted to let you know my plan for updating the group and keeping you apprised of decisions and innovations of the team. I will send a weekly update to your inbox following every meeting listing the decisions made and the action items we will take for the following week. Monthly, I will distribute a short report with data and charts to track our progress. Please know that you can always contact me with further questions or thoughts via email or phone. I hope this communication plan will be amenable to you, but please let me know if you have a specific need to help keep you updated on our process.
Step #5: Energizing the Collective Brilliance of the Team
There’s something incredible when project managers begin recognizing every team member — and the unique contribution and voice they have for the team. It’s been called the “collective genius” of the team — emerging because everyone truly has a voice and they are recognized and put to work for the strengths they bring to the project.
When any one team member begins to think that he or she has the most to offer — or begins to think that any one team member has little or nothing to offer — watch out. Your project very easily could derail and you will risk losing great creativity and inspiration along the way.
This can happen very easily on a team of very smart people who have a mix of strong personalities. Creative and intelligent people who may be a little more reserved — or who aren’t used to working on teams — may begin to think they truly don’t have something to offer. The most vocal people — who may not have the best ideas — become the only people you hear (and really that everyone hears!) And soon, you are falling far behind on your project and not hitting your ultimate project goals. Worse yet, your team may end up producing a project that is devoid of inspiration, uniqueness and creativity.
But something entirely different happens when a project manager leads the team with an understanding and deference to each person’s contribution and intelligence. There are stories and experiences you may not know about your colleagues that can be used to help solve problems and achieve project goals — but because you’re unaware of those skills and stories and because you may not ask, you don’t reach your ultimate potential on the project.
A great project manager can bring that out by asking each team member to give a short introduction and tell the group about a time in their life that they felt a spark of inspiration or they changed courses in life. Their story can center on a happy or disappointing moment. It could be a personal or career change. They get to choose the short story they tell after they give you the basic bio. What you may find is that the writing skills you need for the project doesn’t come from the most vocal person in the group.
Maybe it comes from the registered nurse on your team whom you thought would only talk about patient care. It turns out that when she gives her story to the group, she tells you that she’s a freelance writer on the side and that she was an English major in undergrad before switching over to medicine. These are things you’ll never learn unless you bring your stakeholders together and teach them to learn to respect one another and their unique skills and experiences. That’s the collective brilliance of the group that you want to achieve — but it won’t come without digging and letting all of your team members know and believe that they truly have something to offer the project.
From there, your team members will begin to trust one another more — and something even better begins to happen. They begin to take creative risks — learning from their failures and trying new, inventive approaches. That’s only better for your ultimate project end, as you’re likely to arrive at a more novel, interesting and creative approach to meet your project goals than you would have by never going deep with the stakeholders on your team.
Is It Time for Your Next Project to Begin?
In conclusion, if you have recently been assigned as a project manager of a team, then you’ve got to get all of the stakeholders in project readiness. What does that mean? It means that you need to both know the agenda of each stakeholder of a project and his or her ultimate power in the decision-making process.
You need to know the ultimate aim of the project and the end result that is being expected by the higher-ups in your organization. You’ll also need to know as much as you can the dynamics of personalities of the key stakeholders in a project because at the end of the day, being a project manager means that you also are a psychologist and a leader.
Certainly, it’s true that it won’t always be easy to be the project manager — because you’ll be hearing both the praises and the complaints — and it’s likely you’ll have to do some negotiating along the way. But what you’re doing in the process is building your ability to communicate, to listen, to exert interpersonal skills effectively, to demonstrate you value everyone’s contribution to the group and ultimately, that you can shape a team to meet the project’s goals in a way that everyone feels they made a contribution and was heard.
As You Move Forward, Remember…
A successful project is not necessarily one in which everyone is best friends at the end. In fact, that’s not reality in the working world. What is success is if everyone can end the project having exercised their voice, listened to others, negotiated, reached consensus for the good of the ultimate goal — and finally, can walk away respecting one another. That’s not always the reality — but it is the ideal.
As you grow in your project management skills, remember that you’re in a position in which not everyone will like you. You have to be Okay with people not liking you or disagreeing with you and even holding a grudge. Out of respect, hopefully those people will work through their emotions and let them pass — and put the good of the team ahead of their individual feelings. That’s where growth on a team really can happen — at the individual level — that then in turns, grows into the collective good.
It’s Time to Take the Lead
You’re on your way to growing as a project manager — so keep this guide in hand and return to it regularly when a problem arises on your team. It takes time to work through issues — and every team is different because of the uniqueness of the stakeholders and their passions for seeing their agendas achieved.
Take it case by case, step by step — and always keep the ultimate project goal in mind. Let that inform all of your project management decisions as you move through the steps.