This month’s pmmagazine.net topic led me to recall a story relayed to me during some Conflict Negotiation training that I participated in several years ago. The story was an actual mediation case and went something like this…
Two neighbors were separated by a fence running between each person’s driveway. One day, a limb from a tree located on Neighbor A’s property, but overhanging onto Neighbor B’s property, fell and damaged the fence and Neighbor B’s car. An argument then ensued with Neighbor B claiming that he had previously told Neighbor A about that branch being dead and that it was Neighbor A’s responsibility as the owner of the tree to pay for the damage to his car and the fence. Neighbor A responded that none of it was his responsibility and that he wasn’t going to pay.
This matter ultimately went to mediation. After hours of deliberation and meeting with both sides separately, the mediator returned with both parties in the room and relayed to Neighbor B that Neighbor A was going to pay for the outstanding damages. Neighbor B refused the settlement to the puzzlement of everybody. In follow-up conversations with Neighbor B, the mediator learned that it was never about the money. Neighbor B had a long history of resentment against Neighbor A’s arrogance and show of wealth. He simply wanted Neighbor A to admit that he was wrong in this case.
So it goes with stakeholder management. You cannot drive successful projects if you don’t understand your stakeholders. As such, referring to stakeholders as the essence of projects is on target. Almost all actions performed on a project are likely to affect at least one stakeholder in some way.
Consider my field of environmental engineering where the stakeholders typically include companies, municipalities, regulatory agencies, and the general public, to name a few. Most of my projects involve protection of human health and the environment as the ultimate end goal, and one on which all parties agree. However, the agreement will often end there. Balancing things like cost and perceived risk versus actual risk plays a big role in decisions made for environmental projects. If you are a large industrial company, should you have to pay millions and millions of dollars to clean up a site to pristine conditions when there is no current risk to human health? Conversely, how would you feel as a homeowner to learn that your drinking water well is contaminated?
Volumes can be written on the topic of stakeholder management, but like other areas of project management, I have found that a basic set of soft skills can be highly effective in managing stakeholders:
- Practice active listening – It seems so obvious, but I frequently find that people still fail to practice the “active” part. They hear a person say something and then immediately begin processing what they want to say to either agree or disagree with that statement instead of giving the person their full attention. Try engrossing yourself fully into what someone is saying before formulating a response.
- Confirm your understanding – Perhaps no better way to demonstrate that you have listened to someone is to confirm what you just heard. You’ll be surprised at how often you are wrong.
- Keep people informed – People like to hear that their concerns are important, and one of the best ways to do this is to keep your stakeholders informed. You don’t always need to have “big” news for them, just keeping them apprised of progress is beneficial.
- Practice your delivery – Be very cognizant of your delivery of a message. Body language and tone of voice are key elements to how a message is received. Through poor delivery, one person may convey the opposite of what they were intending.
- Be kind and respectful – Practicing kindness and respect when the other party is not can be difficult. Sometimes you can’t please everyone, but perseverance in this endeavor will give you better satisfaction in your efforts.
- Put yourself in their shoes – While you cannot know all stakeholder nuisances and thoughts, you can gain a lot by trying to consider how your stakeholder will perceive a message.
- Give each situation the right attention – In today’s technology age, it is easy or convenient to convey messages via email or text. However, in some cases, it is better to pick up the phone or schedule a face-to-face meeting. People typically drop their guard and are more open in face-to-face settings.
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