Stakeholders matter. Work is so complex today, that nearly every project has broader implications and affects many different players. Yet our clients tell us that these interconnected projects fail because the managers driving them aren’t able to work their networks and get the input and support they need from all the stakeholders involved.
The 5 Pitfalls
A manager’s bad habits will get in the way of getting advice and input from key stakeholders – slowing progress and jeopardizing strong results. You have to get at the underlying patterns that prevent people from openly and effectively engaging their stakeholders.
Here are five distinct pitfalls managers find hard to avoid, even when they know better.
#1 Gravitate to People Like Them
A common mistake we see, especially with greener managers, is not reaching out to very senior executives or gravitating to those they know will agree with them. This is dangerous. Incomplete or biased input could point to the wrong actions and move the business down the wrong path. Drawing conclusions without a full line of sight creates big information gaps and hurts strategic decision making.
#2 Avoid Conflict
People are notorious for avoiding stakeholders who see things differently. So they bypass them, marginalize them, or discount their importance. Instead of engaging them, managers demonize them as a roadblock to progress. The fact is, constructive conflict with stakeholders is a good thing. It helps managers uncover flaws in their thinking and helps them build a stronger business case. Plus, we know that sooner or later dissenting views will be heard – and they do a lot more damage after the fact.
Here’s an example. A manager in a recent program we ran had done some impressive work getting ready for a strategy session with his organization’s senior leadership team. He asked for input from leaders all across the organization for his presentation, but was told to avoid the head of finance in his process. Against his better judgement, he listened to that advice. Unfortunately for him, when he delivered his presentation, the CFO wanted data and numbers that he just didn’t have. He had to go back to the group three weeks later, slowing the organization and hurting his own credibility.
#3 Pander to Authority
Stakeholders often have more formal power and authority than the person reaching out to them. A chronic tendency for managers is to water down or sugarcoat things – to tell the more senior person what they want to hear. Stakeholders need the straight story to support an effort. Plus they are relying on this work getting done – it affects their priorities, too. So managers who hold back the ugly truth to paint a rosy picture for their executive stakeholders are putting a lot in jeopardy just to avoid an uncomfortable conversation.
#4 Don’t Make the Time
Countless managers have bemoaned to us that they lack the time to engage stakeholders. We think this is just a classic excuse. Of course it’s easier to work independently and assume you know what your stakeholders want. But making this mistake will cause far more headaches for managers in the long run – as they spend longs hours trying to rework and fix their flawed output and explain why completion is so elusive.
#5 Only Care “What’s In It For Me?”
Our stakeholders do not exist to serve us. They have distinct responsibilities to the organization. Understanding their pressures, constraints and what’s in it for them is key. Most managers can’t mobilize their stakeholders fully because they’re more focused on getting their way than doing what’s best for the organization. If they don’t have the ability to orchestrate differences, build common ground, and co-create solutions, their initiatives will fail. In our experience, these capabilities are in short supply.
So, how can you help your managers proactively engage their stakeholders and avoid these pitfalls? Our next post will tell you how.
Al Preble founded Cambridge Leadership Group to help organizations empower their people to make a greater impact in their work and in their world. He leads the Cambridge team, and he’s passionate about keeping it real, always learning, and making sure everything we do with clients has strong business impact. Al consults with Fortune 500 organizations on leadership mindset, building coaching cultures, and driving results in complex, matrixed organizations.