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How to Win People Over and Gain Buy-In from Senior Stakeholders

trust-esi-stakeholdersProject managers often ask me what the best approach is for gaining buy-in and winning people over. When they ask this question it’s often in connection with senior stakeholders who they find difficult to deal with. Oftentimes, they are working with a sponsor or a stakeholder who has a lot of power and influence over the project, but who isn’t coming to the table in a collaborative and supportive manner. Let’s look at how you can address this issue and win people over.

Is your stakeholder under time pressure?

Lack of support from your stakeholders sometimes happens because they are under time pressures and simply don’t have enough time to devote to your project. For one reason or another your project isn’t important or urgent enough for them to deal with when you need it. In some ways this is as a good sign as there are bigger problems for them to attend to elsewhere. But their lack of attention becomes a risk as well as an issue for your project when decisions aren’t made in a timely manner. Your job is to generate the best possible results and to ensure that all your stakeholders and decision-makes give you the attention you need, when you need it.

So how do you know if the reason for your stakeholders’ lack of engagement is time pressure or if there is a bigger underlying problem that is causing them to be unsupportive? You simply ask! Well ok, you may not ask directly, but you can glean the answer by understanding what is going on for each stakeholder and by asking about their other priorities.

Make it easier for your stakeholder to participate

The only way to find out what is going on for your stakeholder is to spend time in conversation and showing a genuine interest for each person. If your stakeholders are frantically busy it can be difficult to find this airtime, but you can begin by showing a genuine concern for their workload and seeking to understand how you can help. In which ways can you take into consideration their other time commitments and make it easier for them to contribute to your project? Why not ask them what they’d find the most helpful? Maybe you need to move certain meetings around or change the way you provide them with updates or request information etc. Also consider how you can increase their interest in the project and make them see the benefits and what’s in it for them.

Walking into the lion’s den and addressing stakeholders

If, however, your stakeholders’ lack of engagement isn’t a time management or a prioritization issue, but a deeper-rooted problem, you will have to take a closer look at the emotions and the reasons that drive your stakeholders’ unsupportive behavior. What are the underlying needs that they feel are not being met? Could it be that they feel that their voice is not being heard and that their contributions aren’t being appreciated? Is it possible that the project isn’t giving them what they had hoped for? Or do they in some way feel threatened by the project and what it will bring about?

Ask yourself what can you do to actively engage your stakeholders and uncover the real reasons for their skepticism. Maybe it is time for you to bring about an honest conversation with them so that you can find out the answer. Don’t do what the majority of project managers do, which is to avoid the conversation! It’s human nature to want to avoid the things we find unpleasant – including unengaged stakeholders. They are unpleasant to deal with because they make us feel insecure and in doubt about the direction of the project and the things we are doing. Most project managers only interface with these skeptical stakeholders when they have to, but will otherwise avoid them. Why ask for unnecessary trouble?

But of course we should be doing the exact opposite! We should be walking into the lion’s den, so to speak, and address the stakeholders instead of avoiding the situation. The only way to win people over and gain their buy-in is to have honest and in-depth conversations with them so that you can demonstrate that you understand and trust each other.

Ask for advice and feedback from your stakeholder

One of the best strategies you can use when you walk into the lion’s den and have this honest conversation with your stakeholder is to ask for advice and feedback. This is a very disarming move, which instantly builds trust and opens up the relationship because you show that you care and that you are humble enough to ask for their opinion. Just imagine how they might react if you said:

“I would like to ask for your feedback about the project. I value your opinion on how you believe we can work more effectively and deliver a better product / service to you. Would that be ok? Are there any aspects (requirements, risks or issues) you feel we have overlooked? Which other tips and suggestions do you have for how we can improve?”

These questions have the potential to work wonders for you – but only if you sincerely mean it and take the time to really listen to the answer and to the meaning behind the words. Leave your negative emotions by the door, put your tongue on neutral and just listen. If you walk into a meeting that aims to build trust, with mistrust, you will undermine the process. We are often not aware of the emotions we bring to a situation ourselves – and neither is the other person – but subconsciously it always comes across. If you fundamentally don’t trust or respect the person you are interfacing with, they will detect it.

Take a moment to reflect on what your true feelings are towards some of your stakeholders. Do you look up to them, down on them, do you fear them or do you think they are laughable? Do you unintentionally exclude them from emails and meetings, or do you tend to speak badly about them to other people? Have a long and hard look at the emotions and attitudes you hold, as they affect your interactions with people even if you would like them not to. Building relationships is a two-way thing, and realizing that we have a role to play in changing a relationship for the better is a powerful first step.


The four ways of building trust

One of the most important prerequisites to win people over and gain their buy-in is trust. Without trust it’s doubtful that a stakeholder will show you their support, as people are unlikely to open up, collaborate and follow someone who they feel they can’t rely on. The good news is that there is a method for building trust – and that trust can be regained even in situations where it is lacking. It does however require time, energy and your conscious effort to do so.  There are four main components you need to work on in order to reestablish trust with a stakeholder:

  • Demonstrate your competence
  • Be honest
  • Create a connection
  • Communicate clearly

Demonstrate your competence: In order for your stakeholders to trust you it’s imperative that they see you as an excellent and reliable manager who knows how to get the job done. They will admire you for being an effective person who keeps taps on risks, issues, decisions and actions – and for being someone who is able to execute plans and generate the results you have promised.

The quickest way to gain trust is to keep your promises and to consistently deliver a quality output.

Be honest: The second major component of trust is honesty. Many project managers are capable of excellent work but let people down unexpectedly when they come under pressure. They promise too much and trust is broken when they later have to admit that they couldn’t deliver the work they promised. Don’t fall into that trap.

Being overly optimistic and promising too much helps no one.

Create a connection: The ability to deeply connect with people, relate to them and show them that you care is a third factor in building trust. In order to connect with people you have to spend time understanding their situation and showing them that you care. That is the basics of empathy; being able to view situations and responses from the other person’s perspective.

A good way to get started is to become an empathetic listener and to give people your full attention.

Communicate clearly: The fourth major component in building trust is the ability to communicate clearly and effectively. Communication cannot make a person trust you if you are basically untrustworthy, but it can help create a culture in which trust can thrive.

Become a deliberate communicator by communicating openly, honestly and frequently and by ensuing that your messages are as accurate and clear as possible.

Take a moment to reflect on the engagement strategies I have shared in this post and how you can begin to use them. Being able to gain buy-in and win people over is one of the most important aspects of project management, and the sooner you start experimenting with the strategies the better. Remember that practice makes perfect!

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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015).

Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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