Don’t try to Manage your Stakeholders when you can Engage them instead

Let’s get the obvious point out of the way right up-front: the idea that you can ‘manage’ your stakeholders is just plain rude.

It is disrespectful to think you can manage people who, at the outset, owe you no loyalty, no duty, no respect, and certainly no obedience. You need to earn all of these. The term ‘Stakeholder Management’ seems to me to be outdated; an artifact of a time when project managers were optimistically naïve enough to believe that every aspect of a project could be wholly within their control.

Yet, we know we were wrong. I remember learning – and then subsequently repeating – that managing projects would be easy, if it weren’t for the people. So, shall we agree to put a stop to stakeholder management, then? Instead, let’s aim to engage our stakeholders with our project: to start a conversation that can benefit both them and us.

At a high level, the process of engagement is straightforward:

  1. Identify who your stakeholders are
  2. Analyze them
  3. Plan how you will engage them
  4. Put your plan into action and manage your engagement campaign
  5. Constantly review the outcomes of your engagement

Identifying your Stakeholders

Two tools represent opposite ends of a spectrum of approaches to identifying your stakeholders. At the simplest, a proximity map charts concentric circles with immediate, core stakeholders in the center, working outwards to the peripherally interest stakeholders beyond the widest circle. You could split your circle into two, to separate supporters and skeptics, or add a third sector for neutrals, for example.

For the most thorough approach, start with the project manager’s Swiss Army tool, the Work Breakdown Structure and, for each task, ask who is, or may be, involved in any way? This creates a Stakeholder Breakdown Structure, giving you an orderly way to create an initial register of stakeholders.

Ten questions to ask for each Task

  1. Who is involved in making this task happen?
  2. Who will observe the task in progress?
  3. Who will have an opinion about this task? … and whose opinions matter?
  4. Who has access to the resources needed for this task?
  5. Who needs to know about this task?
  6. Who can support or frustrate progress of this task?
  7. Who is affected when the task is being carried out?
  8. Who will evaluate this task?
  9. Who will complain if it goes wrong
  10. Who will be impacted by the outcome of this task?

Analyzing your Stakeholders

The next step is to understand whatever you can about each of your stakeholders. You need to know what their interests are, what position they might take, the level of impact they could have on your project, and something about the way they tick. Ultimately you need to figure out how you can maximize the value of engaging with each of your stakeholders.

Ten Questions to Ask about each Stakeholder


  • … resources do they command?
  • … do we want from them?
  • … information will they want from us?
  • … do they want?


  • … are they? Where do they fit in their organisation?
  • … are they connected with?


  • … do they like to receive information?
  • … do they like to communicate?

What if…

  • What risks do they pose to us?
  • What opportunities do they offer us?


Your job in engaging with a stakeholder is to understand and appeal to their concerns first and address their objections and resistance second. If you start by trying to ‘sell’ your project to them, then you do two things:

  1. First, you lose the opportunity to learn from them, to hear their ideas, and benefit from their insights. Often, your stakeholders know a lot that you don’t, and they can contribute new thinking to your plans or genuine concerns about risks. When they feel listened to, they are more likely to become supporters and advocates too.
  2. Second, you risk triggering a reaction to what you propose. And as soon as you get any form of objection, the stakeholder will establish a position. Psychologically, we feel obliged to defend our position or risk losing face. So the more you can build rapport before giving stakeholders something to push against, the more chance you will have of persuading them effectively.

You must be prepared to answer the difficult questions that arise, and to show integrity in the way you do it. Admit to the weaknesses in your position, rather than looking foolish in defending a weak case, and be prepared to change your mind – and your plans – if stakeholders mount a convincing case. Nothing is more likely to trigger disengagement or outright hostility than blind advocacy of a flawed proposition.

Use Established Networks of Relationships

When you start a new project with lots of new people and groupings to get to know, one of the most helpful things you can do is to start developing a sociogram. This is a chart of how each person is connected to others. Draw each person as a circle or ‘node’ and show links between people as lines. You can represent the strength of a relationship as the thickness of the line – thin medium or thick, with a dotted line indicating a tenuous relationship. Use arrows to indicate the main direction of influence.

Very quickly, you will start to see clusters of people that form groups; you’ll find the hubs – people central to a group – the connectors, people with a foot in two or more groups, and the outliers – people who are barely connected and therefore independent thinkers. This can be a powerful way to start to build your understanding of your stakeholders and plan how to engage effectively with them. It makes it easy to spot the hard to get to outliers and who the influential hubs and connectors are.

Another way to harness existing relationships is to inventory any existing connections between project team members and your stakeholders. Doing this allows you to make smart assignments of colleagues to develop relationships and engage with particular stakeholders. Also look for overlapping interests or backgrounds that will allow your team members to rapidly gain the confidence of stakeholders. This will help stakeholders to express their views more freely and, when it comes to time for influencing them, you will be better able to do so.

Plan how to Engage with your Stakeholders

There is a wide range of engagement strategies you can apply to each stakeholder. Each strategy balances your time investment against the value of that stakeholder’s engagement, and the level of collaboration against the degree of competing with them if they resist.

The chart below shows you over forty generic strategies to choose from. It is neither a prescription nor model. It is more of an indication of the flexibility available to you and a tool to help you in assessing your situation and considering which of your alternative approaches can yield the best results. Further to the right, you will need to invest more effort, whilst higher up the chart, your attitude to the stakeholders will be more positive.

Stakeholder Strategies

Stakeholder Strategies

It is tempting to take a purist approach and advocate that you keep your engagement towards the top right of the chart, but the reality of your situation may demand an alternative approach. The one thing that must not be negotiable is that, whatever you do, you must do it with the highest levels of integrity.

Ultimately, you need to develop a campaign plan: a plan that does two things:

  • It sets out the range of engagement activities you will carry out, when you will undertake them, who they will be addressed to, and the details of how you plan to execute and monitor them.
  • A campaign plan also needs to consider, stakeholder by stakeholder, what you want to achieve and how you will achieve it. Clearly with a large stakeholder group, some will be of lower priority to you and several low priority stakeholders can be aggregated to reduce the pressure on resources.

In a world of finite time and resources, you will always need to make judgments and compromises. But what is evident is that many project managers under-resource stakeholder engagement – particularly in the early stages of a project – and end up paying the price for this later on. They then see errors that could have been predicted, high levels of disengagement, active resistance, and even acts of sabotage.

When it comes to persuasion, there is much to be said [trail a future blog here?], so I will confine myself to four tips, based on the four types of motivation we each have for anything.

  1. The most powerful lever in you campaign plan is self interest – appealing to what each stakeholder wants most. Major intrinsic motivators include appeals to purpose and meaning, the need to be in control, and a desire for achievement.
  2. Almost as powerful is our need for social success, in the form of memberships of a group, relationships, and status. In this cluster is also the need to fulfill a sense of obligation to others.
  3. Less powerful, and usually less accessible to a project manager are the extrinsic motivational levers that many think of first, like rewards, pleasures and material gains.
  4. Finally, if they feel threatened in any way, stakeholders will be motivated by such fundamental factors as safety and security. Compliance requirements sit here for some, and as a sense of obligation and duty to others.

One thing to Remember

If I could persuade you to remember just one thing from this article, it would not be any of the techniques, tips or tools. It would not even be the subtle, but important, distinction between stakeholder management and stakeholder engagement. It would be simply one rule. When you remember and respect this rule, everything else that matters will follow.

Stakeholder Rule Number 1

Your stakeholders will determine the success, or not, of your project.


This article was first published on the website on 24 June, 2015.

Dr Mike Clayton is the author of The Influence Agenda, published by Palgrave Macmillan – – on which this article is based.

The Influence Agenda by Mike Clayton
His other books include ‘How to Manage and Great Project’.

Exceptional video training programmes, based on my best-selling live seminars.

The Effectiveness Academy
The Effectiveness Academy


Why do Stakeholders Resist Change?

I guess some of my readers are thinking that this is like asking why day follow night, but recent research is digging deeper into the underlying causes.

For many years, I have used my Onion Model of Resistance to help me and my clients understand the different ways people resist change, and how project and change managers can deal with it. The six levels of resistance are like the layers of an onion: each one closer to the psychological heart of the problem, and each one being a little hotter and harder to handle.

But in research The Influence Agenda, I discovered some fascinating research that led me to a deeper understanding of one of those six layers of resistance, when people are saying, effectively: ‘I don’t like change’.

The work of Shaul Oreg at Cornell University found, unsurprisingly, that some people are more resistant to change than others. But he also found four factors that reliably predict how much resistance a person will show towards a change.

Stakeholders are likely to be more resistant when they have:

  1. A preference for routine and familiar things
  2. A preference for sticking to a plan, once it is made
  3. A tendency to get stressed by changes in plan
  4. A discomfort with changing their mind

This leads me to identify four separate versions of the ‘I don’t like change response, each of which you can, as a change agent engaging with your stakeholders, respond to in a different way.

  1. ‘I don’t like a break in routine’

Focus not on the old routine ending, but on the emergence of new routines as a transition towards a new form of stability.

  1. ‘I feel uncomfortable with sudden changes’

Long lead times and careful planning will make even a sudden change feel familiar by the time it happens.

  1. ‘I get stressed at the thought of change’

The stress response arises from feelings of not being in control. Find ways to involve the resistant stakeholder in the change process, to give them a real and meaningful sense of control.

  1. ‘Once I have made up my mind, I like to stick to it’

This ‘cognitive rigidity’ means that you should present change as being, as far as possible, consistent or a minor deviation from a pre-existing choice. The less you present it needing a discontinuous change of opinion, the better.

Of all of the disciplines a project manager needs to master, handling resistance in a positive manner is, perhaps, the hardest. It is certainly the one that the people I speak to and train fear the most. Yet, like all things, with study comes understanding and, from understanding, flow concrete techniques.

This article was first published on the APM (Association for Project Management) website on 25 November, 2014.

Dr Mike Clayton is the author of The Influence Agenda, published by Palgrave Macmillan –

The Influence Agenda by Mike Clayton

Exceptional video training programmes, based on my best-selling live seminars.

The Effectiveness Academy
The Effectiveness Academy


Are you feeling mature?

Software development, project management, and risk management all have maturity models that set criteria to allow organisations to measure the level of institutionalisation of good practices.

It think it is time that Stakeholder Engagement Management
also had a maturity model.

Engaging with stakeholders is a vital aspect of effective project management: averting risks, identifying opportunities, and bringing hearts and minds along for the ride. It is also an activity that is increasingly worthy of professional training and standards. Few organizations are successfully rolling out training but I have encountered a couple, and these seem to me to be leading the way. Ironically, the first I came across is in the public sector.

Quite right too: the public sector is in the business of engaging with the public. But the stereotype does not envisage the public sector innovating and getting there first.

But the materials I saw were basic: clearly aimed at first line managers with little experience. Don’t get me wrong: basic is good. But what training does your organisation give to senior practitioners in the advanced techniques for managing a stakeholder engagement campaign, and winning over antagonistic stakeholders?

To me, it seems self-evident that organisations should put stakeholder engagement front and centre of their culture. Customer focused business do this to a limited extent, focusing on one group of stakeholders with a particular impact on their commercial success: what about the rest? The first step to creating a Stakeholder Engagement Culture has to be to take it seriously and assess your own cultural maturity.

My modest proposal offers a basic stakeholder engagement management maturity model. Others will doubtless be better qualified to develop this into a rigorous tool. What matters most is that you start to consider the questions it raises for your orgaisation, and I’d love to hear from you if you do.

Level 1
Ad Hoc

No formal processes, nor recognition of the need for one. Any good work is done independently by individuals. Tools are shared informally among committed individuals and freely adapted, resulting in little or no uniformity.

Level 2

Awareness of the need for a systematic approach. Project and change management guidelines state requirements for stakeholder engagement management with little more than generic guidance and no substantial training available. Tools are “home-made”.

Level 3

First documentation of stakeholder engagement policies and procedures is produced, with responsibilities allocated and some training available. People are aware of shortcomings and gaps. Simple tools are available centrally.

Level 4

Clear metrics are established to guide implementation and decision making. Formal procedures are followed and individual levels of expertise are recognized, with formal training and development available. Sophisticated tools are available.

Level 5

Stakeholder engagement is embedded in all organisational processes and is a part of the day-to-day culture. Knowledge, skills and techniques are constantly reviewed, with the organisation seen by others as a source of excellence and its senior practitioners regarded as leading experts.

This article was first published on the APM (Association for Project Management) website on 7 October, 2014.

Dr Mike Clayton is the author of The Influence Agenda, published by Palgrave Macmillan –

The Influence Agenda by Mike Clayton

Exceptional video training programmes, based on my best-selling live seminars.

The Effectiveness Academy
The Effectiveness Academy


What can you learn from your local supermarket?

Supermarkets place premium goods at eye level, they put sweets and magazines near the checkout counter and use point of sale advertising throughout the store, they offer trial packs and free tastings, they attract us round corners into aisles with goods we don’t need, and they pump the smell of baking bread throughout the store and also into the street.

You know that. And you know why they do it too: to influence us to buy as much stuff as possible. But aren’t you, as a project manager, in the same business? Isn’t it your job to influence your stakeholders, to help them make the choices that will be of benefit to your project?

So when was the last time you thought about the psychology of influencing choices?

In his best-selling book, The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard wrote about how marketers and advertisers try to manipulate our hopes, needs, and fears. That was in 1957, and since then, there has been a revolution in our understanding of how human psychology works, when we make choices.

At the forefront of this research are people like Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, Paul Slovic, and the late Amos Tversky (see this earlier post). Their research has uncovered, in a systematic way, the biases that human beings are subject to: a rich topic for risk management and the assessment of risk – but here, I am talking about stakeholder engagement. If you can understand the way we make judgement, then you can reduce inappropriate bias.

If you understand how I make choices, you can direct me towards the ‘right choice’. Richard Thaler has given a compelling name for the way that choosing the right question can give the right answer. He calls it ‘Choice Architecture’. It is not just the question that matters; it is also they way you ask it and the context in which you ask it.

Was passing through Schipol Airport recently. It has one of the most famous examples of choice architecture, and one I noticed when I was first there, in 1990. Printed under the glaze of the urinals is a life-size likeness of a fly. Given the choice, where do men tend to aim? The reward for the airport is less need to clean floors.

This is a simple and effective example, but there are many more practical ways to nudge choices in the right direction. Let me select a couple more from the thirty examples in The Influence Agenda.

Human beings feel a strong need to conform and fit in with expected norms of behavior. When the UK tax authority, HM Revenue and Customs, notified people (factually) that most people pay their tax on time, collection rates increased significantly.

People often do the easy thing and take the default option, rather than actively select the alternative. So which default do you set? In the six months after employees in large UK firms were first automatically enrolled into pension schemes, participation rates rose from 61 to 83 per cent. People did not opt out. Is it any wonder that many medical practitioners want to reverse the default on organ donation?

I am not a great believer in specializing. I have always found that project management gives us a wonderful platform to read, learn and practice widely across very many disciplines. If you are a project manager who sticks rigidly to the practice you learned many years ago, then you won’t be at the top of your game for long.

And if you are not keeping up to date with latest research into behavioural psychology, then you will be missing the chance to influence your stakeholders as effectively as you could.

This article was first published on the APM (Association for Project Management) website on 21 August, 2014.

Dr Mike Clayton is the author of The Influence Agenda, published by Palgrave Macmillan –

The Influence Agenda by Mike Clayton

More to Learn

Richard Thaler and Daniel Kahneman have both written best selling, highly authoritative, and easy-to-read books that should also (along with The Influence Agenda) be on the reading list of every project manager.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is one of my top 5 books for business people, managers, leaders and professionals. Read it. If the ideas are new to you, it will rock your world.

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness is by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. It is the book that brought the ideas of behavioural economics and choice architecture to the public (and to our politicians).

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics is Richard Thaler’s ‘big book’ – a retrospective that emulates Kahneman’s approach in ‘Thinking’.

Exceptional video training programmes, based on my best-selling live seminars.

The Effectiveness Academy
The Effectiveness Academy


Climbing to the Apex

Early in your project, you are probably used to thinking about who your stakeholders are and how you are going to manage them. I want to argue that there are always one or two you need to get to first and fast. I call them your ‘Apex Stakeholders.’

When I learned stakeholder analysis, I was taught to consider the impact of the project on stakeholders, the power they have to impact what I was doing, and their attitude to my project. From this, we could prioritise our stakeholders and plan our campaign. And there is nothing wrong with that advice.

… Except, that it misses out the nature of human beings. For example, it is not our high impact supportive stakeholders, nor our high impact antagonistic stakeholders who should dominate our early thinking: we need first to get to those who haven’t made up their minds yet. Sitting on a fence is an unstable posture, and the sooner we can influence them, the better.

Even this has little to say about the social nature of human beings, and stakeholder engagement must, surely, be a social activity. The one characteristic that dominates my current thinking about which stakeholders to prioritise is social influence. This is not, by the way, a bandwagon attitude: the advent of online social media has simply provided a new forum for social influence.

Have you noticed how some people are extremely good at influencing others? Whether through personal charisma, perceived wisdom, or deep technical expertise, others look to them for advice and opinions. Consequently, these stakeholders have become used to weighing the evidence for themselves; they are not easily influenced by others. I call them Apex Stakeholders because they sit at the top of a branching network of social influence.

Apex Stakeholder

Apex Stakeholder

If you can identify your apex stakeholders and provide them with the right information, you can gain a lot of leverage across other stakeholders. Find ways to convert neutral apex stakeholders into apex supporters.

Go further: if you discover an apex agonist – an apex stakeholder who is against what you are doing – their influence will be pervasive and potentially lethal. Make it a top priority to win them around. But mind that you do so with great care: they will not be amenable to manipulation or pressure. You need to play a long-game of building a relationship, winning their trust, and then presenting your evidence.

This article was first published on the APM (Association for Project Management) website on 17 July, 2014.

Dr Mike Clayton is the author of The Influence Agenda, published by Palgrave Macmillan –

The Influence Agenda by Mike Clayton

Exceptional video training programmes, based on my best-selling live seminars.

The Effectiveness Academy
The Effectiveness Academy


The Mother of All Stakeholders

How big do stakeholders get?

I was personally pleased when I recently worked with a major multi-national organization that puts sustainability right at the heart of everything it does – including new projects and programmes.

The question is, how to fit it into your projects, if it is not baked into everything that your organization does? As project managers, we have choices and I’d like to highlight four approaches to building sustainability into your projects.

Choice 1: The Financial Approach

You can build sustainability into your projects by ensuring that that your investment appraisal and business case are predicated around whole -life costs and returns or, if this is not possible, for any reason, at least look at the longest time horizon possibly. An example is schools building and renovation: why do so many public authorities insist on a payback on energy efficiency investments that is substantially shorter than the planned lifetime of the school and the assets that might be installed?

Choice 2: The Specification Approach

The second approach sees sustainability as an element of the quality of your project, to be explicitly balanced against time and budgetary objectives. The problem with this approach comes when the organization chooses to prioritise time or cost, leaving sustainability as the poor relation that gets abandoned. This is an application of the right principle, but puts sustainability at the back of the queue.

Choice 3: The Risk Approach

The commonest approach I have seen is a deeply pessimistic one. Sustainability and environmental concerns make their only appearance in projects, via the risk register. Whilst proactive risk management is recognized by most PMs as an essential component of planning and control, this approach effectively relegates sustainability to an after-thought.

Choice 4: The Stakeholder Approach

My preferred approach is to treat Mother Nature as a stakeholder in your projects. The stakeholder revolution that began in the 1930s with E Merrick Dodd and matured in the 1980s with R Edward Freeman’s Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach, which put people on an equal footing with profit on organisation’s agendas.

I’d like to see that go a step further, and John Elkington’s concept of ‘the triple bottom line’ seems to me the best framework. Elkington saw three equally important bottom line measures: the profit account, the people account and the planet account.

Let’s start to consider our planet as a real stakeholder in everything we do as PMs. This does not mean it should come first, but it would require us to take full account of its needs throughout our projects, from definition to decommissioning. Only when you do this will you be sure you are thinking through all aspects of your project’s viability and the wellbeing of your other, human, stakeholders.

This article was first published on the APM (Association for Project Management) website on 1 July, 2014.

Dr Mike Clayton is the author of The Influence Agenda, published by Palgrave Macmillan –

The Influence Agenda by Mike Clayton

Provocation: Stop Moaning about Your Sponsor

How good is your project sponsor?

My experience is that the commitment, or ability, or style, of a project sponsor is one of the biggest reasons for project managers to moan.

Whenever I get a room-full for training, there is always a handful who moan that:

  • they don’t get the support they need
  • their sponsor is too intrusive
  • the sponsor disrupts project meetings
  • their sponsor won’t make critical decisions
  • they don’t know who their sponsor is

It’s at that point that the people who don’t think they have a sponsor seem to sigh with relief!

What’s the Problem?

A sponsor – or whatever you want to call them – is a critical part of the project. They sit at the heart of project governance.

Poor sponsorship = Poor governance

So, if you don’t have a sponsor*: stop work on your project.

If you don’t know who your sponsor is: stop work. If there is one, they’ll find you.

If they won’t make critical decisions: stop work. Sponsorship is governance. Governance is steering**. If no-one is steering, the ship, it’s safer to stop.

Now we’re onto the leadership bit. You have a sponsor but you don’t like the way the choose to exercise their responsibilities. Fair enough. My experience is frequently of under-trained (untrained) sponsors who don’t believe they need training.

But you are the project manager and your job is to lead the delivery of your project. And leadership means tackling the tough conversations. Sit down with your sponsor and talk it through. Organisationally, your sponsor may be bigger and uglier than you are. But that’s no excuse. Prepare well, and have the conversation. Until you do, you have no right to moan.

* If your boss asks you to do a small project; they’re your sponsor. If you start a small project, you can be your own sponsor.

** ‘Governor’ comes from the Greek, ‘Kubernator’, meaning steersman.