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The art of influencing stakeholders.

Influencing stakeholders is the key to any large-scale project success. Throughout our professional careers, it’s a skill we must learn to master to really thrive. This post breaks down influencing stakeholders into an art form.

In any professional career you embark on, there inevitably comes a point where you need higher management buy-in and senior personnel to really give you the green light for your ‘bright idea’ to become a reality. The siloed and quiet nature of a PhD or academia means that most PhDs and academics are typically not as familiar with this skill set as they haven’t had as many opportunities to put it into practice. For this post, we’re going to keep stakeholders as a relatively broad term, referring to anyone with a particular interest or concern in something, typically in a professional context. This might be a budget holder, your manager, your supervisor, senior management, possibly your colleagues, you name it. Knowing how to interact with these people, and influence stakeholders is going to be pivotal to your success and facilitating impactful change wherever your professional, or perhaps personal, career takes you.

Given the points outlined above, and the way academia is structured, it’s important we reset our thinking and go back to basics. In other words, ‘why’ is influencing stakeholders important. Firstly, getting stakeholder buy-in enables you to really build a legacy and a vision that simply cannot be done on your own. There’s a quote that goes, ‘if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together’, and that’s what we’re really referring to here. Being able to bring others along your journey and get them to advocate for the initiative when you’re not there helps to really build a movement for the project you’re working on. As part of any impactful and large-scale project, inevitably other people will be gatekeepers to various things. The final decision most likely won’t sit with you, and you won’t necessarily have full awareness of the impact (positive or negative) your bright idea may have. Subsequently, it’s imperative you find a way to appropriately influence all relevant stakeholders to successful pass through each ‘decision check-point’.

Moreover, being able to influence others means that you will in avertedly foster collaboration and super charge your initiative. This moves your bright idea out of the basement (i.e. your silo) and into the open where others can see it, support it, and have visibility of it. In turn, it means certain stakeholders who are interested (whether you’ve influenced them or not) will seek to share ideas. Over time, collective sharing of ideas fosters better ideas, which will likely mean they can support you with things you’re not quite sure of whilst being able to share new ideas that you might have missed in the initial stages.

But how do we go about identifying the right people, so we know who the correct stakeholders to influence are? To do so, we can use what’s known as a stakeholder matrix – this matrix focuses on two key constructs or dynamics in the workplace to identify who your stakeholders are. The first is someone’s level of interest in your idea/project. In other words, ‘how invested are they in your idea’. The second, is someone’s level of influence, i.e., ‘how much of the idea can they change’. You can visualise these constructs on a graph, with your x-axis representing their interest, and the y-axis representing their level of influence. We’re then able to effectively ‘plot’ where each stakeholder would sit on this interest-influence dynamic.

Once we’ve plotted everyone on the graph, we’re able to allocate 4 distinct quadrants or ‘personas’ for each person on your stakeholder matrix. These 4 distinct personas are as follows:

  • Monitor (low interest and low influence – bottom left on your matrix)
  • Keep informed (high interest and low influence – bottom right on your matrix)
  • Keep satisfied (low interest and high influence – top left on your matrix)
  • Manage closely (high interest and high influence – top right on your matrix).

After successfully identifying your stakeholders, it means we now have a better understanding on who the key/important stakeholders are and who to influence. Working through the matrix, we can build a rough set of guidelines on who to be in regular contact with. Those at ‘Monitor’ are probably the least important stakeholders for your initiative given they have both low influence and low interest. This really is a group of people you just need to keep an eye on in case they start to move through the matrix by attaining more influence, more interest or both.

Your ‘Keep informed’ group are likely to be your users, customers, or people on the receiving end of your initiative. They have high interest but low influence, this suggests they may lie external to your organisation or immediate team. A good example of this group might include advocacy charities or neighbouring work teams who like to be well informed and interested in this subject area, but perhaps don’t have as much influence to steer the strategic direction of things. In science, this could be the wider population interested in your subject but perhaps don’t have as much influence on how the science actually gets carried out. Again, this is another group to keep an eye on encase they attain more influence – moving them up through the matrix.

The third group is the ‘Keep satisfied’ set of stakeholders. These stakeholders need substantially more time and attention compared to the previous two. The main reason being they have high influence (and low interest). This might be your managers manager for example, or someone in finance who is the gatekeeper of budgets but are less interested in the day to day running of your idea. These individuals generally hover on the periphery, and only really get involved or put-up obstacles if they are un-satisfied. Keeping them updated and satisfied likely means they’ll reduce the number of barriers you face whilst leaving you the time to get on with things.

The final group is your ‘Manage closely’ set of stakeholders. Unlike the others, these stakeholders need the most attention as they have both high interest and high influence. Not only will they be invested in the day-to-day execution of your idea, but will also be the ones to actively steer it, provide recommendations, and push back on things they don’t like. These are your core group and being able to manage these stakeholders (in addition to the keep satisfied group) will be your key to success. These stakeholders may be your manager, your direct colleagues, immediate teams you’re collaborating with, and more.

The next step is to get to know your stakeholders well enough that you can understand their ‘why’. In short, you’re seeking to understand what your stakeholders care about, what motivates them, and what their current focus is on. By doing this, it means you can better position, explain and align your initiative with theirs. You’re seeking to find the commonalities between your initiatives to help bridge the gap and ensure they remain invested in your project’s success. As the two core groups both have high influence, getting their backing through aligning your initiative with their own interests means they’re more likely to advocate for your project in conversations you’re not in, but also means they’ll look favourably at requests you make. Going back to the budget gatekeeper in the finance team example – they’re more likely to approve your spending if your project makes sense to them and fulfils a need they also have.

The last and final stage of influencing stakeholders is to always seek to find a win-win. If you’ve successfully identified their ‘why’ as outlined above, you should be able to speak to their objectives and goals – helping to get your project signed. Equally, you need to be mindful of framing your requests, really think about a narrative and story which demonstrates collaboration, direction towards that common goal and more. In effect, people are more likely to be bought into your project and initiative if they also see it as benefiting themselves. Being able to frame your request as win both for yourself and for them makes it significantly harder for someone to say no!

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