How to win over difficult stakeholders when leading change
We often think the hardest part of leading change is winning over the impacted team. But there's a group of stakeholders that usually come first, before the impacted team is even a twinkle in your eye: the "involved" stakeholders.
Who are "involved" stakeholders? These could be business Subject Matter Experts you need to partner (such as Internal Comms teams, HR teams, Operations leaders, etc.), other business leaders, and sometimes even your own project team (ironically, Program and Project Managers can be the most resistant to Change Management!). If you're a consultant, in rare cases you may need to bring the client on board - just because they hired you, doesn't mean they actually know what Change Management is, what they want you to do, or how to set you up for success.
Everyone involved with leading or delivering the change needs to be brought onto the journey, because these stakeholders can disrupt, delay, and even destroy your change if they feel threatened, uninterested or unconvinced of the value of leading change in a strategic and sustainable way.
So how do you bring them on board? Here's 4 ideas to help:
1. Understand their perspective on leading change
I have made the mistake before of assuming that just because a stakeholder has a background in User Experience, that they understood Change Management. They didn't. And I felt kind of silly a few months into the project when they admitted they didn't know how to work with a Change Manager. It's a conversation I should of had the first day I joined the program, because clarifying expectations is paramount.
People you would expect would automatically understand and be grateful for Change Management can include HR teams and business leaders. It doesn't help that there's a lot of different definitions of Change Management and Change Leadership out there. So start out on the right foot - gather everyone's views on what Change Management is / isn't and come to a common understanding. Then you won't get months down the track and realise everyone's singing from a different songbook.
2. Define the roles in leading the change
One of the biggest reasons "involved" stakeholders resist the change is because they feel their role is threatened - that you're stepping on their toes, excluding them from the conversation, or taking over their domain.
Change Management is a discipline unto itself but Change Leadership can be performed by any person in the organisation (they don't even need to be a line manager!). So setting out roles and responsibilities within the "Change" area of the program or project can be really helpful.
A workshop where the different involved stakeholders come together and explain and agree their role versus other people's roles can highlight where there's duplication or gaps in responsibilities. It can also have stakeholders walk out feeling satisfied that their voice will still be heard, they'll still have a role to play, and they have power in the situation.
3. Create a Change Vision together
The Change Vision is a compelling vision of the future of the team or company. It's shared by everyone involved, is inspiring and motivating, and includes the future lived experience of both the "involved" and "impacted" stakeholders.
I always recommend crafting a Change Vision (read my previous article Engagement: The secret formula for more on this). But as a team connected and committed to delivering or leading a change, you can also set a Change Vision for the delivery of the change itself - how you'll do it, the experience you'll have, and the outcomes that you'll achieve through the process of the change. Workshop this together and you'll get incredible alignment and agreement around leading the change itself, not just the end future state.
4. Keep communication open
"How you start is how you finish" does NOT apply to projects and change. Nothing you start with can be set and forget, and you need to keep revisiting steps 1, 2 and 3 throughout your change. Every 3 months is a good target, because it's enough time to see what's worked and what hasn't, and not too long for major damage to have been done.
But in the meantime, be sure to run a dedicated Change-focused meeting once a week or fortnight with your "involved" stakeholders. Program and Project Managers and Sponsors and Scrum Masters may all see this as being unnecessary... but it is necessary. You need to create space for change leadership to be discussed by the people who are leading the change. This is a conversation about change risks, about readiness, about the experience and feedback of stakeholders and teams, and getting clear decisions and directions from a Change perspective, which are all things usually lost in regular project meetings.
On top of this, keep doing ad hoc coffee catch ups or one-on-one check ins to build trust and keep communication open.
Tony Robbins attributes most conflict to a "difference in expectations". Those differences can only be ironed out by aligning, together, expectations. With these 4 tips, you'll turn the most difficult stakeholders into your best advocates for the change you're leading. You'll keep them onside, on the journey, and en pointe with their involvement.
Lata Hamilton is the Founder & CEO of Passion Pioneers, an Executive Coach, and Change Leadership Trainer. Sign up to her Change Inspiration mailing list here to get weekly goodies such as articles, templates, tools, videos and upcoming courses direct to your inbox.