Are you circling the wagons or leaning in to manage angry stakeholders?

I once had a client at a council where the General Manager had taken a battering over the years from a small number of vocal and angry community groups. By the time I was involved, the GM had effectively pulled up the drawbridge and stopped talking to his stakeholders.

This response to community anger is very understandable and a natural self-defence mechanism. Other ways we respond include to:

  • Get angry that they are outraged at us. “How dare they! Can’t they see I’m doing the right thing? Of course I can be trusted and it’s offensive of them to say otherwise!”
  • Go into defensive project management mode: Plan every move out before doing anything; Line up your ducks in an attempt to minimise the chance of pushback; For every move, seek permission from those up the line; Manage out any opportunity for untoward anger; Get stuck in analysis paralysis.

Of course the irony is that these actions are likely to exacerbate the very stakeholder anger you are trying to avoid. By managing to reduce outrage, we often increase the outrage.

Vulnerability is the secret to success

What to do instead?

Lots of things, many of which boil down to being vulnerable in the face of potential bad experiences. For example:
– Do more engagement, not less.
– Stop talking and start listening.
– Be curious without defending (“Is that right? Tell me more about why you feel that way….”)
– Talk. Remember that conversations build relationships, which make the transactions possible.
– Embrace uncertainty and do stuff. Less planning to manage out risk and more engagement, even when unsure about outcomes.
– Ask for their help.
– Extend trust to them, so that they might return the favour.

Back at this council with the besieged GM, I encouraged my client to go and talk to some of these people. To his credit he did just that and came back with a new spring in his step. It turns out that he and the GM’s number one ‘public nemesis’ grew up in the same suburb in the same city, and my client’s father coached the other guy at football. Connections were made. Barriers began to crumble. Frosty relationships began to thaw.

Circling the wagons is a natural response to scary situations and ‘leaning in’ to those situations feels very uncomfortable. But if you want to reduce the anger out there, leaning in to that vulnerability is the lower risk move. Can you risk doing anything else!