People Skills and the Fine Art of the Stakeholder Relationship

Research shows that whether a project succeeds or fails is largely dependent on the project stakeholders and their management. Establishing and maintaining relationships with each of the stakeholders, a key component of stakeholder management, may be a considered a ‘fine art’ as sensitive project legalities are navigated, differences are negotiated, conflicts are resolved and stakeholder domains are translated. As such, they remain a challenging, and often unattainable, project task.

Given the delicate nature of stakeholder relationships, and the risk associated with poor stakeholder relationships, this type of interpersonal relationship requires emotional intelligence, cognitive flexibility and systems thinking.

Stakeholder relationships are unlike relationships developed with colleagues, friends and family for a multitude of reasons. This means they require a unique skill set. It is important to understand this skill set when selecting, training and educating anyone involved with project stakeholder management.

A recent study found building and maintaining high quality, effective stakeholder relationships requires emotional intelligence, cognitive flexibility and systems thinking for the following reasons.

Projects typically involve multiple stakeholder groups, each with different perspectives, knowledge bases, expertise, cultural backgrounds, project interests and resources - each working to different masters, under different sets of constraints. These differences in combination with the pressures that go hand in hand with large, complex projects create a project environment ripe for conflict.

For this reason, a high degree of emotional intelligence - the ability to understand and manage your own and others emotional states - is a key competency in establishing and cultivating interpersonal relationships that lead to long term value and project success.

Similarly, given the difference between stakeholder groups and the challenges of cross-functional communication, the ability to think flexibly allows us to ‘put ourselves in another person’s shoes’ so that we can better understand their point of view, as well as how they can affect and be affected by the project.

Further, a cognitively flexible individual is: aware of alternate ways of responding in any given situation; possesses the willingness to select a way of responding that will allow them to best adapt to a situation; and has the self-efficacy to believe they can adapt to a different situation. This ability is particularly important when moving between different groups of stakeholders from different organisations and often countries.

Lastly, to establish and maintain an interpersonal relationship with a stakeholder so that it is effective and of high quality requires the ability to use systems thinking, that is to view projects as complex adaptive systems where the whole is indeed larger than the sum of its parts.

Systems thinking is a way of thinking that allows an individual to understand how each stakeholder ‘fits’ within the larger project (their role and function), can affect and be affected by the project and each other, how interactions between different stakeholders could affect the project, and how different stakeholder groupings could evolve and adapt. Further, this ability allows individuals to pre-empt second and third order effects and consequences allowing a business to be better postured to respond to challenges more quickly.

Evidence of the link between certain attributes and successful stakeholder relationships highlights the requirement to ensure the right people with the right skill sets are involved with the management of the project stakeholders. This will maximise the chances of project success and ensure enduring relationships, that will be of further value to both parties, are developed over the lifecycle of a project.

Alicia Gilchrist is a senior consultant at Rapid Context specialising in organisational psychology.

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