Managing Stakeholders Empathetically

Filed under Communication, Leadership | Posted by PMStudent

I recently came across this article on managing stakeholders.? It refers to a widely used and taught model of stakeholder management.

The article is a good overview and categorization of the types of stakeholders and their relative interest and influence on the project.? It’s a helpful model and I agree with it’s use a guideline.

I would like to talk about why it is so important to properly identify and manage stakeholders.

Empathic Project Management

One of the most important capabilities a project manager needs to hone is empathy.

From Merriam-Webster’s definition of empathy:

2 : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this

Don’t confuse my meaning of empathy with sympathy, or getting all emotional.? It’s simply about being able to simulate the perspective of someone else, and thus understand them better.

However you do it, a structured process of 1) identifying and 2) assessing stakeholders will make you a more effective project manager.? I have learned the hard way in my own career about the negative impacts of having 1) not identified all stakeholders and 2) misunderstanding the intentions and goals of stakeholders, especially key stakeholders.? Part of that assessment is the use of empathy to “put yourself in their shoes” and understand your project from their perspective.

For this reason, do not limit your analysis to their interest and influence.? You must also identify what their goals are…what context they bring with them…their perception of how the project will impact them, etc.

By the way, I know identification and assessment are just first steps…but in doing just those two things, you will be more effective.

A Tale of Two Stakeholders

For example, pretend that key Stakeholder A is relatively new to the company, open to change for the better, and has a positive perception of how your project will impact their team/department.? Stakeholder B has the exact same interest and influence, but they have survived 2 previous failed attempts at implementing similar projects, are very resistant to change, and have a very negative perception of how your project will impact their team/department if it were to be successful.

The interest/influence matrix is a helpful starting point, but effective stakeholder management is a multivariate undertaking.? An empathic analysis helps uncover those hidden variables so you can proactively decide how to deal with them.? You may find that it is more useful to spend time building trust with a low interest / low influence stakeholder than a high interest / high influence stakeholder in the end, IF the latter is highly inclined to support your project.

In other words, potential influence and active influence are two very different things.

What are your thoughts on empathy and stakeholder management?? Leave a comment below, it’s easy!