Can branding a stakeholder resistant create a self-fulfilling prophecy

by Sylvie Edwards

When I think of stakeholder resistance, I am always reminded of when a new version of the PMBOK Guide is issued of what used to be and how our profession has changed in recent years. I started “dabbling” in project management a bit before the first edition (1996) came about and took my exam with the second edition (2000). It was not that long ago since the fifth edition that PMI introduced us to a new knowledge area known as project stakeholder management. The first time since 1996 that a new knowledge area was added to the mix. Instead of fixing labels that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, conduct a stakeholder analysis to understand and address what might look like a resistant stakeholder.

For most PMs, the relief was evident as we had been dealing with stakeholders for most of our lives, but we’re not quite certain how to formalize this process; in a way that would provide support, insight and make us achieve our objectives sooner and, more importantly, with their support. We needed some more formal guidance, and PMI® was willing to provide it to us.

For my part, although I welcomed the new knowledge area, I was a bit troubled at how it would not give me more work; and also not make me need a psychology degree by the time I was done. After all, this has to deal with a lot of human issues that we rarely explore at a deep level. Was I prepared to go there?

Understanding what stakeholders think about a project

I had been doing some form of high-level stakeholder analysis with the team (a simple matrix with four quadrants), but nothing compared to what was highlighted in this new area. The team and I were fine with identifying our stakeholders, prioritizing them as well as understanding what they felt about the project as a whole. Where we stopped short was the more specific “labeling” that came with the process of managing stakeholder resistance—which could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We gave it a valiant effort on one project, only to be told by the sponsor to remove the labels and to stick to project management, not organizational psychology.

To top it all off, one of our stakeholders who happened to be labeled as “resistant” found out of his new-found status and decided to make our lives miserable for it by being more of a “resistor” than simply “resistant.” At every step of the way, he would find something to object to, some reason to delay approval or a decision, and something that would force us to re-evaluate our status.

resistant stakeholder - PMWorld 360

There was something in what he told me one day that provided the lesson for this article. After a meeting where things had been heated around the discussion of an issue with the software we were currently testing for delivery; he approached me and said: “When management approached me to tell me I would be working on this project, I was truly committed from the moment I started working on it, and your team made sure of that when you branded me “resistant” on that stakeholder register of yours. I have never been more aware of how important it is to make this right, and I will fight for every bit of it. I wanted to tell you that this had nothing to do with you and your team’s ability, but I have to stand my ground on certain issues.”

There it was, the moment that I admit that I had been wrong all along. After all, we were not on both sides of the coin; we were on the same side, looking at it differently.

The moral of the story is that people will become what you call them—it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. You may not be dealing with stakeholder resistance; there may be more to things than meets the eye. They will start behaving by the names or the adjectives they are labeled. Part of providing good stakeholder management for your project is understanding if they are on your side or not at the end of the day. Avoid assuming people are resistant stakeholders, and ensure you perform stakeholder analysis to determine strategies to gain stakeholder buy-in and keep it.


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