“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
This week, one of my modern-day heroes passed away. In her memory, I wanted to pause and share my favorite Maya Angelou quote. It applies to people and interpersonal relationships everywhere, but has a special meaning for leaders who are working to engage stakeholders in change.
Change is often first perceived as a threat by the human brain, according to recent neuroscience research. So it goes to reason, that people who feel threatened will be feeling many negative emotions like fear, anger, confusion, and so on.
To offset those negative reactions towards change, it is imperative for leaders to think about how they can fully engage stakeholders and counteract those negative perceptions.
Here are a few questions that leaders can ask themselves to focus not only on greater stakeholder engagement, but to attend to how people “feel” about the change effort:
- What am I doing and saying to inspire others and make them feel a part of co-creating a new, desired future?
- What am I doing and saying to build trust and help stakeholders feel safe?
- What communication methods and modes am I utilizing to help stakeholders feel fully informed of the change effort?
- What feedback loops am I employing to make sure that there is a free flow of communication and help stakeholders feel they have a voice?
- What structures and processes am I creating or supporting that allow stakeholders to fully participate and feel ownership?
Accountability breeds response-ability.
–Steven R. Covey
An important part of creating stakeholder engagement is building a sense of accountability and commitment. We’ll talk more next month about how to do that. For now I want to focus on a couple of stakeholder issues that are common in higher education.
First, there is the issue of how to engage stakeholders as a leader. Several years ago I was being interviewed by an MBA student who wanted to learn more about leadership in higher education. One of her questions was along the lines of “how long is it from the time the executive leader announces a change until the time it’s implemented in your organization?” She was quite surprised that one of the possible answers is “never.” If stakeholders are not engaged, they may decide to wait it out until things return to normal. We’ve all known of changes that have been viewed as my-leader-read-a-new-book fads. Key stakeholders never changed their behavior, and the initiative died on the vine.
Second, and maybe more common, are the times when we need to lead change from the middle of an organization with key stakeholders who are peers or even leaders who are senior to us. Building collaborative networks and partnerships are more important now than they’ve ever been.
I like Steven R. Covey’s quote above. As he notes in Principle Centered Leadership, “we will soon break our resolutions if we don’t regularly report our progress to somebody and get feedback on our performance.” While reporting and feedback look very different depending on our roles in relation to key stakeholders, they are important parts of a stakeholder management plan. It’s almost impossible for people to be engaged with a change if they believe no one cares what they’re doing to support it. Holding people accountable and communicating frequently about the change overall and their specific roles enhance their ability to play their part in moving changes forward.
What have you done recently to build response-ability for a change?
Dee Anne Bonebright
On this Memorial Day, we are taking a break from our normal blog posts to honor the men and women who have bravely served and died for our country. In December 2000, the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution was passed to help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day. It asks that at 3 p.m. local time all Americans “voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of Remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to Taps.”
Here are the lyrics to Taps, which I first learned in Girl Scouts many years ago:
Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well, safely rest
God is nigh.
Fading light dims the sight
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright
From afar, drawing near
Falls the night.
Thanks and praise for our days
Neath the sun, neath the stars, neath the sky
As we go, this we know
God is nigh.
Today I’ll be observing Memorial Day with my family at my parent’s home in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. We will be attending the local memorial service at the cemetery, where we look forward to hearing Taps played each year.
Did you know that women with diabetes are 44% more likely than diabetic men to develop coronary heart disease? Neither did anyone else, until a recent research study was released. In fact, there are a lot of things that we don’t know about women and heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.
Since coronary heart disease is a leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S., how did it happen that early research included almost no studies focused on women or minorities? I’m fairly sure no group of white male doctors deliberately said “it’s easier to focus our research on white males, so let’s just do that.” Rather, I believe they didn’t think about it at all. They looked around at who was at the table, and assumed that their findings would apply to everyone. We now know that’s not the case.
One of the most challenging leadership tasks is to examine our assumptions about who is at the table, and to seek out those voices that may not be represented. That’s one of the reasons why stakeholder analysis is so important.
I’ve frequently been part of organizational change efforts in which the leaders say they’re open to feedback and suggestions. And I believe they really mean it. But at the same time, I’ve talked to line workers who have information that would be helpful, and no real means to share it. The student services workers who spend every day with the students may be in a good position to comment on how a policy change will impact registration. Students themselves would certainly have opinions. But without a good plan for proactively seeking that information, a management team may make policy decisions without it.
Next time you’re leading a change effort, ask yourself who else you can talk to. Who is impacted by the change, but not at the table? Find the people who may be opposing the change and listen carefully to their concerns. It may not change your direction, but you may learn about potential problems early enough to address them more easily. Or, like the heart research community, you may discover that key assumptions need to be re-examined.
–Dee Anne Bonebright
“Ok, I can do this. This is actually pretty fun. I am glad I joined in today. You know, I may actually end up liking this.” ………. “What do you mean we are starting already? I just got here! Yes, it is fun, the trail looks great. No, I didn’t fall. No, I don’t want to hold everyone back, but I need a quick break. Oh, ok, I guess I can start right away……”
This was my internal dialogue when I started mountain-biking. My friends had only started riding about a month before I had but they were in a very different place than me. They were enthused and excited and wanted me be as enthused as they were! I was ready to try something new but I wasn’t as confident on the trails as them and the uphills were hard. They could ride faster and would get ahead of me. I would struggle up a hill, panting and gasping for breath, and they would be ready to go. I just needed a moment to catch my breath. They were lost in their excitement, had been resting for a few minutes and were raring to get started again. To me it felt like they were not listening. They felt like they had to cheer me on. I didn’t need cheerleading, I just needed 60 seconds to get my bearings. This is an example of the marathon effect.
As leaders of change, the marathon effect can inhibit your success engaging your people and you won’t even be aware it is happening. Think back to times when you have worked hard to explain the benefits of a change to your team. What type of response did you get? Did it feel like you were speaking a foreign language? That is due to the marathon effect. You, as a leader, are already at the top of the change hill and you team is panting to get there. They can’t see the fun downhill that you can see and they are not going to react well when you try and cheer them on.
The marathon effect is a metaphor that highlights the different view a leader has from their team and provides insight to help leaders change their communication to better engage their teams. In large marathons the “leaders” are at the front at the start. When the gun goes off they get to start running and they can focus on the wide open options ahead of them. The leaders are enthused, they can see the change ahead. The rest of the “team” is lined up, often blocks back, and when the gun goes off nothing happens! They are still standing there. They can’t see the change and they are focused on what they need to do to deal with their crowded reality.
As a leader your initial communication efforts need to focus on the crowded reality your team is facing, not the wide open changes ahead. Your team will be more engaged if you can demonstrate you are aware that they are slightly behind you. Initial engagement messages need to focus on the hill your team is climbing and not on the downhill you can see ahead. The challenges they are facing, their struggles, and most importantly, recognizing that they are trying.
It can be hard to rein in your focus on the future but recognizing the marathon effect will keep your people engaged. In the end they will join you and race to the finish, like I have done with my buddies on the trails out west.
So you’ve identified your key stakeholders and maybe even set up a communication plan and perhaps thought about roles to involve some of your stakeholders. But how can you really make the most of your stakeholders’ interests and abilities to contribute to your change effort in a positive way?
Here are a few ideas adapted from a community health organization, PhConnect, that I found particularly helpful to maximize stakeholder engagement.
Establish Clear Roles & Expectations: Clear roles and expectations are essential to stakeholder success. Your stakeholders must be clear about their roles and the expectations for your change effort. If you are involving some stakeholders in parts of the change effort, using tools like a charge letter or a project charter can help to clarify both roles and expectations.
Create Common and Meaningful Goals and Objectives: Involving your stakeholders early on to establish common goals and objectives can help you ensure that your change effort is successful. It also ensures that everyone is working together towards objectives that they are invested in. Ask yourself and your stakeholders: What goals are achievable AND meaningful?
Provide Opportunities for Input/Feedback: No matter what role stakeholders are serving in, make sure to allow opportunities for stakeholders to provide input and feedback. Think about various stages of your change effort: When is it most helpful to ask for stakeholder input or feedback? In the planning stage? Implementation stage? Evaluation stage?
Use a Common Language: To make sure that stakeholders understand what you are trying to accomplish through your change effort, it is helpful to use a common language, especially when working with non-traditional stakeholders. Avoid using jargon and acronyms that your stakeholders may not understand or provide common definitions of terms that are important to your change effort.
Build Trusting Relationships: Most importantly, work to forge trustworthy interpersonal relationships among your stakeholders. Try to arrive at decisions together, stick to plans, and fulfill obligations. Explore win-win opportunities by asking: What benefits will my stakeholders receive by working on this change effort? Ensuring a stakeholder benefit will maximize their engagement and strengthen the success of your change effort.
In your experience, what has helped to maximize stakeholder engagement?
I have to brag a little – here’s a picture of me yesterday as a newly-hooded Ph.D. I graduated with a degree in human resource development from the U of M College of Education and Human Development. As my father said, it was the most exciting two boring hours he’s been at recently! Here are a couple of things I took away:
Dean Jean Quam greeted attendees at a reception with this proverb:
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go in a group.
That’s certainly true of my experience. Writing a dissertation is one of the more lonely things a person can do, and it also requires a lot of help and support. Like any leadership goal, it wouldn’t have happened without key people stepping up at just the right time. Studying together with a couple of classmates made the courses easier, and I’ve developed long-lasting friendships. Some excellent professors helped me develop research skills. And my advisor, Karen Seashore, gave me advice and prodding to keep going when things got hard.
The keynote speaker at graduation was former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak. He is now involved with an organization called Generation Next that is focused on closing the achievement gap for students of color. While being very clear about the challenges, he also reminded us to be open to possibilities.
As we get older, we often lose our eyesight. We may also lose our vision.
I appreciated his challenge to us as educators to stay focused on our opportunities to mentor and provide opportunities for students. We have a chance to make a difference in someone’s life every day. Rybak talked about being that one adult who listened, encouraged, or just did little acts to help make school a safe and supportive place.
What is true of children in K-12 education is also true of our students in higher ed. While I’m not on a campus every day, I still have a chance to create the sort of system where all of our students, faculty and staff can thrive. I hope my new skills will help with that process.
Denise A. Bonebright, Ph.D.