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Building Stakeholder Support for Organizational Change

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Building stakeholder support provides an approach for identifying and engaging a diverse set of individuals and groups, internal and external to the organization, in organizational change.

It involves engaging people in the change effort by influencing, motivating and inspiring them to want to do what needs to be done, to devote discretionary effort to it willingly, even eagerly, as well as those who can and may exercise their power and political means in covert and overt ways to subvert any change.   

The effective building of stakeholder support comprises:

Knowing who your stakeholders are

Building stakeholder support is about developing relationships, inspiring stakeholders and creating communities where people strive to give their best and where the relationships with stakeholders are managed in an action-oriented way. This necessitates knowing which groups and which individuals, internal and external to the organization, can affect, or are affected by, the change effort. 

Stakeholders can exercise considerable influence on the outcome of change. Different stakeholders are likely to act in ways that maximize their own power and their ability to secure preferred outcomes.

The most powerful stakeholders are those who are able to deal with important issues/challenges facing the organization and who have control over significant resources valued by others. There is, therefore, a need to be able to identify key stakeholders and their power and influence. 

The first step is to identify who the key stakeholders are. This can be done by asking the following questions:

  • Who will gain or lose something?
  • Who has the power to make or break the change?
  • Who controls critical resources or expertise?

Once the key stakeholders (individual and groups) have been identified the next step is to assess the level of influence they have and the impact the change will have on them. This can be achieved by considering:

  • How much influence each stakeholder/group has to make the change happen, or to prevent it from happening.
  • What level of support will each stakeholder/group provide?
  • What impact will the change have on each stakeholder/group?

The next step is to identify how to manage and engage the stakeholders. Individuals and groups who are not committed to the change, but who can influence it, represent a potential risk, and unless they are proactively managed, they can impact the progress of the change. 

The stakeholders who are positive and supportive of change need to be engaged in the effort as soon as possible, as they will help to ensure that the change is owned, implemented and sustained successfully across the organization.

Creating space for dialogue

At the heart of building stakeholder support is dialogue. Creating change using dialogue is about creating space for conversations on change that lead to understanding and action.   Dialogue enables key stakeholders to contribute to decisions about the issue, to generate ideas and develop inclusivity and mutual understanding.

Discursive methods of communication create conversations through dialogue and debate, in contrast to directive methods, such as ‘here is a question’ and ‘here is an answer’. A lack of conversations can have an adverse impact on change efforts, since it indicates that individuals are unable to openly share their view and ideas. Spaces need to be created for conversations that develop and foster change through authentic discussions.  To create conversations which are authentic means suspending assumptions and entering into a genuine dialogue which enables individuals to contribute to decisions as well as share views, concerns and ideas in an honest and open way.

Effective dialogue also involves taking time to listen to stakeholders’ views, ideas and concerns, as well as giving feedback to stakeholders about what they said and responses to it. If it is not possible to take actions based on views and ideas, then reasons need to be provided for why this is the case.

Building and maintaining trust

Trust is crucial for building stakeholder support: stakeholders will be unlikely to engage and surface their concerns, or even ideas, in a space where they do not trust managers and/or leaders.  People are more likely to voice their opinions to people they trust.

Building trust means keeping appropriate boundaries, being sensitive to social and cultural cues and being fair. It involves having the ability to ethically do the right thing; being guided by principles of benevolence and well-meaning, especially in treating people with respect; having integrity and being honest; and keeping promises.

When a promise is broken, trust is also damaged. This was illustrated in the case of Kraft’s Irene Rosenfeld when she reneged on her pre-merger pledge not to close Cadbury’s chocolate factory in Somerdale, UK. Trust is therefore fragile – it is extremely hard to gain but amazingly easy to lose.

Violations of trust can occur in many ways; managers may say one thing and do another or they may fail to listen. When trust is violated, individuals are likely to express emotions such as anger, frustration, and resentment and also to withdraw their support, reduce their effort and commitment, and even sabotage the change effort. So, trust is a key element of building stakeholder support.

Co-creating change

Co-creation is about creating an active partnership with stakeholders in the development of change.  It means constructing or negotiating change with, rather than for stakeholders.

The co-creation of change requires that power is more widely distributed across the organization and amongst stakeholders. This means that stakeholders become more of a collaborative community of individuals looking to co-create initiatives rather than a collection of people waiting to implement something.

There is, however, also a need to be very clear with stakeholders about what is within their remit to influence, as well as what is not up for negotiation, and what the reasons for this are. This helps to manage expectations and helps people to understand and accept those decisions which are a given and not negotiable.

Only by engaging stakeholders does change have a chance to be successful. Engagement of stakeholders with organizational change is ‘a must-do, not nice-to-have’, activity since there are clear benefits for the organization when people engage across functional and business unit boundaries in order to bring a range of perspectives and drive change and innovation.