Overcoming Fear, Anxiety, and Mistrust to Gain Stakeholder Alignment
Most of us have encountered a situation like the following at some point in our careers: something either isn’t working right or could be working better. You’ve been through the process to understand the problem and identify solutions. (Check out my blog post “4 Steps to Efficiently Solve Problems” if you’re still working on understanding the problem.) Now it’s time to pick a solution—and you can’t get stakeholders to agree on one. Some of the stakeholders don’t even want a solution; they just want to keep doing what they’ve always done.
A lack of alignment among stakeholders can be a significant barrier to the success of any change initiative. Without support from stakeholders, it becomes much more likely that the change either won’t be implemented or won’t result in the desired outcomes. So why won’t stakeholders align on a solution?
Resistance to change is common when you’re trying to improve processes. How can you get stakeholders to agree on a new approach? The first step is to understand what’s behind their resistance or reluctance to implement changes.
In my experience, it typically boils down to three core reasons: fear, anxiety, and mistrust. Let’s look at each of these in detail and explore how to overcome them.
Fear can be perceived as a negative response, but it’s a natural survival mechanism. When you come face to face with a new situation or a situation where you’ve seen negative results in the past, you have an instinctive “fight or flight” response to it. It’s important to recognize fear isn’t something you can necessarily turn off—it’s a short-term, immediate reaction. It goes away once you’ve had a chance to absorb the situation and formulate a response. Given this, how can you address stakeholders’ fear?
A key step is to communicate the planned change as early as possible. This allows people time to have the natural fear response and move past it. It’s also important to communicate feedback on the change is important and it will be taken into consideration. This will help with the initial fear response by shifting the change from immediate to a planned one.
It’s vital for any feedback to truly be considered and for there to be a clear response to the feedback. Not all suggestions have to be incorporated into the planned change, but if the feedback isn’t acknowledged, it creates a new fear—that no one is listening. If your stakeholders don’t think you’re listening, they’ll stop talking to you, and the chances of alignment decrease fast.
Anxiety is the insidious brother to fear. It’s what takes root after the initial fear subsides. It’s the ongoing worry about how the change is going impact work, responsibilities, and the future. Because anxiety sticks around, it can be more difficult to manage than fear. It requires ongoing management with your stakeholders and might continue resurfacing over time.
Much of the anxiety around work-related change for stakeholders is tied to a few key items: the risk of failure and concerns about loss of power, control, or influence.
Anxiety about failure can be a major factor in inertia about adopting changes. The reasoning often goes, “If you don’t change anything, it won’t get any worse, right?” Communicating the recurrence of the same problem is also perceived as failure by leadership might help stakeholders overcome their anxiety about the planned change. It’s also important for sponsors of the change to communicate their support for the change and their understanding of any risks involved.
Anxiety about loss of power or control is sometimes tied to concerns about failure. “How can I be held responsible for the success of this change if I don’t have control?” Or it might just be resistance to the perception that they’ll “lose” something with the change. In this case, it’s important to communicate how the change benefits stakeholders. In rare cases, you might be able to use the “It’s for the greater good” argument. In my experience, though, you really have to tie it back to tangible things for the specific individual. (For example, “If we make this change to reduce support calls, your team won’t have to work weekends dealing with this issue.”)
Mistrust often manifests as a lack of commitment or agreement to the change from stakeholders, without clear explanations of why they don’t agree. A stakeholder might not have a specific reason to resist the change, but they’re worried there are hidden motivations for making the change. When this occurs, it often ties back to bad experiences the stakeholder has had in the past.
The best antidote to mistrust is clear communication about why the change is being made, what outcomes are expected, and how it impacts stakeholders. It’s also valuable to explore what happens if the outcomes aren’t as expected. Presenting this clearly, concisely, and in an open manner will help reassure stakeholders there isn’t a hidden agenda. Obviously, this requires you to be open and honest with all stakeholders. And, as noted above, accepting and incorporating feedback will help build trust.
Communication Is Key
You might have noticed communication comes up a lot throughout the sections above. Communication is really the cornerstone to getting stakeholders aligned and comfortable with any plans for change. Communicating the plans early and often enables stakeholders to get past their initial reactions. Listening and incorporating feedback as appropriate will keep the lines of communication open and help offset any trust issues.
The most important thing to communicate to stakeholders, though, is how the change will improve things. This needs to extend past just the benefits to the organization and dial in on how the change benefits the stakeholders directly. In general, people are open to change if the change is perceived as good for them. When you’re planning and implementing changes, you need to make sure you’re “connecting the dots” for all stakeholders. If you do this consistently, it will drive alignment with the change and result in happy, supportive stakeholders. And happy, supportive stakeholders lead to successful change initiatives that deliver the desired outcomes.
John Welch is the Chief Technology Officer at SentryOne, where he leads a team in the development of a suite of data and BI products that make monitoring, building, testing, and documenting data solutions faster and more efficient. John has been working with data, business intelligence, and data warehousing technologies since 2001. He was awarded as a Microsoft Most Valued Professional (MVP) 2009 - 2016 due to his commitment to sharing his knowledge with the IT community, and is an SSAS Maestro. John is an experienced speaker, having given presentations at Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS) conferences, the Microsoft Business Intelligence conference, Software Development West (SD West), Software Management Conference (ASM/SM), SQL Bits, and others. He has also contributed to multiple books on SQL Server and business intelligence.