Whether you’re a corporate senior executive for an ASX 100 company or just getting started in your career, you’ll inevitably encounter situations where your success hinges on collaborating effectively with a stakeholder who seems to rub you the wrong way. This stakeholder might be a board member, an investor, your boss, a team member, or a significant influencer with whom you simply have to interact. Just the mere idea of interacting with this person might start a mini-movie in your head filled with scenes of frustration, exhaustion, and a series of “ugh!” moments.
The dilemma intensifies even more when this person holds a significant position, wields influence or power over you, or it’s someone you have to frequently interact with to build a positive rapport.
Adopting a mindset of collaboration with stakeholders – yes, even the particularly tough ones – is absolutely pivotal when it comes to moving forward in a successful career. Now, let’s clear something up right away: I’m not saying you need to keep everyone perpetually pleased or ecstatic – if you’ve figured out how to do that, let’s chat, because I surely haven’t!
What I am talking about here is the art of navigating tough conversations and tricky situations. It’s about learning the terrain of ‘conflict’, knowing when to stand your ground, and how to choose the battles that will help propel you to success.
Based on my conversations with the women who come through my RISE Programs, you may find a key stakeholder challenging to engage with for the following reasons:
We all have a personal checklist for what we need in our work environment: the freedom to work autonomously, to be respected, to be appreciated, and to feel included. When we feel like we’re being micromanaged, blindsided, undervalued, or left out in the cold, it’s no surprise that we react. Some stakeholders just seem to have a knack for pushing our buttons with their interaction style or behaviour, clashing with our most crucial needs like oil and water. It’s like they’re dancing to a different tune and stepping on our toes along the way.
We each have our own compass guiding our judgement of others. Many of the women I coach, for instance, assess others based on their intellect (are they sharp or dull?), mastery (do they dive deep or skim the surface?), work ethic (are they diligent or slack?), communication style (do they articulate clearly or preach?), fairness (do they play fair or not?), and so on. When a key stakeholder doesn’t line up with our basic expectations, it’s easy to cast them in a negative light. And if that person has a say in our success, their power over us can really ruffle our feathers.
Studies also reveal that we tend to harbour unconscious biases against individuals who we perceive as different from us or not belonging to our ‘group’.
Mastering the art of steering these high-tension relationships towards smooth sailing is a must-have skill in the toolkit of any senior leader – in fact, a study by Mayer, J. D., Roberts, R. D., & Barsade, S. G. found that leaders with high emotional intelligence were more adept at managing their own emotions and the emotions of others, which leads to better collaboration and success.
When a difficult stakeholder triggers a reaction from you, it’s easy to let emotions take the wheel, make impromptu decisions, and allow a dark cloud of negativity to hover over your other interactions, potentially raining on your parade of successful outcomes. And here’s the kicker, you might also be unintentionally turning a blind eye to the unique value this stakeholder could bring to your brilliant career journey!
Now, I’m certainly not suggesting have to be best friends with all your stakeholders. No, your mission is to set any personal biases on the shelf, wrestle those personal triggers into submission, and collaborate constructively with all stakeholders for the ultimate win. So, how do we go about this? Let’s dive in.
Remember, your reactions, judgements, and irritations are about you, not them. Taking ownership of your triggers is the first step towards managing them effectively.
Try to adopt an ‘all for one, one for all’ approach and engage everyone in the collective journey towards product success. Keep the end goal in sight and sprinkle reminders of it in your communications. It’s your secret weapon for navigating those tricky moments when you and your stakeholders seem to be reading different maps.
Actively work towards neutralising negative thoughts and emotions, focusing less on the stakeholder in question. Practice recognising your triggers, understanding their root cause, viewing the bigger picture, and deciding not to let these triggers dictate your behaviour.
While working on the emotional intelligence skills of self-management, empathy, and broader relationship management, also work on other short-term strategies.
Some strategies might include mental rehearsals of high-stakes interactions, inviting de-escalating participants to meetings, providing constructive feedback, and optimising the overall logistics of the interaction.
Why are you in this leadership role? What’s the meaning behind your work? What impact do you have when you’re at your best? How do you want to be perceived to align with your mission? Keeping these questions in mind will help you stay deeply connected to your mission – and
If you’re imagining that being a super-communicator with a sixth sense for understanding your stakeholders’ diverse perspectives means you can dodge all conflicts – well, let’s hit the pause button right there. Your role isn’t just about managing, it’s about mediating. It’s about guiding your stakeholders towards consensus. Trust me, conflicts have a knack for popping up, regardless of how perfectly you’ve previously handled situations.
Rather than treating conflict like an uninvited guest, why not set the table for it? Be prepared to mediate and find resolutions. It’s all about creating a safe zone where everyone can pitch their opinions, and each argument gets its time under the spotlight.
To manage your biases and triggers, activate your empathy and build a neutral narrative about the person. Ask what value they might bring and how their experiences, contributions, and opinions can be beneficial.
REMEMBER, when dealing with challenging stakeholders, it’s not just about managing these relationships – it’s equally about managing your own reactions and emotions. This presents a golden opportunity for you to evolve, not only as a leader but also as an individual. It’s a chance to fine-tune your emotional intelligence, to build resilience, and to enhance your ability to navigate complex, high-stakes situations. Embrace it!
I know this journey may seem daunting, but you’re not alone. I’ve coached thousands of women who, just like you, navigate these waters and emerge stronger, wiser, and more capable than they ever thought possible. It’s all about taking that first step, acknowledging that there’s room for growth, and committing to personal and professional development.
If you’re ready to dive deeper and truly catapult your career to new heights, I invite you to check out the RISE Accelerate Program. The program is designed to empower women in leadership with the strategies, tools, and mindset necessary to not just survive, but thrive in their careers. I’d love to see you there.