There is always one stakeholder who will be happy if your project fails.Peter Bregman and Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, Harvard Business Review
I wish this maxim wasn’t true.
In my experience, it’s often who you least expect.
Something about your project or change effort threatens them.
To your face, they may tell you all of the right things.
How they will support you.
What they will do to help.
The proof is in their actions.
Are they doing what they said they were going to do?
Or are you hearing rumors and back-talk from third parties?
It gets stickier when the saboteur is a key stakeholder.
It’s at this point I start questioning whether I am in the correct environment.
Is there any sort of hook that I can use that will help?
Can I clearly articulate how it will help them in a way they understand?
Do I know what the threats to them (real OR perceived) are?
Can I avoid the stakeholder while the idea is still nascent and fragile?
Are there any other supports in the environment that I can leverage while I create quick wins for this change?
Or is my timing bad? Or am I in the wrong environment?
Do I need to abandon the change or walk away from the environment or get away from that person?
None of this is easy.
Yet, having a key stakeholder play saboteur is one of the biggest risks we have to any project.
What are you going to do to mitigate that risk?
Do you have the supports you need to deal with it?
I’ve been reflecting recently on dealing with executive saboteurs.
I’ll admit, I don’t have a great answer.
At a high-enough level and in a conservative-enough organization, the only option is to attempt to find supporters with that person’s ear OR who are high-enough that the saboteur is almost forced to listen.
We have to recognize that there are some people who just won’t listen because we don’t have the right title or we don’t look “right” (sexism, ageism, racism, other-ism all rear their ugly heads here). We are the wrong messenger.
We also have to recognize that there are some people so focused on their own agendas and power issues that no amount of logic, sales skills, or empathy will help.
Prioritization, fundamentally, has to be a team sport.
You can’t just ask a fall-guy to do the dirty work for you.
And you can’t take sole responsibility – especially if you are working at lower-levels in a traditionally hierarchical environment and have been told that you are “empowered” to make decisions with no (or limited) evidence that those decisions will be abided by upper management.
If you are placed in a position of having to say “no” to a high-level executive that won’t take “no” as an answer, make sure you are clear on the impact of saying “yes” and start recruiting allies.
You are going to learn how strong your support structure is very quickly.
Mark Goulson: Talking to Crazy (Amazon Affiliate Link) The best book I can think of for this scenario. That and recruiting help + air cover.