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Is Stakeholder Resistance All In Your Head?

Contributor: Mary Federico
Posted: 06/20/2011
Mary Federico
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Trying to improve your organization but bumping up against a brick wall? Got a few snipers trying to derail all your hard work? It might be all in your head, argues Mary Federico, an expert in organizational behaviour. We tend to blame or resent stakeholders when we believe they are resisting, she writes, but maybe we should start by examining our own assumptions instead.

Have you come to these conclusions about any of your stakeholders?

  • They don’t appreciate how important the project is, and how much they’ll benefit
  • They refuse to give up resources or spend any time on the project
  • They don’t want to listen to what the data is telling them, even when it’s obvious
  • They’re rigid and set in their ways and will never change voluntarily

If you believe these to be true, you’ll probably find yourself spending a lot of time and effort describing benefits and pleading for resources. You’ll explain the data…again. You’ll try to convince stakeholders that "change is good." When none of that works, you’ll tell colleagues that you could be making so much more progress if only you didn’t have to deal with all this resistance.

But what if your conclusions don’t reflect reality?

And what if a good part of the stakeholder problem is in your own head? What if there’s something about the way you think – the way we all think – that’s preventing you from understanding your stakeholders?

"Cognitive Biases" Distort Our Thinking

We all have faulty ways of thinking that prevent us from understanding the world around us. These "cognitive biases" are like blinders that that they stop us from seeing certain things. And they are like filters in that they color how we interpret what we do see.

What makes such biases particularly challenging to deal with is that a) we all have them, and b) they operate outside our conscious awareness. Scientists believe that these ways of thinking were probably helpful earlier in our history as a species. But they are not always well-suited to the complexities of the modern world.

When our biases stop us from understanding our stakeholders, our ability to influence is reduced. Best case, we waste time pursuing ineffective strategies that don’t get us the cooperation we want. Worst case, we damage relationships.

The list of cognitive biases is (alas!) quite long. But this article focuses on just one: The Fundamental Attribution Error. If you can avoid this very common bias, you will have more effective interactions with your project stakeholders.

Person vs. Situation

Human behavior is affected by elements that fall into two broad categories:

  • "Person" elements. These include personality, preferences, motivations, culture, intelligence, past experience, language, religion, etc. These affect an individual’s behavior across many different situations.
  • "Situation" elements. These include company culture, colleagues, rewards, roles, goals, family issues, workload, current events, leadership decisions, the effect of organizational changes, available information, policies, etc. These affect an individual’s behavior on a case-by-case basis.

We make the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) when we overestimate the effect of person elements on a stakeholder’s behavior, and underestimate the effect of situation elements.

For example, you may have a stakeholder who is not supporting what is obviously (to you) a necessary and positive change. Why is he acting this way?

The FAE could have you believe that the stakeholder is withholding support on purpose, because he’s "afraid of change" or has a "rigid personality." And yet it’s just as (or more) likely that situation elements play a major role in the behavior.

For example, it may be that the stakeholder:

  • Is being formally or informally rewarded for a goal that is not aligned with that of the project
  • Rightly perceives that he is going to lose status or control if the project moves ahead
  • Doesn’t have enough information to evaluate the project and thus sees it as a waste of time

Rather than being afraid or rigid (person elements) the stakeholder could be reacting in a rational way to the situation elements of misaligned goals, potential loss, and lack of information.

We usually don’t know the details of a stakeholder’s situation. So it’s easier to conclude that person elements are causing the behavior. And obviously there are times when a stakeholder’s behavior is related primarily to personality or personal motives.

But if that’s where you start, what’s your next move?

You can’t change person elements. So you’re left with either removing the stakeholder or working around him. Sometimes that’s a possible and sensible approach.

But more often it’s neither. You can end up alienating that stakeholder and others who may resent what you’re doing. Further, you won’t have a chance to try potentially helpful strategies, such as aligning project and stakeholder goals, mitigating perceived loss, or giving the stakeholder more control and information.

So, what can you do instead?

Avoiding the Fundamental Attribution Error

Awareness is critical. The FAE raises its ugly head everywhere, so the first step is to recognize when you’re making (or about to make) the error. For example, you might be in peril if you assume that your stakeholder:

  • Wants to avoid more work vs.has an existing set of goals that require all his time and focus
  • Hates change vs.wants to stick with what he can do because the organization punishes failure
  • Cares only about his own performance and not the big picture vs. is operating in an organization that rewards competition instead of cooperation

Once you catch yourself, your next step is to stop yourself from making a negative judgment and substitute a more constructive way of thinking.

One possible way of doing so:

  1. When you encounter resistance behavior, don’t react. Instead, consider what might be causing it.
  2. Generate as long a list as possible – go for double digits – of potential reasons for the behavior.
  3. Consider: have you ever acted in a similar way? If so, why? Add those reasons to your list.
  4. Get more input from someone you trust who is not invested in your project.
  5. Review your list and cross off every person element. (If nothing’s left, go back to Step 1!)
  6. Focus on creating strategies to deal with the situation items that remain on your list.
  7. Don’t do this alone; get input from others on what might help.
  8. Before you decide to "work around" a stakeholder, ensure that you’ve made well-thought-out and good-faith attempts to deal with situation elements.

We tend to blame or resent stakeholders when we believe they are resisting. Instead, we should be looking inside ourselves! While you may not be imagining resistance behavior, the FAE can stop you from seeing the real reasons for it…and from creating and executing good strategies.

If you suspect that’s happening to you, it may be time to try something new. Pair up with a colleague on an ongoing basis, with a shared goal of eliminating the FAE from your stakeholder interactions. Get into the habit of examining your own thinking. Follow the steps listed above. And practice them over and over, until a new way of thinking becomes second nature.

Do this and you’ll have an easier time dealing with behavior you thought was person-driven, but is just a natural reaction to situation elements that you might be able to change.


Thank you, for your interest in Is Stakeholder Resistance All In Your Head?.
Mary Federico
Contributor: Mary Federico