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Cartoon Villain Or Just Misunderstood? : Don’t Judge a Stakeholder By Their Actions Alone

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Defining and implementing change is an inherently human endeavour, and working closely with stakeholders is a crucial part of the BA role.  Different stakeholders will, quite naturally, have different perspectives on the various situations that we find ourselves trying to change and improve.   This will be no surprise to anyone reading this blog—I am certain we’ve all worked in situations where there has been stakeholder disagreement and we’ve probably all worked with individuals who seem to have ulterior motives.

When analysing the stakeholder landscape it’s very tempting to start assessing stakeholders by their actions.  This may seem a completely logical approach, after all as the saying goes “actions speak louder than words”.    

The trouble is that people are somewhat more complex than we might imagine, and if we judge people by their actions alone, without speaking with them to gain their perspective, then we risk making assumptions that may prove to be completely wrong.  “Ah, that stakeholder is rejecting all of my meeting requests therefore they must be completely uninterested in the project.” Well that might be true; equally they might be swamped with work, recovering from a long-term illness or balancing some other urgent non-work tasks alongside their project obligations.  Just because something is possible and maybe even plausible doesn’t mean it’s accurate.

Beware The ‘Cartoon Villain’

It’s very easy to get drawn into creating a ‘cartoon villain’.  Perhaps you’ve experienced this, a stakeholder who just seems to be so obstructive all of the time and everything they do is just so… well… irritating.  The danger here is that we end up viewing their actions through our own ‘lens’.  We are interpreting their actions and ascribing meaning to them, and that meaning might not be what was intended at all.  And if we are expecting them to be obstructive and annoying, perhaps we’ll predispose ourselves to finding them that way…

Let’s take a curve-ball example. Imagine you receive a birthday card from a friend, it arrives two days early and has a second-class postage stamp on it.  You might attribute significance to the fact that a second class stamp has been used.

“Wow, what an insult… they don’t even think I’m worth the cost of a first class stamp”

Yet the reality might be that they are super-organised, have your birthday in their diary system and send the card early to ensure it’s on time—they really care.  Or it might be that they only had second class stamps at the grocery store when they went to buy them.  Without speaking to them, it’s hard to know… but as humans we seem to delight in creating stories about what other humans have done and why they have done it!

Understand The ‘Backstory’: People Usually Have A Reason

OK, so in a business situation we probably wouldn’t be fussing over stamps but we might observe other actions and attribute some kind of motivation or intent to them which may or may not be true.

I can only speak from personal experience, but when it comes to work-life I have tended to find that people usually have a genuine reason for doing things, and sometimes one that an observer may not have known or expected. People are juggling different priorities both inside and outside work, and viewing individual actions out of context can lead us to assume things that are way off the mark. Someone rejecting meetings, constantly turning up late or failing to deliver on time might have a range of pressures, and only by understanding a relevant portion of this ‘backstory’ will we be able to begin to understand what is going on.  

There’s a Threshold: Call Out The Unacceptable

However, there are limits.  Actions that are ‘toxic’ or cause harm or distress to others however well-intended should be called out and escalated.  As analysts working on the ground, we often meet a lot of people and have a unique insight into how people are actually treated.  It is ethically imperative that we call out anything which crosses the threshold of acceptability.

In summary: Stakeholder analysis is a complex discipline requiring us to get to know the views and perspectives of those interested, involved and affected in a problematical situation.  It’s important that we don’t project our own values and expectations onto the actions of our stakeholders—else we might make dangerous conclusions!

What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!

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About the author:

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit

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4 thoughts on “Cartoon Villain Or Just Misunderstood? : Don’t Judge a Stakeholder By Their Actions Alone”

  1. I think this is a critical piece of writing Adrian. The lens through which we look may not have the right prescription to see the whole situation with clarity. A wrong reaction without more critical analysis may well lead to the wrong response because the lens is formed from previous experiences rather than the current situation/ complication. I have to check myself, be patient, dig deeper, persevere and think about my intent before responding. Less is definitely more when I delay my actions. Only when clear patterns of rejected engagement are repeatedly demonstrated can tangible signs of toxic behaviour be detected. Then and only then can a decision be made to use time more fruitfully in alternative more productive ways.

    1. Thanks Trevor, I like your analogy of the lens having a “prescription”, that’s a nice metaphor. Sometimes we consciously set that “prescription”, but sometimes others set it for us, and sometimes it emerges out of our experience…. Hmm… Interesting!

      Totally agree about pausing too. Hard to do, but essential. 😃

      Thanks again for your comment and I hope you enjoyed the article!

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