Fear & Anxiety in Stakeholderland

A common topic that comes up in my design leadership coaching is a difficult relationship with a senior stakeholder. For design folks, used to opining about design to design peers or reports, it can feel like senior leadership not only doesn’t get it, but are actively hostile to design in the organisation, that they don’t understand how and why designers may need to work differently from other parts of the organisation, nor how to leverage the impact design could have if only the team were given the chance.

I’m guessing the above scenario sounds familiar to many of you. There is a rude awakening that design leaders often experience, so used to thinking of design as self-evidently A Good Thing™. It’s that many senior leadership don’t care about design at all. They may even see it as a pointless waste of resources.

Take a deep breath. It’s not that bad.

What they do care about is the impact and outcomes design can have.

Trying to force-feed stakeholders the design process message can make things worse. They have plenty of other things they are focused on, in the same way as you’re focused on raising the quality of the design work and applying its particular lens.

I have found a useful reframe of this comes from what initially feels like a negative place. I believe the world of work is laced with fear and anxiety. Stowe Boyd, among others, have written a great deal about why we’ve ended up so beholden to work and bosses (some of my thoughts are here and here), so I won’t cover it here. My thesis is that starting from the view that your stakeholder is full of fear and anxiety is not a negative viewpoint, but an empathetic one that will help you navigate those—and many other—relationships.

Few people act negatively for the sake of it. It’s a central tenet of storytelling that the antagonist’s actions are coherent within their worldview. Darth Vader wasn’t just an evil villain for no reason. Not only did his love turn to hate, then to anger, revenge and the dark side (as Yoda reminds us), but the bad deeds are justified because they will bring order—and ultimately peace—to the universe. A universe he feels he is the right person to be the leader of. It is an all too common political trope in our present day.

While managing upwards to Vader is likely to end with a tight collar, you are, hopefully, in a physically safer space[^1] When senior leadership are not supporting or even blocking your requests for more design resources or for design to be more involved in strategy, for example, ask yourself what they are afraid of and anxious about. Why is the need for speed so pressing? Is this a real or an arbitrary deadline? (Spoiler: all deadlines are arbitrary.)

This achieves two mindset shifts. It helps you see that stakeholder as a human being and one that has just as many anxieties, hopes and fears as you do. It also helps you hone in on what that stakeholder might really want or need. You focus on the need behind the behaviour rather than the behaviour itself (which might ring bells for those of you who have done design research).

Once you have a better sense of their hopes and fears, you can position the outcome or impact of what you’re trying to achieve through design activities relating to those hopes and fears. This is most often connected to business growth, costs or risk, but stakeholders are people, too, who may have personal or career goals you can help them with.

Many of design’s requests are about going slow now to go fast in the right direction later. Framing your request as de-risking or avoiding wasted time and effort connects with those fears and anxieties far more than “we need more design research” will, because many stakeholders might not fully understand what design research is.

This way you connect with the human, hitch your need to theirs and progress together.

(If you’re interested in exploring coaching with me, get in touch here.)

Photo by Tom Fisk

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