Emotional intelligence: Necessary skill for engaging problematic stakeholders

guest column:Tororiro Isaac Chaza

In managing projects one encounters a spectrum of stakeholders from the executive sponsors, functional managers, project team members, vendors, partners, funders, auditors, governance overseers, regulators, users, clients and community representatives, to name but a few. These come with all sorts of skills, charismas, ranks, intellects, cultures, beliefs, biases, expectations and hence intentions. In order for the project to succeed, it is imperative to manage the engagement of this diverse set of individuals or groups with their expectations. Neglecting to do so might lead to project failure.

In this discourse, I seek to promote emotional intelligence (EQ) as a necessary leadership interpersonal skill for effective stakeholder engagement, especially in the project management field. Out of the spectrum of stakeholders, I particularly want to focus on the problematic ones. Then out of the spectrum of the problematic ones, I will zero in on the ones who exhibit what psychologists term as the “Dark Triad” traits, which is an encompassment of Machiavellian, narcissism, and psychopathic tendencies.

Later on I discuss a concept by some thought leaders who are promoting what they term Machiavellian intelligence (MI) as the new EQ. They state that we need a measure of this MI in order to survive and even rise in today’s corporate world. This may get you in a conundrum, which I hope to dispel.

Stakeholder engagement involves the processes of identifying the people, groups, or organisations that could impact or be impacted by the project, analysing their interests, involvement, influence, expectations and their impact on the project, and developing appropriate management strategies for effectively engaging them in project decisions and execution.

This certainly requires one to be equipped with EQ as the cornerstone of leadership soft-skills together with, inter alia, active listening, teamwork, motivation, assertiveness, communication, negotiation, conflict resolution, cultural awareness, and political awareness.

I have experienced project failure or highly stressed projects a number of times. If you have also encountered project failure, please take time and retrospect. I am certain you will find that, you as a project manager or sponsor, were casual in the area of stakeholder engagement and did not employ EQ to your advantage, and therefore some crafty stakeholders, especially of the vendor or supplier type, took advantage and trampled all over the project contract using legal ambiguities. At other times, it is an influential stakeholder aggressively pushing for near-impossible deadlines without proper analysis. Ultimately some projects do succeed after incurring huge costs of rework.

Let me dispense with the definitions so that everything becomes clear, hopefully. EQ is defined simply as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” Alternatively, “the ability to monitor one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour.” If anything, just remember that EQ is judicious (sensible) and empathetic (kind) in nature, and possession of it is a strength and not a weakness.

The “Dark Triad” is a construct which combines negative personality traits comprising Machiavellian, narcissism and psychopathy — https://www.psychologytoday.com/.

Firstly, it is said, “people with these traits tend to be callous and manipulative, willing to do or say practically anything to get their way.” That is the Machiavellian part as evidenced by the toxic behaviours based on Niccolo Machiavelli’s expose’ on leadership in his ‘infamous’ book, The Prince written around 1513 Anno Domini, in which he pens ‘dark’ counsel such as, “And here comes in the question whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved. It might perhaps be answered that we should wish to be both; but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.”

Secondly, “Dark Triad” people “have an inflated view of themselves and are often shameless about self-promotion.” That is the narcissism part, extracted from the Greek mythology about a man called Narcissus, who was so impossibly handsome that he tragically fell in love with his own image reflected in a pool of water. In self-absorption, he did not care about anyone else, nor did he care to do anything else except to gaze at his own image in the pool of water. He died of starvation and thirst as he could not move away from the pool, desiring to possess his own reflection in the water — www.ancient.eu/Narcissus/.

Thirdly, “these individuals are likely to be impulsive and may engage in dangerous behaviour — in some cases, even committing crimes — without any regard for how their actions affect others.” That is the psychopathic part. In an article “What makes a psychopath: the signs to look out for,” — https://metro.co.uk/, the writer lists traits such as, glib and superficial charm, cunning and manipulativeness, lack of remorse or guilt, and criminal versatility, among others.

Whilst psychologists claim that the “Dark Triad” traits overlap, I have observed that Machiavellian tendencies lead the other trait in the triad. If somebody is labeled Machiavellian, it means they have a tendency “characterized by subtle or unscrupulous cunning, deception, expediency, or dishonesty.” — www.dictionary.com.

Expediency is an apt definition of Machiavellian disposition as follows, “the quality of being convenient and practical despite possibly being improper or immoral,” — www.lexico.com, or “self-interest, possibly at the expense of doing what’s right,” — www.vocabulary.com. This can be gleaned in Machiavelli’s callous and devious counsel such as, “Men are either to be kindly treated, or utterly crushed, since they can revenge lighter injuries, but not graver. Wherefore the injury we do to a man should be of a sort to leave no fear of reprisals.” This explains the brutality of Machiavellian leadership.

Let us then deliberate on how does one practically employ EQ to transcend the “Dark Triad” cohorts in stakeholder engagement? There are various tools for stakeholder analysis, but I particularly like to use the three-dimensional stakeholder cube for first pass analysis. The stakeholder cube uses the three axes and two states within each axis, for example power (influential or insignificant), interest (active or passive), and attitude (backer or blocker). The result is eight typologies of stakeholder combinations (eight corners of a cube). Of the eight typologies I will only prioritise and focus on mainly two most influential, which are the active, influential blocker, and the active, influential backer — https://mosaicprojects.wordpress.com/.

An individual or group profiled as active, influential blockers are bad for your project. This type of stakeholder will actively oppose your project and have power to sabotage the project for their own politics. You need EQ to discern the intentions of such, and craft the requisite engagement strategy to either woo them onto supporting the project or if that is not possible, to counter or mitigate their negative influence and hence impact.

On the other extreme, an individual or group profiled as active influential backers are a champion of the project and can be courted to use their power of influence to promote the project among other stakeholders, and hence maximize their positive impact.

Please note, I advise that the stakeholder cube is used as first pass analysis. It is best to prioritise the stakeholders using the cube and then do a second pass analysis to bring out other issues that may pertain the “Dark Triad” traits. For instance, even an active, influential backer may abuse his/her position as he/she may have Machiavellian expediency despite being a champion for your project.

Such a person may tend towards toxic behaviour, for instance, expediently micromanaging, or pushing for unreasonable deadlines, or constantly changing scope for his/her own gain. This would certainly jeopardise the project. The strategy of engagement of such is to maximize his/her support as a champion but subdue the toxic behaviour
If you detect any dishonesty, immorality or deviousness, from either the blockers or backers, it is best to expose it, but with caution. Even, the Machiavellian active, influential backer with psychopathic tendencies may be as ruthless as a Mafia don when exposed. Take heed and act wisely as you may soon find out as Machiavelli observes, “Politics have no relation to morals,” even corporate politics may come to that.

But alas, that is not all. There is another unsettling angle to this discussion. There are some thought leaders who are agitating for a concept termed Machiavellian Intelligence (acronymed MI), as the new EQ. This muddies the leadership skills debate. Authors Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford’s book Machiavellian Intelligence; How to survive and rise in the modern corporation attempt to portray the necessity of high MI for survival and rising in the corporate world. They argue that many hard-working and talented executives are disadvantaged by their tendency not to deploy MI in their own working lives.

This may cause you to be in a conundrum as I alluded to earlier. The MI promoters go on to state that some leaders may have good leadership skills but fail to maximize their career potential because of a number of instinctive good habits — things that make them highly effective executives, well-liked and respected by their colleagues, but which are not best designed to progress their careers to the next level. In other words, ‘nice’ people get trumped by ‘bad’ people.

Machiavelli puts it this way, “Everyone understands how praiseworthy it is for a prince to remain true to his word and to live with complete integrity without any scheming.” That is the good and empathetic part. But wait, here comes the dangerous counterpoint, “However, we’ve seen through experience how many princes in our time have achieved great things who have little cared about keeping their word and have shrewdly known the skill of tricking the minds of men; these princes have overcome those whose actions were founded on honesty and integrity.” So, how can one promote Machiavellian empathy? Or shall we call it coercive empathy? Or deceptive kindness? Or manipulative sensibility? I am struggling to comprehend it, as it is an oxymoronic idea.

If we were to agree with the observation about the corporate world above, then we would conclude that the leadership in the corporate world is fraught with scheming, manipulative executives who can sideline honesty and integrity for the sake of expediency. Don’t shoot me. I am only the messenger. I must add that most executives I know are men and women of honesty and integrity. But of course we cannot rule out that now and again we meet up with some “Dark Triad” bad apples. Nevertheless we ought to employ EQ among other soft-skills, to come up with strategies on how to subjugate these ‘bad apple’ stakeholders. Sun Tzu bluntly puts it as “To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.”

As an aside, the caveat is this, while Machiavelli is mainly focused on politics, this is not a discussion about political leadership, but about leadership in any social organization. However it is purported that most world (political and military) leaders study and apply Machiavelli’s expedient counsel. In short, you have to conceptualise the idea of a leader being ‘bad’ in order to preserve ‘good’ for self-preservation and supposedly for the safety of the public, a counterintuitive notion. Machiavelli asserts, “Princes and governments are far more dangerous than other elements within society.” There you have it.

Another of Machiavelli’s ‘dark’ observations is “Men rise from one ambition to another: first, they seek to secure themselves against attack, and then they attack others.” But my simple conclusion is EQ must be used to discern such “dark” traits. Having discerned these traits we must know how to counter and subdue them, otherwise we will let the Machiavellian, narcissistic psychopaths run rampant and ruin our projects and our peace. Also, as part of using EQ effectively, I urge you to turn it onto yourself and introspect so that you may discern the “Dark Triad” traits in you and manage (subdue) them. In other words choose to be kind and sensible rather than, manipulative and dishonest. I trust I have rescued you from the conundrum.

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