Hide table of contents

This is from my blog Said Twice, where I write advice that I've said twice. I was unsure whether to linkpost here but decided to do so given that it's largely based on my experiences from running EA Norway from 2018-2021!


As much as you can, try to underpromise when making commitments and then do your best to pleasantly surprise.

Here are the two main takeaways I want you to get from this post:

  1. You have a certain amount of credits with your stakeholders, that can be spent or earned depending on whether you break or meet expectations.
  2. As a general rule, when it comes to managing expectations with stakeholders it’s better to underpromise and overdeliver.

When thinking about stakeholder management, I’ve found it useful to imagine my relationships with my stakeholders as consisting of some number of ‘credits’ that can be earned and spent. You earn credits by delivering on time, being helpful, and signalling certain virtues (like seeming professional, transparent, and kind). You spend credits when you break a promise, don’t deliver on time, seem uncharitable, show up late, and so on.

In this context, by stakeholder I mean someone (individual, group of people, organisation, or community) that is affected by or can affect your organisation. The type of stakeholders I’m most used to are users of a product, community members, funders or donors, collaborators, and contractors or companies that provide a service. 

The value of these credits isn’t always obvious. Some are pretty easy to see, like whether a funder approves your application, whether an organisation chooses to partner with you, and whether someone chooses to work with you. However, sometimes the value of having a good relationship (or a positive balance) with a stakeholder is less clear and might only become apparent later on. 

 

Whose credits matter the most

Some stakeholders are more important than others, and therefore more important to make sure you keep a positive credit balance with. To know which is which, there are multiple tools you can use to map out your stakeholders. 

A common tool is Mendelow’s matrix, also called the power-interest matrix. In this matrix, your stakeholders can be mapped across two axes: How much power they have over your organisation, and how much interest they have in your work.

A matrix with interest on the x axis and power on the y axis. There are four boxes. On the top left is “Keep satisfied, top right is “Manage closely”, bottom left is “Monitor”, and bottom right is “Keep informed”.

The idea is roughly that the more interest the stakeholders have in your work, the more time you should spend on keeping them informed. The more power they have over your organisation, the more you should ensure they’re satisfied with your work. The stakeholders that are both highly interested and have a lot of power are the most important ones, and whose credits matter the most.

It’s important to be aware of who your stakeholders are and how important they actually are to your organisation. If you don’t, you can end up spending too much time closely managing or getting input from stakeholders who you should actually just monitor and keep track of. 

The idea is roughly that the more interest the stakeholders have in your work, the more time you should spend on keeping them informed. The more power they have over your organisation, the more you should ensure they’re satisfied with your work. The stakeholders that are both highly interested and have a lot of power are the most important ones, and whose credits matter the most.

It’s important to be aware of who your stakeholders are and how important they actually are to your organisation. If you don’t, you can end up spending too much time closely managing or getting input from stakeholders who you should actually just monitor and keep track of. 

 

How to earn credits

What actions earn you credits with your stakeholder, and what actions reduce your ‘credit score’ will differ from stakeholder to stakeholder. If you have the option, you should find out what they value and think is important in your relationship. 

However, there are some general heuristics that apply to many types of stakeholders. The most important heuristic, in my view, is to underpromise and overdeliver. 

By underpromising, I mean things like making few commitments and setting longer deadlines than you think it would take. By committing to a few things and having longer time than you think you need, you increase the chance of fulfilling those commitments and delivering on time. The next level after that is exceeding the stakeholders’ expectations by providing higher quality work, doing more things than you said you would, and delivering ahead of schedule.

People who know exactly how many things they can do and how long it takes them are rare. Two things that make it difficult are the want to please others and seem impressive, and planning fallacy. 

Committing to too many things, or saying yes to everything is a bear favour both to you and your stakeholder. It feels like the right thing to do, and the thing that will make your stakeholder happy with you. That might be true in the short run, but not in the long run when you commit to too many things and the stakeholder stops trusting you’ll do what you say you’ll do. When a stakeholder no longer trusts you, it can be even harder to regain the credits you’ve lost. 

The key trait you’re trying to optimise for and signal to your stakeholder is reliability, that you do what you say you will do, by the time you say you’ll do it. It sounds simple, but it’s harder than it looks. It’s also very valuable in stakeholder relationships, and a trait many employers look for in their employees.

I’ve found it helpful to either make it clear to myself what I want to commit to ahead of a meeting, or only commit to things after meetings in writing. To mitigate planning fallacy, I try to plan as if I’ll have lower productivity than average. This requires tracking roughly how many projects or tasks I can do when I have less productive days. It’s hard because I’m so optimistic about what my future self can do. The saying I use to remind myself of this is “I’ll plan for who I was yesterday, not who I think I’ll be tomorrow”. 

 

Here are some other general heuristics when trying to earn credits with your stakeholders:

The more you communicate with the stakeholder, the more opportunities you have to earn credits, but also lose them.

In particular, the frequency of communication should match the stakeholders’ expectations and interests. Someone who’s not very interested in your organisation per Mendelow’s matrix illustrated above should as a general rule not receive very frequent updates. 

Stakeholders that have a high interest in your organisation will want frequent communication, and the more power they have over you the more important it is to make sure you communicate with care.

 

Uncertainty reduces your credit score. 

You earn credits by communicating clearly, you lose credits by being vague and elusive. This could mean giving your stakeholder an easy way to get an overview of what you’re planning on doing, what the agreed-upon deadlines are, and how much progress you’ve made. This can be as simple as just having a shared document with the agreed-upon objectives and deadlines that you update weekly, or sending regular updates that it’s clear they don’t need to respond to.

 

Having your own voice makes it easier to assign credits to you.

If a lot of organisations share the same stakeholders, you might need to work harder to be memorable and have your stakeholder notice you. I don’t feel very experienced in this, and am sure there are a lot of useful lessons here in marketing and communications.

To start, I recommend making it explicit what your communication style is and what impression you want to make, and then identify ways to ensure you incorporate that in everything you write and say to your stakeholder.

An example from EA Norway: My assistant director and I were very deliberate in how we communicated with external parties, in particular to other national EA groups and the Centre for Effective Altruism, our main funder at the time. The impression we wanted to make was “EA Norway is a professional organisation that gets things done”. 

To achieve this, we did things like making sure every document we shared externally had our font and logo, sending out meeting agendas ahead of time, and making sure to note down todos from meetings and always follow up on them. 

Here are some things I do personally:

To be more personable, I try to share more of myself in emails and particularly in meetings. When we do the obligatory “How are you?” at the beginning of a meeting, instead of responding “I’m fine”, I try to say something specific about my day or life currently, ideally something positive. To make it more concrete, here are things I’ve responded to “How are you?” in meetings and job interviews:

  • “Great, I just got back from my daily walk listening to a new album by one of my favourite artists”
  • “Winter sports will finally be back this weekend, and I’m getting excited to watch it!”
  • “I’ve had a great start to my morning -- the sun is out and I learned that one of my favourite authors has published a new book”

It might feel a bit cringe and oversharing, but I find that it gives the other person hooks to hang pieces of me onto. The example responses above also make it easy for the other person to respond to what I’m saying, e.g. by asking who my favourite artist or author is, or what winter sports I’m watching (the answer is almost always biathlon, by the way).

Similarly, I try to be congruent in how I say things verbally and how I write. This is something I’m currently practising (e.g. through writing these blog posts!). For me, this usually looks like being warm and friendly in my emails, such as saying thank you and using exclamation points. 

Ultimately, I think being more personable and thoroughly communicating in your own voice increases the chance of your stakeholder giving you the benefit of the doubt. The idea is that the closer you are to someone, the more likely it is that they’ll be charitable to you. Returning to the imagery of credits, I think being more friendly and personable both earns you credits and makes it harder to lose credits with that particular stakeholder.
 

47

0
0

Reactions

0
0

More posts like this

Comments5
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:42 AM

Here's one challenge to your (convincing!) post: One of the only ways I get anything done in life is by promising it to someone and then being held accountable. What I achieve depends on what I promise -- there are no independently "realistic deadlines" for me. However, I usually don't achieve it by the date I promise. If I promise it by February, I get it done by March. But it wouldn't help if I promised it by March. In that case, I would just achieve it by April. 

While I'm exaggerating a bit to make my point clear, the upshot is that even though I agree with your reasoning, I'm still not sure I should underpromise --- because it would just mean I achieve less? Overpromising is one of my only ways of making me move forward.

I'm similar in some aspects: There are some things I find so boring or difficult to do that I need external accountability to do them.

In these cases, however, I wouldn't use the stakeholder to hold me accountable, but rather a colleague, friend, or other mechanism. 

In fact, there are some instances where you want to be ambitious and say you'll do more than you think you do, e.g. when setting goals for yourself. However, I think that can backfire if you do it with a stakeholder.

Does that make sense?

Thanks, that is a word of wisdom. I'll have to practice this!

I was going to make the same comment as Dominic. This is a great tip! Overpromise with friends, underpromise with stakeholders.

Executive summary: The author argues that when interacting with stakeholders, it is best to underpromise what you can deliver and then aim to overdeliver by exceeding expectations. This builds trust and reliability over time.

Key points:

  1. Imagine you have a balance of "credits" with each stakeholder that can go up or down based on meeting or failing expectations.
  2. Prioritize keeping credits high with your most important stakeholders per a power/interest matrix.
  3. Build credits by underpromising what you can deliver, then aim to overdeliver. This signals reliability over time.
  4. Set realistic deadlines, limit commitments, and communicate clearly to manage expectations.
  5. Customize communication frequency and style to each stakeholder's preferences.
  6. Be personable and convey your unique voice to make a memorable impression.

 

 

This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.

More from eirine
Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities