31 January, 2022

Win Stakeholder Compliance: Use the 5 Paths to Stakeholder Persuasion

By Mike Clayton

Modern thinking about stakeholder engagement righty puts the emphasis on a balance between informing and listening to your stakeholders. But, the reality is that sometimes we do need to convince our stakeholders. Indeed, sometimes we need to win stakeholder compliance.

However, this is never easy. Not least because everyone is different. What convinces me may have little impact on you. So, what if we could divide people into types? And, what if there were some basic tips for convincing each type of stakeholder?

In this article, I want to share with you a powerful model developed by Robert Miller and Gary Williams. Although they developed their model in the context of sales, it exposes 5 types of decision-maker. Each one has their own pattern to how they respond to a message.

And, if you can tailor how you work to influence each stakeholder, you can optimize your chances to win stakeholder compliance. Miller and Williams identified five different types of decision-making styles. This led them to their 5 paths to persuasion. I will adapt this to working with stakeholders, and offer you 5 paths to stakeholder persuasion.

Essential Models for Project Managers
Win Stakeholder Compliance - Use the 5 Paths to Stakeholder Persuasion

How You Will Learn to Win Stakeholder Compliance

We’ll keep this article nice and simple. After a brief introduction, we’ll look at the 5 paths to stakeholder persuasion, for each type of decision-maker. We’ll see the characteristics of how each type thinks and therefore, the best ways to persuade them, and win their compliance.

We’ll end with a critical assessment of the 5 Paths to Persuasion Model.

Introduction to Miller & Williams’ 5 Paths to Persuasion

Miller Heiman and Winning Compliance in the Sales Process

Robert Miller helped to revolutionize ideas around selling.  With his then colleague, Stephen Heiman, he founded Miller Heiman Group, which became and remains one of the leading sales training organizations. The thinking that Miller and Heiman developed remains massively influential in sales training today. The focus of their Conceptual Selling approach is in managing all of the stakeholders to a complex sale. The task of the sales team is to build relationships that enable their three-step approach:

  1. Categorizing the different stakeholders by their influence on the sales process
  2. Determining each stakeholder’s level of support for your proposition.
  3. Influencing your stakeholders to support the concept of your solution to their problem

Miller & Williams: 5 Paths to Persuasion

Already, Miller’s focus was on influencing stakeholders. But of far more relevance to Project Managers is his second big idea, which he worked on with Gary Williams.

Miller left the Heiman Miller business in 1984. After a number of other ventures, he collaborated with Gary Williams to create a customer research consultancy, Miller-Williams Inc. It was here that they conducted the research we’re interested in.

Together, Miller and Williams also surveyed around 1,684 executives to learn how they make decisions. This research led to the much reprinted 2002 Harvard Business Review article, ‘Change the Way You Persuade’, and their 2004 book, ‘The 5 Paths to Persuasion: The Art of Selling Your Message’.

They found that, if you want to sell your message, you need to tailor the way you deliver it. And your tailoring will depend on the way they make decisions. Knowing how to do that is not useful only to salespeople. It is a powerful toolset for Project Managers, who need to sell ideas and to stakeholders.

Outline of the 5 Paths to Persuasion

In their study, Miller and Williams found a consistent pattern of five readily distinguished decision-making styles.  In their book, they use these as a foundation for Situational Persuasion. This is the adaptation of your persuasion style to the situation. When you need to win stakeholder compliance, evaluate your options for how you can adapt your influencing approach to the style of the decision-maker.

Here is a summary of the five decision-making styles:

  • Charismatics
    … who are captivated by new ideas, yet rely on others to understand the details
    c.25% of the survey population
    Attitude to risk: Risk accepting
  • Thinkers
    … who will systematically examine each ramification of every alternative
    c.11% of the survey population
    Attitude to risk: Risk averse
  • Followers
    … who want to be sure somebody else whom they trust has tested the idea successfully first
    c.36% of the survey population
    Attitude to risk: Risk averse
  • Skeptics
    … who really only trust their own instincts and want every assertion validated
    c.19% of the survey population
    Attitude to risk: Risk accepting
  • Controllers
    … who like to feel in control and will only adopt ideas they themselves have generated
    c.9% of the survey population
    Attitude to risk: Strongly risk averse

Miller and Williams found that around 80% of sales proposals focus on the needs of skeptics and controllers (who are risk-averse and need to be convinced of the verity of the data). Yet these styles account for only about 28% of the sample of executives.

Note that Miller and Williams defined styles of decision-making. These are not the same as personality traits and they did no work on relating the two.

Using the 5 Paths to Persuasion to Win Stakeholder Compliance

Whether you are trying to convince people of your ideas, negotiate, or get people to comply with your priorities, you need to adapt to the other person’s decision-making style. You need to:

  1. identify what it is, and then 
  2. tailor your approach to fit

This gives us Miller and Williams’ five paths to persuasion. We’ll look at them in detail in the sections below.

How to Win Stakeholder Compliance from Charismatics

Charismatics are prepared to take a risk, as long as the potential benefit is sufficiently enticing. But they are not gamblers; they will scrutinize your proposal with care. If they do adopt it, they will commit one hundred percent.  They will come across as dominant, charismatic, and enthusiastic. And, while they can think quickly, they often reserve the right to consider their options for a while.

Charismatics are very much results-oriented and will focus on the long-term. They are also able to focus hard for long periods. So, persuade them with a calm discussion of potential risks and rewards, with your assessment of likelihoods. But, when you do, use simple, straightforward language, rather than overwhelming them with jargon. They are confident of their own ability to understand, so will distrust what they may see as attempts to ‘blind them with science’. They often like visual aids like diagrams, maps, and graphs.

Top Tactics to Persuade Charismatics

  • Focus on results, benefits and controls.
  • Start with the big picture and key information, but be ready with details.
  • Keep it real – being overly conceptual will cause doubts.
  • Let them drive the discussion with their questions and ideas.
  • Don’t labour a point – if they say they’ve got it, move on.
  • Don’t rush them – they will decide, but in their own time.
  • Use words like action, focus, results, benefits, convenient, straightforward.
  • Visual aids and visual language will often appeal to them.

Magic Words to Drop in

Easy, Clear, Proven, Action, Results, Show, Watch, Focus.

How to Win Stakeholder Compliance from Thinkers

Thinkers, as their label suggests, are cerebral, intelligent, and logical. They like to do their research, they read widely, and are comfortable with numbers, processes, and proofs.

Thinkers are hard work to influence, because their personal preference for logic and facts means that they avoid the short-cut decisions that will help you influence other people. Be prepared for their fearsome logic and a requirement for large amounts of rigorous data. They will challenge your thinking and your evidence and can come across as rude and impersonal. 

All this means that Thinkers can take a long time to consider their decision, but the exception is that they may leap on an opportunity with reduced analysis if their need for low risk is satisfied. However, once they trust their analysis, Thinkers will commit to it. But they are also willing to re-evaluate a decision if new data emerges.

To persuade a Thinker, start with lots of data; the more the better. Include risk assessments and rigorous cost-benefit analysis. Case studies can help, but they need to be in-depth, with highly pertinent details and a significant statistical base. If not, the Thinker will brand it as merely anecdotal.

Top Tactics to Persuade

  • Appeal to their intelligence
  • Focus on data – surveys, research, case studies, analyses.  Thinkers particularly value comparative data
  • Provide lots of information from multiple perspectives 
  • Allow thinking time. Be prepared for a phased approach: follow up with further info if needed 
  • Demonstrate your methodology and share your worries and concerns about options

Magic Words to Drop in

Quality, Expert, Proof, Evidence, Academic, Plan, Think, Numbers, Sense, Intelligence

How to Win Stakeholder Compliance from Skeptics

Some people draw upon all their life experiences in making their decisions. But, rather than do it in a logical way like Thinkers, they access their experience as gut instinct and intuition. If you challenge their thinking, you are challenging them, so work on rapport building and stress your credibility and the similarities in your perspective.

Ultimately, skeptics don’t trust data and logic: they trust people. So you need to establish your credibility with them, as much as possible. A good way to do this is by gaining an endorsement from someone the skeptic trusts. Skeptics are prepared to take risks, but will often try to shed responsibility if things don’t work out. They will blame the person they think influenced them.

Skeptics tend to be blunt, even combative or domineering, inward-focused people who are proud to speak their mind and challenge what you present to them. You will need to flatter them to a degree and plant the information they need, so they can feel it is part of their own worldview.

Top Tactics to Persuade

  • Focus on credibility
  • Stress points of similarity between them and you
  • Alternately, establish credibility with endorsements from trusted third parties
  • Stroke the sceptic’s ego 
    (“you are probably aware that …”)
  • Ground your arguments in the real world
  • Be prepared for aggressive challenge
  • When you correct a sceptic, allow them to save face

Magic Words to Drop in

Feel, Grasp, Power, Action, Trust, Demand, Suspect

How to Win Stakeholder Compliance from Followers

A lot of people only feel safe if they are doing what others do. Showing them all of the other stakeholders (especially the ones who they identify with) that you have already persuaded, fabulously well with them.  They are therefore easy to influence, once you have built up other people’s support.

They are particularly reliant on people who are close to them and whom they trust, so get to know these key influencers and invest as much time in them. Better still, become one of their trusted advisors yourself.  Followers tend to be late adopters, afraid of making the wrong choice. Consequently, they are likely to be cautious and go for a safe option, rather than take a risk. So, emphasize track record and reliability, and reassure them that their choice is the safe one.

Top Tactics to Persuade

  • Focus on confidence  –  proof of efficacy
  • Use testimonials to demonstrate low risk
  • Present innovative, yet proven solutions – track record will be important
  • Extend examples from other areas that ‘we can be the first to use here’
  • Present multiple structured options
  • Emphasise affordability
  • Offer help to explain what the follower does not understand 

Magic Words to Drop in

Expertise, Similar, Innovate, as before, Previous, Expedite

How to Win Stakeholder Compliance from Controllers

Controllers like to think that they cannot be influenced. If they think an idea is yours, then they will mistrust it. If they adopt it anyway, and it goes wrong, steel yourself for blame and retribution: controllers can be dominant, domineering, and even downright aggressive.  

They are mainly hard to influence because they prefer to talk rather than listen; so let them lead the agenda. Not surprisingly, they need to feel in control, so risk-taking is not a strength: give them clear and detailed plans, that deal with any uncertainty and ambiguity.

Controllers have huge faith in their own capabilities, and so prefer to implement their own ideas. They will often jump to a decision but hate to be rushed, and they sometimes avoid responsibility for their decisions, so be sure to document the process.

Mercifully, Controllers are pretty rare (only 9% of Miller’s and Williams’s sample).

Top Tactics to Persuade

  • Focus on ownership   –  make the controller own the idea for themselves
  • Present highly structured arguments – very linear
  • Avoid strong advocacy – don’t push too hard
  • Provide a continual stream of evidence in the form of data, and allow the controller to come to their own decision
  • Overcome their internal fears (but don’t let on you know they have them!)

Magic Words to Drop in

Facts, Reason, Power, JDI, Details, Logic, Physical, Grab, Handle, Make them pay

Critical Assesment of the 5 Paths to Stakeholder Persuasion

The first thing to point out is that Miller and Williams surveyed 1,684 executives for their study. This is a reasonable sample size, but we must note the potential for cultural bias: 97% of the respondents were from the United States.

Second, this is a simple model that belies the complexity of real people. At the very least, we must consider that each stakeholder may show a mix of characteristics. That said, it is likely that, for most, one or two will be dominant. It is also possible that people can switch their decision-making style, depending on the context. Finding their dominant style is not easy.

Indeed, even in the best of situations, Ii can be hard to diagnose a decision-maker’s style. Many would mis-assess themselves. In their book, Miller and Williams give clues to help spot the decision style.

And finally, of course, this is a commercially-led model. There is no peer review of the methodology or the findings.

My Conclusion

This is a model that I have found useful. It is not one to rely on absolutely – but that is true of all models, really. Because a model is a deliberate simplification of reality. This one is helpful and I would recommend any project manager to read the Miller and Williams article on the HBR website. And do consider investing in their book, The 5 Paths to Persuasion.

What are Your Thoughts on How to Win Stakeholder Compliance?

I’d love to read your thoughts on how you persuade your project stakeholders. And also your thoughts on how useful you think this model is.

Learn More: For More on Related Topics…


Please be aware that any shortcomings in interpreting and explaining this model are mine alone. And also that the work I presented in this article is the copyright of Rober B Miller and Gary A Williams.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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