How to build trust with stakeholders for better outcomes

Written by 
David Young
June 9, 2023
Four people sitting around a table in a meeting
How to build trust with stakeholders for better outcomes
Written by 
David Young
June 9, 2023

There are many ways stakeholder relationships can go awry. Perhaps expectations weren’t met. Or maybe there was some kind of larger breakdown in communications. But regardless of whether the reason is big or small, what it usually comes down to is a simple lack of trust. 

A central tenet of any relationship, trust is especially important when it comes to stakeholder engagement. Even when your stakeholder relationship is productive, you should always be thinking about how you can strengthen and reinforce their trust in you. After all, you never know when a competitor could be waiting in the wings.

So let’s take a closer look at some ways you can build, maintain, and grow better relationships with your stakeholders.

Why is it important to build trust with stakeholders?

Building trust with your stakeholders is so vital because it makes cooperation possible. This allows you to share information, communicate useful feedback and criticism, and work together toward a common goal. 

Additionally, when there is trust, you’ll be in a much better position to persuade and influence your stakeholders. They’ll be more confident that you have their best interests in mind and will remain open to your point of view, even when this involves taking some sort of risk.

Trust can also help lead to greater stakeholder engagement. Because they will trust your intentions and believe in your capabilities, your stakeholders will be more likely to actively participate in meetings and creative sessions, take the time to provide you with valuable feedback, and offer you ongoing support. 

As a result, all of this will help lay the foundations for a more productive and successful long-term relationship.

Characteristics of trusting stakeholder relationships

So what does a trusting stakeholder relationship look like? While this may differ from client to client, here are some of the most common characteristics:

  • Empathy: The ability to understand not only what a stakeholder needs but also their thoughts, feelings, interest, and situation is an important element of trust. This will allow you to better support them and build a stronger relationship.
  • Transparency: Trusting relationships are open and honest about everything, even (and especially) when it comes to disagreements and mistakes. This makes it easier to move forward with a project or agenda and reach your common goal.
  • Proactive communication: Similar to trust and closely related to empathy, being proactive with your communication gives stakeholders time to react, make updates, and solve problems. More importantly, it shows that you are thinking about their time and priorities, which demonstrates your integrity.
  • Responsibility: This not only means owning up to mistakes or miscommunications, but also making sure everyone is doing their job and meeting stakeholder expectations. You should meet your commitments, deliver on any promises, and always follow through on your responsibilities.
  • Confidence: Remaining positive and willing to offer support, even in the face of adversity, can go a long way toward building a trusting and long-lasting relationship. Stakeholders will appreciate your eagerness, as well as the fact that you are looking out for their interests. They may even come to depend on it.
  • Consistency: As the project facilitator, the peace of mind that you create for stakeholders knowing you will produce results, communicate in a timely manner, and offer support along the way is indispensable. Stakeholders who can rely on you to fulfill your obligations at every step will have a hard time losing their trust in you.

10 ways to build trust with stakeholders

Building trust with your stakeholder groups won’t happen overnight. For even successful projects, it takes time, dedication, and effort to demonstrate this. That said, here are a few strategies you can use to start creating a stronger stakeholder relationship.

1. Lay the groundwork for a collaborative relationship

You can start building trust the moment you meet your stakeholders by making it clear you care about their problems and want to understand them more. And the best way to do that? Organize a discovery meeting.

Discovery meetings are chances to meet, discuss the project or underlying challenge, and align on their overarching goals and initiatives. They allow you to clear up any confusion around the project scope, establish a plan and project timeline, and uncover any potential challenges or risks. But most importantly, it gives you an opportunity to showcase that you are being honest and transparent about this process from the beginning.

2. Understand stakeholder needs and expectations

During your discovery session, it’s important to also define what stakeholders expect from you and your project team, as well as what you expect of them. Don’t leave any roles or needs ambiguous. Make sure that everyone knows what their responsibilities are, what success looks like, and how feedback is given. This is when you should take a proactive stance and demonstrate that you are thinking ahead to how you can continue to build and maintain trust over the length of the engagement.

Related: How to run successful client discovery sessions

3. Set realistic expectations of your own

Trust is a two-way street, as the saying goes. So when setting down expectations, be sure to consider what you can realistically ask from your client. 

Although, you’d probably love to get same-day feedback on your deliverables, this may not be possible. There may be too many project stakeholders, or they may be involved in multiple projects at once. Instead, work with them to establish expectations that align with both your goals and theirs. This kind of consideration will show empathy, an essential ingredient of trust.

4. Create a stakeholder engagement strategy

Building out a plan that helps you understand which stakeholders you should engage for each element of your project, as well as their preferred rhythm of communication and collaboration, will not only keep you organized and working efficiently — it will also show that you are prioritizing their needs and following the preferred systems for receiving approval and contacting stakeholders for key decision-making. And that’s a great way to build up trust and strengthen good relationships.

A quick method for building out your engagement strategy is by creating a stakeholder map. Think of this like a cheat sheet for understanding who your key stakeholders are and how they relate to one another. While there are many ways you can do this, such as through a grid system or a network diagram, all of them will make it easier to effectively communicate and work with your various stakeholders in the way they prefer. 

5. Build common ground with warm-ups

Building trust is also about making stakeholders feel comfortable and engaged. This can often be a challenge, especially when you’re still getting to know each other and learn each other’s working styles. That’s why it can be worth breaking out of your comfort zone (and breaking down some barriers) by utilizing warm-ups.

Warm-ups are your chance to have some fun, be creative, and set everyone at ease. They can literally be anything — as long as they’re fun and help everyone get to know each other. For example, you could go around the room asking everyone to talk about some place they used to live. Or you could get everyone to share a story about their first job. The possibilities are endless. 

Even if you’re working with a remote or hybrid team, there are plenty of online warm-ups you can do. Try some out to see how it helps improve collaboration and build strong relationships.

6. Practice radical transparency

It’s easy to understand why you should practice radical transparency — everyone appreciates staying up to date and in the loop, especially when it comes to complex projects — but knowing how to make it a habit can be more difficult. 

A good way to start is to schedule a time (either weekly or monthly, depending on the project timeline) to share regular updates and project progress. You could even build out a shared board where you post updates continuously for stakeholders to see and comment on. Including key milestones and success metrics, even if they’re lower than expected.

You should also keep track of all meeting notes, making sure to single out action items and potential issues. Your goal should not only be to keep your stakeholders updated, but to make sure you can get ahead of any challenges before they turn serious. This kind of foresight and accountability is why transparency leads to trust.

7. Be consistent and predictable

Consistency is a key part of creating a stakeholder trust because it enables them to plan and work more efficiently. They know when they’ll receive an update and that a deliverable will arrive on their desks on time. And they’ll know that, when they need it, they’ll get the support they need. 

But, perhaps even more importantly, being predictable shows that you care about and value their time. They won’t have to guess when they’re going to hear from you or if they’ll have everything they need. Instead, you’re making their job easier simply by doing your job well.

8. Create opportunities for frequent feedback and follow-up

By making it as easy as possible for your stakeholders to share their thoughts, offer feedback, and follow-up, you can help streamline communication and simplify what many often think of as the most difficult aspect of working relationships: giving criticism.

Try to build in as many opportunities as possible for your stakeholders to weigh in with their thoughts and opinions. This could just mean reserving five minutes at the end of each meeting for open-ended discussion. Or it could involve proactively reaching out to them on a regular basis to check in to see how they’re feeling about your progress. Like other items on this list, this demonstrates that you respect their viewpoint and want them to contribute, both of which are foundational to a trustworthy relationship.

Related: 4 best practices for collaborative project management

9. Address conflict with a problem-solving mindset

Conflict is bound to happen at some point. Perhaps your team simply can’t come to an agreement on a project detail. Or maybe there’s a specific stakeholder who is difficult to work with. Even if you do your best to avoid conflict, it will still happen — which is why you can build trust by knowing how to address it.

Try to look at every conflict as an opportunity to solve a problem. Start out by recognizing it promptly, then engaging in an open dialogue to discover what exactly is wrong. If you can find common ground, such as a shared project goal or value, then you can begin the process of working toward some sort of resolution. Be creative as you search out solutions — and be patient. Your reward will be stakeholders who have even more confidence in your abilities.

10. Know when to challenge them

Listen to your stakeholders when it comes to certain items, such as their preferred working style, the goals they’d like to achieve, and how they define success. But making them see you as trustworthy and competent also means knowing when to push back against their ideas and expectations.

This can be tricky, but very effective when done well. It should begin by having a clear view of which topics your team has expertise. For instance, if you’re a design expert, don’t assume you have to take in every design idea your stakeholders give you. Instead, when you think you can give them more value in a different way, go ahead and challenge them. As long as you are keeping their larger goals and expectations in view, it’s more than likely they’ll appreciate your honesty.

Stakeholder trust is earned over time

There’s no way around it: Building stakeholder trust is a gradual process. From your first interaction, you should start demonstrating that you are committed to this process. Show that you plan to communicate openly and regularly, are dedicated to transparency, and genuinely care about their ongoing needs. While this may take time, as well as effort on your part to practice these strategies regularly, the result will be a more productive and rewarding relationship — both for your stakeholders and yourself.

But you don’t have to do this all on your own. Mural’s open-ended design gives you an endless variety of ways to communicate, collaborate, and produce consistently excellent results. If you don’t want to start from scratch, we have an entire library of templates to get you started fast.

Want to start strengthening stakeholder trust even more? Take your client engagements to the next level with our client collaboration cheat sheet.

About the authors

About the authors

David Young

David Young

Contributing Writer
David is a contributing writer at Mural, focused on covering collaboration, meetings, and teamwork. He's been working in the hybrid tech space for over 10 years and has been writing about it nearly as long. When he's not doing that, he's probably cooking up a meal.