Language selection


Engaging with key stakeholders

Getting our stakeholders on board and building their change capacity is a major commitment. The good news is, if we’ve been including key stakeholders throughout the process, we have already helped build their change capacity and readiness, and likely strengthened their level of support as well.

There are a range of levels of support for the change we can achieve. At the lowest levels are compliance, then acceptance. Being coercion/fear-based, these levels may result in short-term behaviour change but are unlikely to result in genuine commitment. As we move up the range of support for the change we get to choice-based levels such as buy-in, then full support and even commitment.

What we can see here is that what we often refer to as engagement actually incorporates several different levels. It is therefore important that we consciously identify which level we need to reach to assign the appropriate amount of resources to achieve success for our change initiative. In general, the higher the level of support we would like from a particular stakeholder, the higher investment in the level of resources and time that must be dedicated on our part.

If we see that support toward the change is lacking, our previous analysis of stakeholders will have given us insights into why that is. This can inform our engagement approach as well. In this section, we’ll explore three different models that can help us refine how we engage with stakeholders, taking into account their perspective.

The commitment curve

One important concept to keep in mind that can help us better engage with stakeholders is the commitment curve. People learn about and engage with the change at different milestones. Key players, especially senior decision-makers, will have learned about the change before others. Keeping this in mind will help us to avoid making assumptions about the knowledge and commitment of these other key stakeholders and members of our organizations, and help us better guide our commitment-building activities.

the commitment curve. On the y axis is an arrow pointing up, depicting level of effort / commitment (from beginning through optimal).

On the y axis is the progression of time by year (up to 3 years).

The chart includes three simplified change curves. The first depicts senior decision-makers, the second senior management, and the third is everyone else.

The purpose is to show that various stakeholders start on their change journey at different times than others, and this needs to be taken into account as we implement our change.
Based on work by William Bridges

At this point the commitment curve is something we can use to guide us when determining the audiences and timing of our communications and other activities. We’ll touch on this in Section 6: Developing our plans / Communications plan.

How can we engage our stakeholders?

With an understanding of our stakeholders and the level we want/need to engage them at, we can determine the various activities we are going to use to increase capacity and support for the change.


We can conduct a range of activities, based on our stakeholder analysis and the level/type of engagement we want with our various stakeholders. Below are some examples adapted from Health Canada’s Guidelines on Public Engagement briefly illustrating common approach to engagement.

In-person (one-on-one and group)Participants attend a session involving presentations and/or discussions. Examples include: Town hallsLunch-and-learnsOpportunity for open dialogue among participants and decision-makers Most effective for diving deep into issues (depending on the group size and facilitation approach)Could be time-consuming and labour-intensive Subject to availability of participants at a specific time and location
Interactive platformParticipants join an online discussion forum to discuss issues and share their views with others.Opportunity to gain perspectives from participants from regional or remote areas, at their convenience Flexible approach which can be designed and adapted based on objectives and adjusted throughout the engagementTime consuming to design, implement, moderate, and monitor Requires planning and resources to summarize and analyze feedback
QuestionnaireOpportunity to participate is posted online or emailed to targeted participants with a link to the questionnaire. Participants complete the questionnaire and submit it directly online.Opportunity to gain perspectives from participants from regional or remote areas at their convenience Flexible approach which can be designed and adapted based on objectivesTime-consuming to design, deliver and monitor Participants cannot benefit from hearing the different perspectives of others Requires planning and resources to summarize and analyze feedback collected
Request for feedbackA draft document or proposal is posted online or emailed to target audience and participants are asked to provide general feedback by email.Cost-effective way to receive detailed, meaningful feedback on drafts or proposals Specific information can be obtained in a controlled mannerParticipants cannot benefit from hearing the different perspectives of others Requires planning and resources to summarize and analyze feedback

The type of activities we choose will be unique to our change, stakeholders, and level of support we aim to reach. Likely we will use a combination of tools and tactics. Importantly, when we are conducting our engagement activities, we can keep in mind that it is often not the activity itself that determines success, but the mindset and approach. For more on mindset, we can consult Section 1: Navigating the world of change / How to get into a change leadership mindset of the Framework.

For example, a town hall can be well-planned and sequenced and the content can be appropriate and timely for the audience. However, how we conduct the conversation before, during and after can make-or-break the activity. What is our strategy, for example, for receiving feedback? When people express concerns, have we decided beforehand that we’ll be taking it seriously, and do we have feedback mechanisms in place to respond to it?

There is a big difference between saying “yes, thank you” and doing nothing else, versus having the leader recording the feedback and remaining accountable for the response (or even inviting assistance from the group in designing the solution). Ultimately, for better effect we want to ask ourselves which impressions people are left with in the end. Do people feel listened to? Do they feel like they have the space to participate in the change in a manner that will be taken into account?

Throughout our change process it is likely we are going to be doing a number of organized group capacity/support-building activities with a variety of stakeholders. These activities are an important component of engagement. We may find it is challenging to reach all stakeholders, or that our process is not well understood/accepted, or that we are lacking support from individuals or stakeholder groups. Engagement challenges are normal and can happen in almost any change initiatives.

One way to approach stakeholders in an effort to increase support is to empathize and put ourself in their shoes. While doing our best to see it through their eyes we can ask ourselves What’s in it for me? Two techniques we can use to better understand the motivations and concerns of our stakeholders are the models ADKAR and SCARF.

ADKAR can help us understand where stakeholders are in their individual change process, while SCARF can help us better understand why.


ADKAR, part of the Prosci methodology, is a model for understanding individual reactions and motivations to change. ADKAR is an acronym that stands for:

  • Awareness (of the change)
  • Desire (to support and participate in the change)
  • Knowledge (about the change)
  • Ability (to use the competencies and behaviours in the new environment)
  • Reinforcement (to ensure the change is fully integrated into ongoing business)

The goal is to move each individual stakeholder from awareness through reinforcement using various activities. ADKAR is cumulative and sequential. For example, we have to be aware of the change before we have a desire to participate in it. That being said, depending on the progression of the change, we may need to revisit earlier stages as new information comes up. The process is not always linear.

For each letter of ADKAR, we can conduct various activities to guide people along. Different letters will require different interventions. For example, we wouldn’t want to use the same approach if someone was lacking desire versus lacking knowledge. The former could capitalize on effective marketing and communications, while the latter may require training. For more on the ADKAR model, consult the ADKAR overview on the Prosci website.

How can we engage stakeholders using ADKAR?

Looking at a stakeholder through the ADKAR lens is a snapshot in time. The goal is to move individuals forward, through this process. So, we will need to find a way to monitor feedback and make adjustments as necessary. This may take the form of formal/informal surveys, discussions, or other forms of feedback.

We can create our own series of questions to determine where people are in ADKAR, and these will likely be specific to our project. The goal here is to gauge stakeholders over time, so we likely want to ask them these questions consistently, often around the time of our major change milestones. A good example of an ADKAR-based survey template is the ADKAR Change-o-Meter, developed by the Change Management National Centre of Expertise in Accommodation Management and Workplace Solutions at Public Services and Procurement Canada.

*Note: The Change-o-Meter is specific to workplace modernization in the public service but can be adapted to suit other changes.

When we have an idea of where our stakeholders are on the ADKAR scale, we can use a variety of techniques to guide them through each step.

Guiding people through ADKAR

While every change and every individual is different, there are some common themes that tend to result in better outcomes.


There are a number of ways we can generate awareness, including:

  • Authentic, consistent communications about the reasons for the change and the impact it will have, taking into account the reality on the ground
  • Active, visible and consistent change leadership (this type of leadership should be done throughout the process, keeping in mind here the commitment curve)
  • Easy access to relevant information
  • In-person communication with stakeholders, especially on sensitive subjects
  • Regular and consistent feedback


There are a number of ways we can increase desire, including:

  • Involving people in the process
  • Championing of the change by leadership
  • Building capacity in managers for their role as leaders of change
  • Communicate more details about the case for change
  • Allow for more in depth conversations


There are a number of ways we can increase knowledge, including:

  • Effective and timely training programs
  • Explaining and using the tools and processes during training
  • Fostering of informal exchanges with colleagues
  • Easy and ongoing access to training materials (e.g., job aids)
  • Individual coaching (which allows us to identify the obstacles experienced by a particular individual in moving through the stages of ADKAR)
  • Building specialized knowledge in supervisors and coaches so they can strengthen their own subject matter expertise and act as mentors to staff
  • User groups and forums that allow employees to recognize themselves in the experience, including challenges, and offering assistance and solutions


There are a number of ways we can strengthen ability, including:

  • Ensuring involvement of managers on a daily basis
  • Providing individual coaching based on employee needs
  • Demonstrating the desired skills ourselves as an example to others
  • Creating a safe and supportive environment where staff can develop new skills and try out new behaviors
  • Establishing a clear way for employees to give feedback
  • Ensuring the availability of subject matter experts
  • Doing practical exercises during training (role-playing, simulations, working in real time using new tools and processes, etc.)
  • Allowing employees to test their new knowledge in a variety of scenarios and feel confident in their ability to implement change
  • Monitoring change adoption and performance


There are a number of ways we can reinforce the change, including:

  • Celebrations and recognition
  • Awards
  • Feedback
  • Effective appraisals and performance management systems
  • Continuous visibility
  • Encouragement
  • Reinforcement of earlier messages
  • Revisiting the case for change and how it is making a difference
  • Continuing to model the new behaviours and mindsets

The activities and techniques we use to move people through ADKAR (or whichever model we choose) will be unique to our change and the particular stakeholder. It is helpful when identifying our ADKAR activities to collaborate with Communications, learning advisors and others who can help us. The notion here is that change is not a linear process, especially at the individual level. Understanding this complexity can help us to better navigate our change.


Developed by David Rock, the SCARF model is based on neuroscience and focuses largely on perceived “rewards” and “threats.” SCARF can provide reference points for better understanding the What’s in it for me? from our stakeholders’ perspective which, in turn, can allow us to reduce our own biases when trying to increase their support for the change.

SCARF is similar to other needs/psychology based models such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the “six core needs” identified by the change organization Being First. Each of these is based on a set of needs for each individual. We can use whichever model makes sense for us.

SCARF is an acronym that stands for:

  • Status (relative to others)
  • Certainty (capacity to anticipate the future)
  • Autonomy (feelings of control over what happens)
  • Relatedness (feelings of psychological and physical safety with others)
  • Fairness (perceptions of equal treatment).

The brain processes stimuli before we are fully aware of them. It reacts unconsciously, automatically and quickly to determine whether the stimuli represent a threat or a reward, whether to avoid it, run away from it, or confront it. The idea behind the SCARF model is to minimize the perception of danger or threat and maximize the perception of reward.

It’s important to note that we are not talking about perception only. We can’t convince someone that will be facing a demotion because of a change that this is not, in fact, a hit to their status. Rather, by understanding people’s perceptions, and the reasons behind them, we can take concrete action to adjust our own plans or, we can communicate transparently that there will be a negative impact, in this example, to status. Either way we reduce surprises for everyone, increase honesty and transparency and, ideally, increase trust in the process and in the change. For more on the SCARF model, we can consult this article on SCARF from the NeuroLeadership Institute.

How can we engage stakeholders using SCARF?

Naming and understanding the SCARF triggers can help us design our activities to minimize the perception of the threat and instead motivate individuals. For example (linking this with ADKAR), we can see that for there to be “desire”, the person has to see at least some aspects of the change as a genuine reward.


There are a number of ways we can minimize the perception of a threat and increase the perception of a reward related to status, including:

  • Giving feedback in appreciative ways (e.g., by allowing the individual to comment on their own performance)
  • Influencing/changing what is valued in an environment and how status is defined
  • Allowing staff to compete against themselves, rather than against others, to try to improve on their previous results
  • Providing opportunities to acquire new knowledge/skills (e.g., giving staff more responsibility or involving them in new projects)
  • Providing public, positive feedback


There are a number of ways we can minimize the perception of a threat and increase the perception of a reward related to certainty, including:

  • Dividing a complex project into small steps
  • Clearly stating what might happen in certain situations and the expected results
  • Setting clear goals
  • Setting realistic deadlines
  • Communicating, communicating, communicating
  • Standardizing messages, where appropriate
  • Providing concrete, proven examples
  • Providing a date when people will receive more information if it is not possible to say more about the change at a given time


There are a number of ways we can minimize the perception of a threat and increase the perception of a reward related to autonomy, including:

  • Involving employees in defining and solving problems
  • Giving choices, rather than directions, that allow people to choose when making decisions about the change (within pre-established parameters)
  • Putting tools in place to empower employees to make decisions for themselves


There are a number of ways we can minimize the perception of a threat and increase the perception of a reward related to relatedness, including:

  • Bringing people together and avoiding excluding people or groups
  • Encouraging social ties and increasing opportunities to exchange in a psychologically safe space (this could include clearly-defined buddy systems, mentoring or coaching programs and/or small action learning groups)


There are a number of ways we can minimize the perception of a threat and increase the perception of a reward related to fairness, including:

  • Being open and honest with people about what is happening and why (provided it is appropriate and ethical to do so)
  • Encouraging mutual acceptance, and never showing favoritism or deliberately excluding anyone
  • Putting together a team charter that clarifies individual roles and goals, team hierarchy, and day-to-day activities
  • Understanding and communicating well the difference between fairness and equality

Next steps

At this point we understand our change well and have engaged with stakeholders extensively. Now we have the relevant context to create our plans that we will use to guide implementation.

Date modified: