How would you like to visit a massive sewer? It was not the best invitation I'd had that day or even that week, despite Covid restrictions. My husband, bless him, is an engineer through and through. As a scientist myself, we both share an innate curiosity. So, curiosity aroused, I took him up on the offer to do a site visit to the Blackfriars site of the Thames Tideway tunnel. It was a revelation, writes Trish Thurley.

Edie building/infrastructure project of the year award 2021

Not only is this project a technical miracle, but it is also a textbook case of fantastic stakeholder engagement. Tideway, the company building the super sewer, won the Edie building/infrastructure project of the year award 2021. 

The judges said: "Despite its scale, Tideway has integrated environmental and social impacts into its core approach from day one. It has championed many innovative approaches, which really pushed the boundaries and show a positive way forward for future infrastructure projects." 

Closer inspection of the project confirms that great stakeholder engagement has been a key to its success.

Multi-billion-pound projects like the Thames Tideway tunnel have a specific budget and significant resources for stakeholder engagement.

Not all projects are lucky enough to have this. In today's world, where just about everyone carries a camera and recording device with them at all times (their phone) we are all in the front line.

Every one of us carries the responsibility of being a stakeholder engagement manager for our organisations. How can we maximise this opportunity and avoid the potential threat?

What can turn a perfectly reasonable human being into an angry stakeholder? I'm guessing that you think that you are a reasonable person. I think that I am (mostly).

Our first mistake is often to try and reason with an angry person. We often think that if we can just show people the data and justify the benefits, they will clearly understand why they are being unreasonable.

If reason and logic were the only factors that influenced us, then the world would be a very much simpler place. We would all wear the same clothes and drive the same car because they were the logical best choice. It may be simpler but being messy, complicated human beings, we do not like things to be boring.

Each human being is driven by intrinsic motivation. It is what makes us individuals. Our values, principles, ideology, and experience all influence this intrinsic motivation. So how do we messy humans make decisions?

Typically, we share only logical data with people who we don't know very well and don't fully trust. So, if you asked me why I bought a Lexus car, I might share its impressive miles per gallon or reliability data as justification for my purchase.

Once I know you better, I might share some elements of the social influence on my decision-making. For example, I was acutely aware that my old ‘Chelsea Tractor’ was probably not cool. This being the nickname for a gas-guzzling four-wheel drive. I felt social pressure two own an eco-friendlier car.

My inner circle of friends and family would probably be aware that Lexus has been a client of mine for more than 15 years, and I identify very strongly with their ethos of sustainability.

Intrinsic motivation

This illustrates my point that decisions are governed by our intrinsic motivation. Expert psychologist and author Daniel Pink describes intrinsic motivation as being governed by three things. These three things are as follows:

  • Autonomy – the urge to direct our own lives
  • Mastery – the urge to get better at something that matters to us
  • Purpose – to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves

To understand someone’s intrinsic motivation, you need to build trust first. Then you can uncover information that helps you understand them better before you attempt to influence their decision. To build trust you must first engage and show people you're listening. Tideway chief executive Andy Mitchell was able to show he was listening to key stakeholders.

There is quite a weight of opposition but campaigners against Tideway are surprisingly positive about its chief executive. Barney Holbeche, who runs pressure group ‘Save Your Riverside’, says: “We formed the impression that if we ran into a brick wall, he would be a reasonable court of appeal. When he came to address us, people were impressed with him because he is genuinely a nice guy – but we would like to see a bit more of him.”

Ann Rosenberg Bell, another campaigner, describes Mitchell as “easy to talk to, sympathetic and willing to listen” despite her fierce opposition to the tunnel.

So, what are three things you can do in your next stakeholder engagement to show you are listening?

Face the person and make eye contact. If this feels too intense, switch your contact from eye to eye, then to their mouth, and keep switching (not too fast, or you will look crazy!)

Do not interrupt them, or if you accidentally interrupt go back and say ‘so you were telling me ... ‘Allow pauses, without filling them.

Nod, smile (or adopt another appropriate expression, like sadness), say uh uh or mmm. Do not glance at your watch, or your phone, or look over their shoulder.

For more tips on active listening see the British Heart Foundation 10 tips on active listening:

When you show you are listening it rewards the other person and reduces their stress level (and yours). Of course, before you can start listening to stakeholders you have to engage with them.

Talking to an engineer who was completing an Environmental Impact Assessment the other day, I was struck by just how many stakeholders they needed to engage with.

She made the point that environmental space is often publicly owned. For example: the sea, the sky, national parks, etc, stakeholders may include citizens; politicians; utilities; industry; fisherman; financiers; scientists; other engineers; NGOs; consumer associations; trade unions; suppliers; and contractors. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

Even if you did have the time to engage with every individual in the above list, getting them all on the same page would be like herding cats. In reality, we need to identify the key individuals.

By this, I mean those in a position of power and influence, who have the biggest stake in your project. Once we have identified the key dozen or so stakeholders, then we can start to engage and really listen to their concerns and opinions.

A sad illustration of where stakeholder engagement could have been better, is the Berlin Brandenburg Airport project. The airport should have opened in September 2011.

After 10 successive delays to the opening date, the first two planes finally landed there on the October 31, 2020. Even then, the wisdom of opening the airport was questioned as it was the middle of a pandemic and climate activists from Extinction Rebellion were protesting at the entrance.

The Berlin Brandenburgairport project seems to illustrates a failure to engage key stakeholders from the outset, resulting in some catastrophic technical decisions. For a short summary of the story, I recommend the YouTube video clip:


To help you avoid the same pitfalls, the Association for Project Management (APM) has produced 10 Key Principles of Stakeholder Engagement. Part of an open access resource on this subject area, which you can access here:

Principle 5 says: ‘Developing relationships results in increased trust. And where there is trust, people work together more easily and effectively. Investing effort in identifying and building stakeholder relationships can increase confidence across the project environment, minimise uncertainty, and speed problem solving and decision-making.’

As a guide and resource, the APM 10 Principles are a great starting point. If you want to hear more on the stakeholder aspects of Thames Tideway tunnel and Berlin Brandenburg airport projects, why not join our ‘Engineers Guide To Stakeholder Management’ webinar on April 16, at 10-11am. To register for this event, which is free to members, click on the link:

By attending the webinar, you will learn more about these essential ‘professional cat herding’ skills and be better equipped to avoid the pitfalls of poor stakeholder engagement.

Stakeholder engagement and management take as much effort to plan, as the organisation and logistics of your project. A common retort that I hear is ‘I don't have time for all of this’. My answer is twofold. It does not have to take more than 2 minutes per day and the impact is usually worth every second of effort.

To learn the ‘two-minutes per day technique’ and for more in-depth training and hand-on practice using an AI simulation, why not join our workshop – An Engineer's Guide to Stakeholder Management (featuring an AI simulation). This online classroom event will be delivered over two morning sessions on May 13 and 14.

To register, visit :

I will be sharing some proven ways to build trust with stakeholders, and you will get to practice in a risk-free environment by playing our AI simulation. This means you will leave the training equipped the means to get better project outcomes and who would not want that?

Author: Trish Thurley BSc MBA MCIPS MAPM.