For many leaders I have supported, embarking on an engagement process to hear from and listen to the people they serve is a daunting task.
Questions and concerns/reasoning I often hear for why leaders shy away from engaging others include:
- It’s a hassle
- it takes too long / I don’t have time
- I can’t please everyone anyway so I’ll just decide
- It’s too difficult to face/deal with naysayers
- It’s outside my comfort zone/I am not skilled in managing group dynamics or designing engagement processes so I’m not going to open that can of worms.
While I empathize with these concerns, I am an unequivocal advocate for developing organizations and leading complex change through engagement and inquiry to those who are served or who will be affected by the organization’s activities. These are traditionally called stakeholders for good reason.
My experience has taught me that taking the time up front to plan a thoughtful engagement process usually will take just as long as the planning required to ‘roll out’ developments and changes that your stakeholders will care about. Furthermore, the hassle of getting your people’s feedback is much less onerous than the hassle of ‘managing’ a campaign gone wrong with your stakeholders. Yes, you cannot please everyone and yes, there may always be a percentage of people who disagree with a direction you take, but the point of engaging in inquiry, listening to the needs of your stakeholders and getting feedback is not to make people happy. The point is remembering that people form your organizations and people are the users of your products and services and that people – these humans – thrive on having a voice in the things that affect them. The point is recognizing that the people closest to the purpose and outcomes of your organization can tell us so much more than you and a few others behind closed doors can perceive. Therefore, by engaging a variety of people, you create broader, larger and wider possibilities than you might otherwise.
The point is that engaging the people you serve is good – no great – business practice that will earn you trust and goodwill so that even when people may be unhappy with outcomes, they will have felt heard and will trust you to go a different direction than they would have liked. As Gervase Bushe has reminded us recently, high engagement and high inquiry builds great organizations and the often quoted 70% failure rate of change happens when complex changes are embarked on in traditional top-down/corporately mandated ways. Existing research and case evidence shows that “where stakeholders who will have to actually implement the change, are the ones who define the change, then change efforts are almost always successful if leaders are personally engaged in managing the process.”*
So how do you do this? You just do. Here’s what has worked in my experience of supporting leaders.
- Design a meaningful engagement process: A meaningful engagement process depends on the type of change you are facing, what your mandates are, what is negotiable and non-negotiable and. Once you are clear on the scope and boundaries of your change or project, you can then answer the who and how of your engagement process. Remember that depending on your context engagement can range from consistent communicating/informing to co-creating and empowering stakeholders to design and make final decisions themselves. A favourite go-to for me as a general guide on what type of engagement you should be considering comes from the public participation spectrum from the International Association for Public Participation.
- Leverage technology and social media. In today’s world, engaging with stakeholders far and wide couldn’t be easier when technology and social media are appropriately used. Organizations now have the ability to do everything from a quick poll question on twitter to form online surveys to live engagement on any number of collaboration platforms. The question becomes who you need to reach and how best to leverage technology to do so.
- Do follow-up and follow-through. A sure way for engagement processes to create unhappiness, fail or appear to be more trouble than they were worth has to do with follow-up and follow-through. When people put in effort, they deserve to know what happens with those efforts. Follow-up and follow-through are also fundamentals of building trust as per the trust triangle. This follow-up includes letting people know your rationale for what you have decided on, even and especially when it is different that what they may have proposed.
- Trust the process. When the going gets tough, it may be tempting to quit. However, building true engagement anchored in people’s trust requires that you respect people’s perspectives even when they are different and are willing to work through differences. You are more likely to achieve sustainable outcomes this way than quitting when things get hard.
- Do it again!
A new leader to a well-established organization I recently worked with conducted an engagement process to examine the current state of their vision and strategy and dream about new possibilities for the future. The process entailed a survey to the whole community of diverse stakeholders, followed by a series of rich community conversations. At the end of the process the most common comment from a range of stakeholders was: wow! I’ve been a part of this organization for 10+ years and this is the first time a leader has sought my opinion or that I have been part of a process like this. I am excited for the future.
Engaging your people is a simple practice that goes a long way to help you achieve your goals. It is well worth the journey.
*Bushe, G. R. (2017). Where organization development thrives: Winner of the Val Hammond research competition. Retrieved from http:// www.roffeypark.com/research-insights/free-reports-downloads/ where-organisation-development-thrives/