Web ExclusiveEditor’s Note: the following exchange between Nicole, an Australian stakeholder engagement consultant, and risk communications expert Peter Sandman originally appeared on Peter’s website, www.psandman.com, posted September 12, 2013.

We write, or have consultants and academics write for us, numerous articles advocating “you must engage your employees” to succeed with safety initiatives, to create a sustainable culture of safety. Engagement is a big buzzword in safety circles. Read this Q&A with Nicole from Australia from a different viewpoint—substituting the word “employees” for “stakeholders.”

What if an employee inside the organization, not an outside stakeholder, believes a newly-concocted engagement process is false and misleading, coming from untrustworthy senior leaders with hidden agendas. This is the “take” many employees have regarding newly-announced safety initiatives. Leading to the not uncommon employee attitude about safety that “this is all a farce anyway.”

Peter’s points and recommendations remain the same if the distrust and anger come from within the organization.  Coming from within, these can be signs of poor labor-management relations and perhaps deeper problems within the “culture,” depending on how many employees think the new initiative is a farce, and depending on recent experiences with other senior leader launched employee initiatives. But still, the logic of Peter’s responses is sound.

NICOLE’S comment:

I was wondering about how you handle it when a community member doubts the stakeholder engagement process – believes that it is false and misleading, and that there has always been a hidden agenda.

Clearly how the decision was made, how stakeholders’ views were championed by people inside the organization, how stakeholders had access to the internal decision-makers, and how the final decision was influenced (if only a little) by stakeholders’ input are all key messages. So is acknowledging that people will be angry, and that a detailed explanation for a decision not going their way should be expected and will be given.

But the fact that the source is considered untrustworthy and therefore the process believed to be false and disingenuous is going to be there for a long time. Any tips for responding, in particular to the question/comment that “this was all a farce anyway!”?

Peter responds:

I like your key messages, which I have put into a numbered list below with some elaboration. After that I’ve appended additional suggestions.

Explain how the decision was made. And beforehand, explain how the decision is going to be made. Make your process as transparent as possible, so it’s harder for people to imagine that the real decisions were made by some secret cabal they couldn’t influence.

Give examples of how stakeholders’ views were championed by internal people (when they actually were). Even if those views didn’t emerge triumphant, it is meaningful to people that they were seriously considered – and nothing demonstrates that as convincingly as internal advocates.

Demonstrate how your stakeholders had access to the decision-makers in your organization. A list of meetings, phone calls, and email exchanges is a worthwhile document to maintain on your website. Of course it’s best if it’s a complete list. If some interactions have to be kept confidential, at least say so – and expect that to diminish the value of the list.

Discuss in detail how the final decision was influenced by stakeholder input. This needs to be as concrete as possible: “We were going to do X, but at thus-and-such a meeting many people made it clear that they preferred Y, and after a lot of internal debate we switched to Y.” At a minimum, avoid hiding the ways in which stakeholders really had impact. It’s quite common for my clients to give in to stakeholder pressure to do Y instead of X, and then pretend (chiefly because of ego) that they had been planning to do Y all along. Deciding whether to do what your stakeholders are demanding is often a tough call. But when you decide to give in, saying so should be a no-brainer.

Don’t overstate how much the final decision was influenced by stakeholder input. That’s the lesson of your “if only a little ” parenthetical acknowledgment. Such an acknowledgment should be front-and-center in all claims of responsiveness. With luck the risk communication seesawmay come to your aid: Your acknowledgments that you were able to give stakeholders only a little of what they wanted may encourage some to notice that they got more than they’d expected.

Acknowledge stakeholders’ anger and disappointment. Beforehand, acknowledge that some people probably will feel that way when the decision is announced; then when you announce it, acknowledge that some people probably do feel that way. The “some people” and “probably” are important here. People don’t like being told how they feel. “I know how you feel” always exacerbates stakeholders’ outrage. Even if it’s obvious, “I can see how angry you are” is too intrusive. Empathic risk communication requires finding a middle groundbetween obliviousness and intrusiveness. But obliviousness is the more common error, especially with regard to stakeholders’ emotions.

Promise a detailed explanation/rationale for any decision that runs contrary to stakeholders’ wishes – and make sure you keep the promise. In my judgment this is probably the least important of the points you made. Of course you’re right that stakeholders are entitled to be told why a decision went against them (even though the lawyers will worry that such detailed explanations may give opponents grist for their lawsuits). But don’t expect your explanations to convince people they were wrong or ameliorate their outrage at losing.

And now some of mine:

Hire a neutral facilitator. And make sure the facilitator comes down hard on the company, at least as hard as on your harshest critics: demanding that you respond to tough questions; calling you on it when you evade them; putting topics on the agenda that you’d rather not discuss; pursuing your vague expressions of goodwill to see if there’s an actionable promise in there or not; etc. One of the easiest ways to persuade (some) stakeholders that the engagement process is genuine is to make sure it’s visibly painful for your side. That too can be a farce – and over the long haul it won’t work if it is – but early on people will see a facilitator who challenges the company’s crap as a sign that the engagement might prove fruitful.

Acknowledge that stakeholder engagement really is a farce sometimes, so you can understand why some people are skeptical or even cynical about it this time. It’s useful to confirm this in principle – that people may have gotten fooled before so it makes sense that they might be leery about getting fooled again. If you know the history, it’s better still to cite chapter and verse, especially if it was your organization that time too: “I’ve read about what happened back in 2002 when our company planned its last expansion. I wasn’t here then, but many of you were. I’ve been told that we promised you the moon and delivered little or nothing.” If this is too sensitive for you to say, let your facilitator say it. Or give your stakeholders lots of opportunities to say it. Then all you need to say is that you can see why people might be skeptical this time.

Don’t promise the moon. Just as it’s a mistake to try to make a small instance of responsiveness sound huge (#5), it’s a mistake to imply early on that you’re going to be more responsive than you know you can be. This is a fundamental principle of stakeholder engagement, and I know you know it already: Don’t arouse inflated expectations. For example, I urge clients to say from the outset what’s not on the table: “I know a lot of people want X. But the company has ruled out X. I can explain why, but I don’t want to give you the impression that we might change our mind about that. Y and Z, on the other hand, are real possibilities that we’re open to discussing.” For similar reasons, make sure you don’t imply that your stakeholder engagement process is higher on the “ladder of citizen participation” than it really is. If you’re willing to take stakeholder suggestions seriously but the final decision is still in your hands, that’s consultation, not negotiation. Stakeholders who expected to negotiate an agreement will end up thinking even an impactful consultation was a farce.

Point out that it’s genuinely hard to tell when a consultation is a farce and when it’s not. You’re offering (or expecting to offer) to do only a little of what stakeholders are demanding. It’s natural to see “only a little” as nothing. Concede this. Counterproject it: “I know when I make demands on someone and they do only a little of what I ask, it feels like they didn’t do anything at all.” Then ask them: “How can I show you that I’m really listening, really trying to find concessions I can make, when there’s so much you want that I can’t or won’t give you?” This shouldn’t be merely a rhetorical question. It’s a real question; you’re seeking their guidance on what it would take to convince them that engagement is paying off, even if only a little.

Explain why you’re engaging. “I guess you probably sense that my company would really love to just do what we think is best without going through this engagement process. I don’t feel that way; stakeholder engagement is what I do. But you’re right that my boss [or my client] feels that way. So why are we engaging?” I suggest offering three reasons, in this order:

  • “The law requires us to. But if that were our only reason, you’d be right to suspect a farce.”
  • “Angry neighbors are bad for business. Even if you can’t stop the project (and maybe you can), you can slow us down and damage our reputation. So if we can find ways to address some of your concerns, ways we can live with, that’s a win-win – good for you because you get at least some of what you want; good for us because you’re less upset with us. That’s our main reason for engaging. We’re hoping that we can find some concessions that work for us and for you.”
  • “This next point is the hardest for us to admit, hard on our egos, but in our heart of hearts we know it’s true: Sometimes our neighbors come up with ideas that really do improve the project, even in our opinion. Sometimes it’s things we never thought of. Sometimes it’s things we rejected too easily because somebody in our organization didn’t like them, but when neighbors put some force behind them we rethink the issue and maybe even end up glad we did.”

Early on, when stakeholders are trying to decide whether to participate in your engagement process, be candid about the alternatives to engaging with you. These are the two obvious ones:

  • They can resign themselves to living with whatever you come up with. That would be fine with you, frankly, if you were confident it would stick. But you’re worried that they’ll sit out the engagement process until the very end, and then get angry that they weren’t consulted. On balance, you want them in the process now rather than demanding to get in when it’s too late.
  • They can fight you tooth and nail. If they don’t want the project to go forward on any terms, then stopping it is obviously the best outcome for them … if they win. So if they think they can win, it makes sense for them to try, instead of using up their time and energy on engagement. But your company has limited time and energy (and budget) too. You can spend it on engagement, trying to ameliorate some of their concerns, or you can spend it on an all-out battle (political, legal, whatever) to stop them from stopping your project. Money you spend on fighting isn’t available for amelioration. So they need to decide which is their best shot: trying to get some concessions out of you or trying to shut you down altogether. (For a more detailed rationale for this unusual candor about your stakeholders’ choices, look here and here.)

Tell stakeholders (the ones who oppose you) that they can also consider pursuing parallel tracks. That is, they can try to stop the project while also engaging with you in an effort to make the project better in case they fail to stop it. You should make it clear that you don’t consider these two paths inconsistent, and you won’t feel betrayed if they go down both paths at the same time. You’re perfectly willing to engage with people who are simultaneously working in other venues to stop the project, as long as they’re not working to undermine the engagement process itself. Sometimes my clients foolishly force opponents to choose between participating in the engagement process and suing or organizing to stop the project. I urge them to reconsider, to tolerate (and even propose) the parallel-tracks option. As U.S. President Lyndon Johnson once famously said about loose cannon FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover: “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.” You should want your most fervent opponents in the room; to have a chance of getting them there, you need to be okay with their remaining your most fervent opponents.

Remember that you can’t allay everybody’s cynicism. Some people can’t be convinced that your engagement process isn’t a farce. Some don’t want to be convinced. It may be their job to insist it’s a farce; they may be deeply committed to stopping the project and may see engagement and compromise as a major threat to their recruitment efforts, so they need to convince others it’s a farce; they may believe as a matter of ideological principle that people like you never take seriously the concerns of people like them. Paradoxically, it is very much worth your time to engage with opponents who keep claiming your engagement is a farce. Why? Because (like them, in all probability), you’re playing to an audience. In the language of my “Stakeholders” column and handout, the “fanatics” by definition can’t be convinced, but the “attentives” are trying to decide if engagement with you will be fruitful or foolish. One way they judge is by how you deal with the fanatics. So keep responding seriously (and respectfully) to the fanatics’ concerns, even if the fanatics keep claiming that you’re not responding seriously – and even if they keep trying to con you into not responding seriously, so they can convince the attentives that your engagement process is a farce after all.

Peter’s  Guestbook exchange with Nicole (http://www.psandman.com/gst2013.htm#farce) Note: scroll down the Guestbook to Nicole and Peter’s Q&A.

Peter adds: “I think the best response to employee skepticism about the company’s safety seriousness is for the company to make a business case for safety, not just a values case. You can reference my 2005 article that argues this at length: Selling Safety: Business Case or Values Case

Peter points to other relevant articles for ISHN readers on his website www.psandman.com– the ones on “precaution advocacy” – are indexed at http://www.psandman.com/index-PA.htm, and especially (for the ones on employee safety precaution advocacy) at www.psandman.com/index-PA.htm#empl.   ISHN readers also have use for the other two risk communication paradigms, outrage management and crisis communication.