LinkedIn: Navigating dialogue in business
Soulla Kyriacou, COO, A Blueprint for Better Business
This article was originally published on LinkedIn
At Blueprint we see a business as essentially a series of relationships with its employees, customers, suppliers, communities, investors and future generations. How can a business foster quality relationships with all of these ‘stakeholders’? If the purpose of the business is to benefit wider society through its goods, services and the way it operates, how does it really know what ‘society’ expects and needs? And how can it possibly meet the needs of all those it has relationships with, when there will invariably be conflicting needs and wants between them? This is particularly important now when businesses are facing into tough decisions – how can they inform these decisions and bring people along with them in a way that is broadly accepted by all? [i]
We all know from our one to one relationships that the people we can have effective, constructive, and sometimes robust exchanges with tend to be the relationships that provide invaluable insights and help us to reflect on and clarify our thinking. These relationships are built on trust and mutual respect. But how can we create relationships built on trust and mutual respect with large groups of people? How can a business create trusted relationships with its employees, customers, suppliers, investors and wider society?
We often ask the people in the organisations we work with to consider each person affected by their decisions. Then we ask them ‘how do you know?’ In many companies they ‘know’ through different types of surveys. And they inform or tell their stakeholders what they are doing and how they are performing through reports and other forms of communication. But is this enough to foster a trusted relationship based on mutual respect?
It is easy to say that enabling and welcoming constructive dialogue is a good thing – but it is of course not easy or obvious how to go about this. Especially in a large organisation that genuinely wants to change but might have no track record of fostering these types of communications and relationships – and may well have a few skeletons lurking in its cupboards. It could feel a bit like opening up a Pandora’s Box. With that in mind – here are some questions to think about to help work out how to make a start:
What is it that you want to know and what do you plan to do with what you find out?
When I am at the hairdressers and the person washing my hair asks if the temperature is ok, I expect them to adjust it if I say it is too hot or too cold. But how many times have you responded to a survey from a company about a product you have brought, or completed an employee satisfaction survey? And how many times did you see anything change as a result of what you said? How did that make you feel?
Thinking about why you ask for input, and how what people say might inform your decisions, can help inform how you ask and how you manage expectations.
Why are you asking?
- What is the rationale and what is the opportunity?
- What might happen as a result?
- Could the response change anything important?
What is the motivation behind seeking input?
- Is it to listen, hear and understand different perspectives?
- Is to resolve or inform a specific decision?
- Are you seeking validation or justification?
- Is it to appease, to show you are listening?
- Are you just going through the motions?
What are your expectations of the outcomes?
- To find a solution everyone is happy with?
- To help reach a compromise?
- To understand different perspectives, gather different points of view, circumstances and perspectives to inform decisions?
- To reach mutual solutions everyone can ‘live with’?
- To foster co-operation?
- Something else?
What might the other parties’ expectations of the outcomes be?
Businesses may fear reputational or other risks in engaging in open dialogue – for example if there have been issues of trust in the past. In these situations it is even more important to have clarity on the intent of the dialogue and transparency in the process, this includes considering the intent of those the business is in dialogue with (this is harder to manage) and carefully managing the expectations of the various stakeholders.
Who should you be seeking to have dialogue with?
The word ‘stakeholders’ is the term commonly used to refer to employees, customers, investors, suppliers and so on – but the term conjures up an image of people each claiming their share or stake. In thinking about the relationships on which the long term success of a business depends it could be helpful to think about this more broadly. For example, some businesses rely on a broad range of workers that may not be traditional employees, including those who work for them via the gig economy or outsourced services. Whole communities could be directly affected by the direct or indirect operations of a business or by their goods or services, and the business’ operations could be having a significant impact on future generations. Many of these ‘stakeholders’ don’t have a direct stake in the business but could have a significant influence on the long term success of the business; engaging in dialogue with them to understand their issues and concerns could be important and helpful to the business.
Should the dialogue be with just one or multiple ‘stakeholders’?
Depending on the circumstances, it might be more appropriate to have dialogue with single stakeholder groups e.g. with employees. However, in some circumstances, involving multiple stakeholders can bring the advantage of each group hearing the perspective of others and appreciating any potential trade-offs, it can also aid cooperation and shed light on the interdependence of relationships. [ii]
How should ‘stakeholders’ be represented?
There may be circumstances when it might be appropriate for an NGO, a trade organisation or another representative body to represent a particular group, for example where the power dynamic means a group might fear the consequences of giving honest feedback – this might be the case for some employees or suppliers, or where it is difficult to reach a particular stakeholder, for example on environmental issues or issues that affect communities in the supply chain or other communities.
One advantage of participants talking for themselves rather than being represented by an NGO, campaigning group or other body is that you get to meet the ‘person’ as opposed to discussing an ‘issue’.
There are randomised ways of pulling people together so they reflect (but not represent) a particular ‘community’. These have been used when pulling together citizens assemblies and other similar forums and can have broader application. [iii]
How can the process be managed so that everyone’s voice is heard?
- Good facilitation is key, it is important to create space and set clear rules of engagement so all can be heard.
- In any dialogue it is important to think about how to manage the power dynamic (e.g. in dialogue with employees who might not feel comfortable speaking openly for fear of losing their jobs, or suppliers afraid to lose their contracts).
- It may also be worth considering enabling wider involvement of people not directly participating in the dialogue and having a process which enables others to be able to contribute in some way.
- Listening helps to build integrity & trust – but we can often unconsciously apply ‘filters’ when we listen, listening to play back a positive story. Sometimes there can be different insights if someone else listens and reflects back to the business, so the exceptional or unusual is not filtered out.
- Although it is good to manage the process to ensure voices are heard, there may also be some benefit being comfortable with not knowing where it will go. Part of the point of dialogue is not to have the ‘answer’ but to enter into it in the ‘spirit of enquiry’.
Finally, some people look at relationships through the lens of what they can get out of them – rather than just valuing the relationship for its own sake. Constructive dialogue can aid learning and help strengthen relationships. Treating people with dignity includes listening and sharing – this exchange has its own value. More can come out of it, but entering into dialogue with a spirit of reciprocity means seeing it as a ‘gift’ rather than as a transaction where you are just putting something in to get something out.
This blog is a reflection of our thinking and is continuing to evolve. I would be glad of any comments, examples and to hear what you have learned from work you have been involved in either in, or working with, a business that has sought to do this, that can help inform and inspire others.
[i] In this article Margaret Heffernan discusses how if we want a sound and healthy future, we have first to find a way of defining it that builds in the quest for legitimacy and justice: We ignore the people at our peril » IAI TV
[ii] The public participation charity Involve has a plethora of information on planning participatory processes on its website including: toolbox of public participation and planning a participatory process
[iii] The Climate Assembly UK used Sortition to recruit a group of people to participate and this approach can be is used to select groups of people for other purposes.