By Dave MacLeod, author of Scaling Conversations and CEO of ThoughtExchange.com.
Can you name an excruciatingly slow, biased, yet commonly used business process in need of a serious overhaul? I can: stakeholder engagement, a practice organizations use to interact with and influence stakeholders in projects.
But don’t just take it from me. Research firm McKinsey has gone as far as to state that most organizational stakeholder engagement exercises simply “fall flat.”
Let’s look at some reasons why stakeholder engagement doesn’t work, and more importantly, what we can evolve toward instead.
I’m pretty sure flawed terminology points to the problem of stakeholder engagement. I know what some of you are thinking: “How much can the name of a process really matter?” Bear with me.
Historically, the term “stakeholder” emerged in the 1700s, to describe a wager holder, such as the person in a card game who holds on to the money but walks away without any winnings. Interestingly, over time, the word then came to mean nearly its opposite. Today, “stakeholder” defines someone who actually has a “stake in an enterprise” or who is “involved in or affected by a course of action.” I am endlessly fascinated by the dramatic evolution of this word.
That said, far more importantly, our modern-day usage of “stakeholder” is problematic because it is disempowering. Stakeholder has become a blanket term used to describe individuals or groups affected by the outcome of a project, yet does not encompass critical characteristics of said impactees, such as ownership or authority. For instance, this is the very reason some indigenous groups discourage the business world from using the term. Instead, they recommend alternatives such as “rights holders.” As the sovereign people of the lands they inhabit, they have rights, are titleholders and are meant to be influential partners in decision-making. A term like “stakeholder,” when applied to such groups, undermines their true roles, highlights passivity and is disrespectful and flawed.
Now on to the term “engage.” This means to cause involvement or interest: Engage the brakes. Engage the enemy. Engage the warp drive. At the core of the term lies the assumption that the thing or person to be engaged is… not yet engaged.
On this premise, using terms like “engagement” in business could be inherently problematic. Consider this scenario: Your boss sends you a message that says, “Let’s meet at 4 p.m. I want to talk to you about how we can better engage you in your work.” What goes through your mind? It’s unlikely that you think, “Wow! My boss really cares about me! I can’t wait to learn how I can be more engaged in my work!” Instead, it’s more likely you have a worrying thought like, “Crap. What have I done?”
The problem is that the “engagement” portion that comprises “stakeholder engagement” sets out with the baseline assumption that those it seeks to engage are not already. It’s far more likely that they are very engaged, especially if they are already working for or alongside the organization.
Testing, Testing: ‘Alignment’ Versus ‘Engagement’
Now let’s go back to the above scenario—with a twist. Imagine, instead, your boss sent you a message that says, “I’d like to meet with you at 4 p.m. to make sure my thinking and efforts are aligned with yours.” How does that feel to you? Compared to “engage,” I’m sure you feel far less on guard, perhaps even better respected. This is because unlike “engagement,” the concept of “alignment” assumes those involved are competent, already engaged and ready to level up.
Consider what would happen if you attempted to swap out the word “engagement” with “alignment” across your organization. “Employee alignment survey.” “Customer alignment plan.” “Leadership alignment workshop.” Don’t these updated terms feel more elevating and unifying and less remedying?
Workplace As Community
Next, let’s look at the term “community.” A community, put simply, is an interdependent group in a shared environment.
Based on this, what stops us from seeing all of our workplaces as communities? Lego and TedX are a couple of brands that have shifted toward a community-driven model when it comes to their customers, experiencing growth and success and outperforming many of their competitors. Other highly-regarded companies, including Toyota and Pixar, instill a strong sense of community throughout their businesses, encouraging people to care about their place in the world, along with their colleagues and their work.
For some, using the word “community” to describe a workplace may at first feel inauthentic or uncomfortable. If this is the case, try spending some time digging into why. You may actually learn a lot about your organization and your own beliefs. For instance, replacing the word “stakeholder” with “community member” acknowledges critical interdependencies—and highlights when that critical connectivity is lacking.
The Dawn Of ‘Community Alignment’
I think you can guess what comes next. What I propose is that leaders of tomorrow rethink concepts like “stakeholder engagement” in favor of more future-forward approaches like “community alignment.” Rather than working to “engage your stakeholders” as you roll out your change, what would you do differently if you described your responsibility as aligning your community to achieving a shared goal?
I think pretty much every conscious leader out there would agree that in year three of the pandemic, more than ever before, we must prioritize people over all else. Part of this means taking steps to reevaluate ideas that don’t work anymore. Instead, we can experiment and be open to new ways that recognize our interdependence, foster respect for all and unifiy around important, bigger picture goals like our mission and our purpose.