Engaging stakeholders demands much more from organizations than merely telling them what the organization is doing. Engagement needs mutuality and dialogue.
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One sure way to build reputation is to cultivate relationships with stakeholders by getting to know and understand their concerns and expectations. This is known as engaging.
From an organizational perspective, engaging means involving stakeholders in a positive way in organizational activities. The ISO 26000 principles for social responsibility define stakeholder engagement as “all those activities undertaken by organizations to create opportunities for dialogue between an organization and one or more of its stakeholders with the aim of providing an informed basis for the organization’s decisions.”
Benefits of engaging
The benefits of engaging include organizational and individual learning, culture adaptation, and most importantly improved organizational performance. This is because engagement promotes taking stakeholder perspectives into strategic planning and helps decision-makers understand more clearly how their decisions affect value creation (or not) for all interest groups.
Engaging stakeholders is difficult and it demands much more from organizations than merely telling them what the organization is doing.
Engagement implies a two-way relationship, one grounded in mutuality, where two parties “experience real or symbolic shared commonalities of visions, goals, sentiments, or characteristics, including shared acceptance of differences that validate the person’s world-view”. The payoff for mutuality are stakeholders’ trust in and satisfaction with the relationship between themselves and the organization.
Mutuality demands dialogue.
The purpose of engagement is to build mutually beneficial relationships between the firm and its stakeholders. This occurs through dialogue.
In a true dialogue, organizations engage with stakeholders and publics to make things happen, to help make better decisions, to keep citizens informed, and to strengthen organizations and society. This is why researchers like Taylor and Kent propose positioning engagement within dialogue theory.
A ‘dialogic engagement’ enables interaction between organizations and stakeholders as it promotes understanding, goodwill and what might be described as coorientation, a shared view of reality. It presents a unique opportunity for the possibility of stakeholders to influence the organization as much as the organization influences the stakeholder.
The public relations view of engagement requires that organizations:
- Interact with stakeholders only after sufficient research is done to adequately understand an issue, key stakeholders, and cultural variables.
- Demonstrate positive regard for stakeholders’ input, experience and needs.
- Interact for relational purposes (long-term) and not just to solve or deal with immediate problems or issues.
- Interact with stakeholders to get their advice and counsel on issues of mutual concern.
- Interact in a way that contributes to society where organizations and stakeholders are aware of their mutual dependencies and act together for the greater good.
Dialogue is Hard
Achieving mutuality through dialogue is difficult but is necessary if organizations are to engage their stakeholders, many of whom may be hostile to the organization.
However, people either have a tendency to take control by asserting their own viewpoint and not asking others about theirs, or they give up control where they give in because they think the other person is wrong and is not worth engaging with further.
In both cases the outcome is that we believe we are right and the other person is wrong. This leads to, among other things, miscommunication and little commitment.
The spirit of dialogue
Communication practitioners can help their organizations understand that engaging with stakeholders means having the communication skills needed to practice dialogue and to achieve mutuality. Key among these are reflection, inquiry and advocacy.
- Reflection is an internally focused skill where agents are more aware of their own thinking and reasoning processes.
- Inquiry engages the two parties in a communication process in a joint learning process. Here the objective is to understand the thinking and reasoning processes of the other.
- Advocacy is the process of communicating one’s own thinking and reasoning in a manner that makes them visible for others. From an organizational learning perspective, the advocacy role is perhaps more in the spirit of dialogue because the communicating parties want to learn from each other and each recognizes that the other party has valid interests that must be respected.
These skills can be learned, and the investment is worth it. Organizations that practice mutuality or have the concept of mutuality as their over-riding operating principle are more likely to relate better with their stakeholders and thus are more likely to achieve engagement by those same stakeholders.
Argyris, C. and D.A. Schön. 1978. Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
Hagerty, B. M. K., Lynch-Sauer, J., Patusky, K. L. and M. Bouwsema (1993). An Emerging Theory of Human Relatedness, Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 25, 4, 291-96.
ISO. (2010). Guidance on social responsibility. International StandardISO/DIS 26000. Geneva: International Organisation for Standardisation.
Taylor, M. & M. L. Kent (2014) Dialogic Engagement: Clarifying Foundational Concepts, Journal of Public Relations Research, 26:5, 384-398, DOI:10.1080/1062726X.2014.956106
This article is first published in Communication for Leaders No. 2 - 2016.
Communication for Leaders is a Science Communication Magazine published by Centre for Corporate Communication and Department of Communication and Culture at BI Norwegian Business School.