By Dave MacLeod, author of Scaling Conversations and CEO of ThoughtExchange.com.
Can you name an excruciatingly slow, biased, yet overused business process that needs a serious overhaul? I can: stakeholder engagement, a practice organizations use to communicate 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 “fail”.
Let’s look at some of the reasons why stakeholder engagement isn’t working, and more importantly, where we can move towards instead.
I’m pretty sure that flawed terminology points to the issue of stakeholder engagement. I know what some of you are thinking, “How much can a lawsuit’s name really matter?” Carry with me.
Historically, the term “stakeholder” originated in the 18th century, to describe a bettor, such as the person in a card game who holds the money but walks away without any winnings. Interestingly, over time, the word came to mean almost the opposite. Today “stakeholder” defines someone who actually has an “interest in a business” or who is “involved in or influenced by a course of action”. I am endlessly fascinated by the dramatic evolution of this word.
That said, much more importantly, our modern use of ‘stakeholder’ is problematic because it is debunked. Stakeholder has become a generic term used to describe individuals or groups affected by the outcome of a project, but does not include critical characteristics of those involved, such as ownership or authority. For example, this is precisely why some indigenous groups discourage the business world of the use of the term. Instead, they recommend alternatives, such as “rightholders.” As sovereign people of the countries they inhabit, they have rights, they are titleholders and are intended to be influential partners in decision-making. A term like ‘stakeholder’, applied to such groups, undermines their true role, emphasizes passivity, and is disrespectful and flawed.
Now on to the term ‘engage’. This means arousing involvement or interest: Apply the brakes. Engage the enemy. Engage the warp drive. The gist of the term is the assumption that the thing or person to be involved… is not yet engaged.
From this premise, the use of terms like ‘engagement’ in business can 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 do better.” engage you in your work.” What’s going through your mind? You are unlikely to think, “Wow! My boss really cares about me! I can’t wait to learn how to be more involved in my work!” Instead, you’re more likely to have a disturbing thought like, “Crap. What have I done?”
The problem is that the “engagement” part that includes “stakeholder engagement” is based on the basic assumption that those it wants to engage aren’t yet. They are much more likely to be highly engaged, especially if they already work 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 read, “I’d like to meet with you at 4:00 PM to make sure my thoughts and efforts aligned with yours.” How does that feel to you? Compared to ‘engaged’, you undoubtedly feel much less wary, perhaps even more respected. This is because unlike ‘commitment’, the concept of ‘alignment’ presupposes that those involved are competent are already engaged and ready to level up.
Think about what would happen if you replaced the word “engagement” with “alignment” across your organization. “Survey on employee alignment.” “Customer Alignment Plan.” “Leadership Alignment Workshop.” Don’t these updated terms feel more uplifting and unifying and less healing?
Workplace as a community
Next, let’s look at the term “community.” A community is, simply put, an interdependent group in a shared environment.
Based on this, what’s stopping us from seeing all of our workplaces as communities? Lego and TedX are a few brands that have shifted to a community-driven model when it comes to their customers, who experience growth and success and outperform many of their competitors. Other highly regarded companies, including Toyota and Pixar, instill a strong sense of community throughout their business, 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 can feel inauthentic or uncomfortable at first. If so, try to spend some time figuring out why. You can learn a lot about your organization and your own beliefs. For example, replacing the word “stakeholder” with “community member” recognizes critical interdependencies — and highlights when that critical connectivity is missing.
The Dawn of ‘Community Attunement’
I think you can guess what comes next. What I’m proposing is that tomorrow’s leaders rethink concepts like ‘stakeholder engagement’ in favor of more forward-looking approaches such as ‘community alignment’. What would you do differently if you described your responsibility as aligning your community towards achieving a shared goal, rather than working to ‘engage your stakeholders’ in rolling out your change?
I think virtually any conscious leader will agree that in the third year of the pandemic, more than ever before, we must prioritize people above everything else. Part of this means taking steps to re-evaluate ideas that no longer work. Instead, we can experiment and be open to new ways that recognize our interdependence, promote respect for all, and unite around important, larger goals like our mission and purpose.