The keys to stakeholder engagement: start with building trust

The keys to stakeholder engagement: start with building trust

Photo of an Aussie mutt
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The ultimate face of loyalty.

This is the first in a four-part series exploring essential skills and mindsets for building trusted partnerships with your stakeholders. Stakeholders can be a goldmine of valuable information, resources and support. Yet stakeholder engagement strategy is often reduced to a clinical process of mapping and assessing and project managing. Yet within that process are real, live people.

"Oh, you’ve come all the way from D.C.," Dave said. "I see. And I guess you’re gonna tell us how to do it right?"

My client, Angie, had asked me to find opportunities with stakeholders to improve implementation of her company’s sustainability goals. I’d flown halfway across the country to interview suppliers, competitors, NGOs, government agencies and employees. I’d painstakingly crafted a comprehensive list of interview questions and an intro script, all neatly attached to a clipboard which I carried fastidiously "into the field."

"No sir," I responded to Dave, my client’s supplier. "I’m just here to get your perspective so Angie can do things better."

"And who are you?" he asked, tight-lipped.

He wouldn’t say another word until I gave him my bona fides, which included having once worked in operations, in the same field as his. Strangely enough, that wasn’t good enough. He didn’t just want my professional credentials. He also wanted to know if I was a Washington Nats fan, whether I voted for Trump, and what kind of dogs I have (Aussie mutts, if you must know).

It turns out that the question, "And who are you?" is a fundamental building block of trust. Building trust, at its core, requires taking a risk. The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook defines the "Trust Equation" as:

Trustworthiness = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self-Orientation

In this context, credibility is about what you know and how you say it. You can become more credible by acquiring deep subject matter expertise and by expressing that expertise honestly. In this case, the fact that I came from the same industry as Dave helped him to see me as somewhat credible.

Reliability means just what it sounds like, doing what you say you’re going to do. Over and over and over. In this case, I had no way of demonstrating reliability. Often though, we are interacting with the same stakeholder or advisory group over an extended period of time. Things such as being on time for meetings, following through on action items you promised to do, setting and meeting expectations and taking responsibility when you can’t, are what make people think of you as reliable.

This brings us to intimacy and self-orientation, the two areas that the Trusted Advisors’ research show are most commonly lacking. Whereas reliability and credibility are skills many of us find easy to develop, intimacy is a lot about opening up on a personal level and being vulnerable enough that the other person sees you as authentic, human. Intimacy makes the other person feel safe enough to share things that otherwise could come back and bite them. Empathetic listening helps create intimacy. And, as simple as it may sound, so does letting down your hair. In this case, once Dave knew that I liked baseball (even though he rooted for the rival Braves), he no longer saw me as a scary stranger.

Finally, we come to self-orientation, in other words, focusing on your own needs or wants instead of the other person’s. Simply put: The more you focus on yourself in the interaction, the less the other person will trust you. One way to manage your self-orientation is by asking the other person lots of questions to understand what really makes them tick. Another way is to use empathetic listening, even when it is really hard to sit there while they say stuff you might not want to hear.

By contrast, talking too much and being opaque are surefire ways of screwing up the "S" in the Trust Equation.  Admittedly, I love to gab. Luckily, Dave must have thought my transparency and curiosity outweighed the constant yammering, because we ended up having a fruitful and open conversation.

My interaction with Dave was transactional, but still required a level of trust to get his honest feedback. For building longer-term relationships, the Trusted Advisor offers the following principles:

  1. Focus on the other.
  2. Take a collaborative approach.
  3. Take a medium to long-term relationship perspective.
  4. Make it a habit to be transparent.

Test the Trust Equation yourself, and see how your most valued stakeholder relationships improve.

Note: Names and ancillary details have been changed to protect the innocent.