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Stakeholder engagement: influence by being influenced

Reciprocity can be the key to being an effective leader.

For the corporate sustainability leader, stakeholders can be a goldmine of valuable information, resources and support. They can help you manage issues before they blow up and find innovative ways to solve the most complex of challenges. Stakeholder engagement strategy is often reduced to a clinical process of mapping and assessing and project managing. But within that process are real live people and dealing with us humans can be messy. In this four-part series, we explore some essential skills and mindsets you and your team can build trusted partnerships with your stakeholders. Read the past two articles here and here.

"We’re not who we say we are, we’re not who we want to be. We are the sum influence and impact that we have, in our lives, on others." – Carl Sagan.

Years ago, I begged my way onto a CSR advisory group for a global Fortune 500 company; it sounded like fun and a great networking opportunity. At the kickoff meeting, I found myself surrounded by the glitterati of the sustainability world — high profile professionals from big name think tanks, universities, NGOs — thought leaders who knew what needed to be done to save the world.

The corporate CSR team had brought in their colleagues from the executive team, procurement, operations, external affairs and investor relations. The company was taking this meeting very seriously, sending in the big guns to hear from the stakeholders.

By the first coffee break, it had all been figured out. Only the reps from the company’s business units didn’t seem so convinced.
The expert advisers had been primed to review the sustainability strategy and offer feedback. And so they dutifully did.  One after the other in rapid-fire succession, they presented brilliant, logical, well-researched critiques of the company’s material impacts and prescribed solutions to address these. By the first coffee break, it had all been figured out.

Only the reps from the company’s business units didn’t seem so convinced. Looking around the conference table, you could some of them slouched back in their chairs, eyes glazed over, impassive, almost bored faces. Others were fidgeting in their seats, tight-mouthed, eyebrows knitted together. Some had tuned out completely, playing with their iPhones, or taking calls in the hall. How could they be so indifferent — the experts just gave them all the answers. For free.

Well, as a good friend of mine recently reminded me: "No one likes to be criticized." "The Trusted Advisor Field Book," in laying out the dynamics of influence, stated that you must earn the right to be right. To do so, it provided a couple of rules of thumb:

  • Understand that humans are both rational and emotional. Logic and facts alone will not win the day. As corny as this may sound, you need to appeal to people’s heart, not just their minds. What do they value? What drives them? What are they feeling in the moment?
  • Use the principle of reciprocity. Robert Cialdini, in his seminal bestseller "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion," said that we as humans are driven to "try to repay, in-kind, what another person has provided us." In the world of stakeholder engagement, one of the most important things you can give and repay is active listening. People will be open to your perspective once they feel you have listened to them and see where they are coming from.
  • Listen with empathy.

In the case of the meeting I described above, even though we all participated with the best of intentions, we were not skilled in earning the right to be right. It might have been helpful for the company reps to first lay out their perspectives and business challenges around sustainability and then open a brainstorming discussion on potential co-created solutions. Were meeting facilitators involved, they might coach and remind participants on how to listen empathetically and build on each other’s ideas. A lot of us, myself included, can be so focused on getting our points across, we completely forget about the person we’re trying to convince. 

Even though we all participated with the best of intentions, we were not skilled in earning the right to be right.
Performance coach Brendan Burchard, in his book "High Performing Habits," said the way to influence someone is to "first relate with them and then help them raise their ambitions … The first part happens when you ask rather than accuse. The second happens when you work to shape their thoughts and challenge them to rise."

He described how by asking lots of questions about what the other person wants, the outcomes sought and ideas on how to approach an issue, you build buy-in and collaboration. "People support what they create," he stated. Cialdini described being liked as a "weapon of influence" and that creating a sense of cooperation and teamwork is a tried-and-true approach to being liked.

Influencing stakeholders, both internal and external, requires risk-taking. To influence, you must be open to being influenced, to having your mind changed. Letting go of controlling the conversation and pre-determining the outcomes of a discussion can be scary and requires trust that your stakeholders will not manipulate the situation to drive their agenda. Setting clear engagement expectations and boundaries for what’s on and off the table; being transparent; modeling active listening; and remembering the Principle of Reciprocation help mitigate the risks and increase your influence. 

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