Engaging the angry crowd and finding the answers – Claire Cater’s 5 Human Lessons for leaders facing adversity

Claire Cater, 1 August, 2017

If I’ve learnt one thing, it’s that the tougher the problem, the more reason to engage. Sadly, the very thought can strike fear in the heart of those who have faced angry stakeholders. It can make you want to don your trainers and run for the hills.

All too often, the experience is one of individuals and organisations finding themselves feeling like political footballs, with a big or a little p, in what can become an ‘us and them’ battleground. I get questions such as, how do we avoid anger and conflict, can you make it robust and keep us out of court? Valid questions of course, but not the place to start.

Start with the humans in mind. Put yourself in other’s shoes and think about what makes the best relationships in life. Honesty, trust, transparency, listening, understanding and, yes, difficult conversations… you get my drift. Engagement done well can be transformative, rewarding and even fun. It can bring out the best in people. It isn’t likely to be all plain sailing, meaningful dialogue rarely is. Polite silence can be more difficult and damaging as you don’t know what you’re dealing with and you miss opportunities for resolution.

So here are some lessons I’ve learnt from the fabulous humans I’ve had the pleasure of working with or watching from afar:

1. People are often not clear what engagement is and what it’s really designed to do

Engagement is designed to create a mutually beneficial outcome: Start here and the rest will follow. Humans, in my   experience, mostly want what’s best for each other. They will listen to you if you listen to them. The clue is in the word ‘mutual’. It will help you do the following:

Be clear on what you are doing when: People often talk ‘consultation’ when they mean ‘engagement’.

2. Start when you think you’re not ready – that’s the point of engagement

People tend to wait too long, as the tension builds, when in reality everyone is just trying to ‘work it out’. That’s what you should do together. Avoid starting when you have a shiny idea to share. People prefer to be part of the problem solving, to be involved from the start and, frankly, they usually have a lot to offer and, in many cases, the best ideas.

This way, they will trust you more and your ideas, solutions, products and services will be all the better too.

Work with people every step of the way; don’t guess or try to work it all out in the boardroom on a flip chart. Here are three steps to get started…

Step A. Build understanding and make it mutual: I’ve seen a lot of underinvestment in really getting to know the issues, each other, the challenges, parameters, what’s on the table and what’s not, the day-to-day realities, alongside the facts and stats, and making information clear and compelling. Know what you are all working with. Think about ‘care.data’ – some understanding of where people were starting from could have avoided a confusion, mistrust and slowed progress.

Step B. Purpose comes first (not the idea): Work out the shared purpose with your stakeholders. Be clear what you are each seeking to achieve and be honest about it too. Don’t fudge the difficult stuff like money and risk. It’s important and worth the effort. Talk to people, do some research.

Step C. Design lines of enquiry with care, they should guide you: What is it you need to learn, test and explore? If you don’t, you risk getting half way, or even to the end, and realising you missed something important.

3. Engagement should be the rule not the exception

We live in a world of systems and networks, not linear hierarchy. Power is shared and ‘agency’ is created collectively. I see the need for people to connect more than ever to enable them to do the best and right thing – not just when it’s tough but all the time. People need to work in cultures that make that OK and encourage openness, allowing them to be unafraid of seeking help from others or having tough conversations.

If people are going to make progress, our research showed there were 5 human factors they all need.  If you are engaging and consulting on change, it’s worth remembering you have to make sure these are in place.

4. It makes human sense, organisational sense and business sense. It’s an imperative, not a cuddly nice-to-have

Done well, engagement helps organisations design and co-create the best ways forward, and develop products, services and ideas which will work, which people want and get excited about.

5. The right tools and techniques matter. Match the purpose and people to the approach. Seek to engage head and heart (that includes you too)

When things are tough you need to find ways to let people be heard and create the right environment to plan new ways forward. You need to create some separation between the two. It won’t always be easy – looking back is often easier – but you will get there as long as the purpose is clear and you have understanding first. Here are just some of the tools we use:

Appreciative inquiry: we often have to ‘hold the line’ when activists want to take conversations in another direction. This is the very human side of engagement.

Lego and purposeful play: to unlock big ideas and make sense of the complex. You use 70% more of your brain when thinking and building at the same time and it allows everyone to contribute equally. We used it very successfully with clinicians and leaders to think about the design of the new Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch.

Forum Theatre: to allow people to experience the issues first hand in a safe environment and start difficult conversations.

Visual minutes: not just because they look good and people like to share them on Twitter, but because they democratise the issues captured and can systhesise ideas which might take a page of words to explain with far less impact.

Three last things:

  • Be authentic at all times
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep
  • Don’t be a boiling frog – they will sit in the pan while the water heats up around them, without seemingly noticing, and die. Throw them in when it’s hot and they jump straight out.

The power of the crowd is a wonderful thing.