The sustainability win-win generates better outcomes for people and the planet, and helps businesses to make more profit. Smart companies are placing sustainability at the heart of strategy and it is paying with greater innovation and profits and enhanced reputation. Small steps + unified action = big results.
Your company is probably one of a growing number that acknowledge the importance of sustainability. Sustainable companies are those that provide what people want to buy, and operate in a manner conducive to the long term prosperity and well-being of the communities they serve. Effective stakeholder engagement is at the heart of sustainability. Your stakeholders are a great source of knowledge that will help you to improve business processes and future-proof your business.
In addition to providing resources to assist you on your journey to greater sustainability, we explore the rational and philosophy supporting the need for sustainability. We are facing a crises, and we believe that humanity has the resources to create a sustainable world. We are not advocating a stark and frugal environmentalism - we envision a sustainable world of prosperity, peace and justice.
The term “communication” embraces the range of human interaction. Being more precise about the type of communication we want to enhance, enables us to better evaluate the quality of our communication, and move the organisation forward with specific communication skills, such as engagement.
Communication is interaction. Messages are given and received verbally and non-verbally. When people ask for “more communication” what specifically do they mean? Such a request is very broad and wide-open to interpretation. Here is a model that I call the communication spectrum. It represents a range of communication flavours that we might encounter in our most intimate relationships, our families, communities and workplaces.
At the top of the spectrum in the green zone are appreciation and engagement. We want more of these for effective communication to foster the development of the important relationships in our lives. Talk is in the neutral range of the spectrum. It can range from the more positive manifestations such as dialogue, (inferring an exchange) through to monologue (inferring communication with a dominant party).
The red zone is where our communication can go wrong, and so often does. Debate is ok, but not when the contest is more important than the communication. Conflict can be very productive, but it also depletes us. And communication is really heading for the red zone when someone withdraws, seeing no point in further exchanges, or a lack of safety. Both physical and verbal abuse are communication, and neither serves any useful purpose.
This model provides an easy to understand tool to evaluate the quality of our communication. We can simply ask: Is this communication above, or below, the horizon? Or, how much of my time do I spend above the horizon? What would happen if I spent more time in engagement and appreciation?
Effective stakeholder engagement will happen in a workplace communication climate where engagement is valued, not just as a skill to use with external stakeholders, but as a predominant way of communicating. Appreciation is not ingratiation – where an underling curies favour in a transactional manner. It is more the result of experiencing empathy for others, being grateful for their contribution and gaining insights into their world. Thus appreciation is a skill that supports engagement.
So what is the quality of communication like in your key relationships? And, where it is needed, how can you move it above the horizon?
Note that the categories here are very broad. Others could be included. Do you see any major omissions?
Supporting an engagement ethos
The communication spectrum prompts us to ensure most of our communication is either engaging or appreciating. Here are a few tools to support engagement practices. Engagement infers establishing rapport and mutual understanding with others, supported by communication skills, such as active listening, that you are probably already familiar with. Click on the box below to see some tools for engagement including the shared meaning model, David Rock’s 5 levels of focus and Stephen Covey’s emotional bank account.
This simple and elegant model shows us that engagement happens when our understanding of an issue is consistent with the person we are communicating with. As engagement deepens, we can expect the overlapping area of shared meaning to grow.
In his book Quiet Leadership, David Rock identifies 5 levels of focus as in the diagram here. As with the communication spectrum, it has a horizon, and we need to be mindful that staying beneath the horizon too long is not good for communication. How often do you encounter those who tend to spend too much time communicating detail, problems and drama? Being mindful of the level of focus helps us to refocus on vision. This should ensure your communication is more engaging, especially when the vision expressed is relevant and inspiring for both parties. The key here is mindfulness – being able to be engaged in the communication, while at the same time being aware of the communication dynamics. This is no easy task, but comes easier with practice.
Peter and Susan Glaser teach a four-step model to facilitate communication. It is especially useful to enable a group of people to each identify and communicate something of importance to them – it enables lots of voices to be heard. Each participant gets a minute in total to make a point, support it with a reason, provide a brief example and quickly summarise. Try it in busy meetings, and to draw out the essence of someone’s thinking.
You may be aware of this idea from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Think of your communication as a transaction. Each time you communicate positively, you are making deposits in the other person’s emotional bank account. But when you criticise, or argue, you are making a withdrawl. This concepts illustrates how continued withdraws will soon “bankrupt” a relationship. The best way to prevent this is to make frequent deposits.
These concepts are simple but profound. Imagine how your workplace would change if there was solid intention and action to embed these engagement practices. If you think your communication has been aligned with these models, please leave a comment and let us know how it has made a difference.
Genuine and heartfelt appreciation is at the apex of communication. It facilitates our relationships, building enduring bonds. It’s a potent antidote for complacency and rejuvenates long-term workplace and personal relationships. Click on the “more on appreciation” box to learn more about positive psychology, appreciative enquiry and some great additional resources.
The disciplines of positive psychology and appreciative inquiry provide the conceptual framework and tools to support appreciation. Positive psychology identifies the negative bias in our thinking – understandable in an evolutionary context shaping risk aversion responses. In the twentieth century we invented hundreds of words to describe deficit and dysfunction (and built industries around these). Thus, in our private and organisational lives, we are naturally inclined to the negative. While acknowledging this, positive psychology aspires “to find and nurture genius and talent.” Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, identifies that those “experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones leads people to a tipping point beyond which they naturally become more resilient to adversity”. This calls us to be more aware of our emotions and look for the positive around us. Finding those things that we are grateful for, is the portal to appreciation. Viktor Frankl, in his inspiring Man’s Search for Meaning, reveals how this can happen in the most extreme environments:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken form a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitudes in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (pg 65 to 66).
As people respond to the myriad things that can go wrong, the default mode of operation in organisations can be fault-finding and problem-solving. David Cooperrider and others advocate an appreciative approach. “…problem-solving approaches are notorious for placing blame and generating defensiveness. ‘They sap your energy and tax your mind, and don’t advance the organization’s evolution beyond a slow crawl’”. By contrast appreciative inquiry advocates that we look for what is working well and magnify it. This is akin to the idea that the racing-car driver is best to focus on the road ahead rather than the wall. Appreciative inquiry can shape strategy or operations by selecting an affirmative topic, such as “where are our best examples of delivering a great customer experience?” and then working through the four stages of inquiry – discovery, dream, design and destiny (see below). Imagine the intensification of engagement and potential for positive change made possible by this process.
I believe that engagement is the gateway to appreciation, or a pre-requisite (I welcome your thinking on this). In situations where peoples’ voice is not given space for expression, appreciation will be a rare commodity. In many organisations islands of appreciation can develop amongst colleagues and teams in close (or virtual) proximity. The challenge is to make it more pervasive and immune to boundaries. And appreciation is not ingratiation. The organisation phenomena that fosters primitive “kiss up, kick down” behaviour creates the antithesis of appreciation.
Here are simple steps to increase appreciation
What has your experience of appreciation been – I would love to hear your story.
Here is the John Hayes video on appreciative enquiry.
Communication is a core skill for stakeholder engagement. How does listening fits with the communication spectrum?
Listening, as with communication, is generic. The communication spectrum helps us to be more specific about the type of communication we want to use, and the same principle applies with listening. For those who haven’t had some sort of coaching or training in listening (the majority of us?), listening is undifferentiated. Some may have learned about active listening. Part of the problem is that good listening, while outwardly passive, takes a lot of focus and discipline, and it’s a little hard to simultaneously listen, and stand back an observe yourself in action.
Using the communication spectrum, we can identify three zones of listening. In the neutral zone, our listening can be passive and possibly not very effective. We might be disinterested or bored. If our interest is piqued, we might either move towards being more engaged or, on the other hand toward debate and conflict.
If our listening heads south towards the red zone we begin to listen for what is wrong. You have probably caught yourself doing this – what started off as a conversation, at some stage became a contest. A clear sign is that you find yourself trying to score points and the communication takes on the pattern of strike and counter-strike of a rally in a tennis match. In formal debates, speakers have their own material to present, but are also listening to find fault in the arguments of the opposition. Debate in our democracies unfortunately operates on this premise, often yielding more heat than light.
If the communication heads for the green zone, the listener will draw on skills of rapport building, empathic listening or active listening. For some, these skills have developed non-consciously, others work at them. Expressing appreciation to others needs to be preceded by either observing, or listening for what is right about that person.
Communication skills are a core competence for any organisation aspiring to better stakeholder engagement. Improving staff communication skills, in either listening, speaking or writing, equips your staff to engage better internally and externally. One skill especially relevant is empathy. When working with people on engagement processes such as stakeholder mapping, or identifying materiality, I encourage them to think from the stakeholder’s perspective. It takes some practice – it is very easy for people to revert to their own perspective. I suspect this is because most of us are keen to maximise advantage for our organisation. Stakeholder communication calls us to be more nimble and inclusive in our thinking, listening and speaking.
Peter Bruce April 2010. Adapted from Peter’s http://stakeholderengagementnz.wordpress.com/
What is “Sustainability 2.0″
Well it is not yet an established concept. It has popped up from time to time over the last few years. But from the glimpses I have seen, it represents a profound change in the way we think about sustainability.
Two of the more authoritative pointers that form the concept, are the book Sustainability 2.0 by Ernesto van Peborgh and the late, great, C.K. Prahalad’sSeptember 2009 Harvard Business Review article. Van Peborgh’s book links sustainability 2.0 to the radical societal changes driven by Internet 2.0 and 3.0 – the participative web. The book’s case studies of companies pursuing sustainability, use three categories: pioneer companies, companies that change and sustainable companies. Companies that change, appear to typify Sustainability 1.0 – companies originally motivated to adopt sustainability as a response to some public relations crisis caused by unsustainable practices.
In the HBR article Why Sustainability Is Now The Key Driver of Innovation,C.K. Prahalad and his co-authors clearly articulate the change to what we might call sustainability 2.0. Companies move from risk aversion to aspiration. The authors claim “in the future, only companies that make sustainability a goal will achieve competitive advantage”. Thus, sustainability becomes a catalyst for rethinking business models, products, technologies and processes.
We are very near the beginning of this bell curve. Companies that position sustainability central to strategy are still rare. Prahalad asserts that most European and American executives believe that moves towards sustainability will erode competitiveness. “That’s why most executives treat the need to become sustainable as a corporate social responsibility, divorced from business objectives”.
(Nidumola, Prahalad & Rangaswami)
The new frontier is wide open. Prahalad calls sustainability the “motherlode of innovation”. It may well be the dominant driver for business development and opportunity over the next few decades. Some big players are taking full advantage and also driving sustainability through to their suppliers. Walmart announced sustainability 2.0 in 2008. That year Walmart directed more than 1000 Chinese suppliers to achieve sustainability targets.
This video shows how Walmart is applying Sustainability 2.0 to its massive fleet.
Prahalad and his co-authors outline five stages of sustainability that each offer opportunities to innovate. The article provides inspiring examples of how companies are exploiting these opportunities and finding new market niches in a recession. The stage 5 concept of next-practice, where businesses create new practices that transcend and displace current practice, infer a paradigm shift. The smart grid, where diverse electricity inputs and outputs move around a locality to maximise efficiency and minimise energy imports is cited as an example. At present we are so conditioned to remote distributed networks, that we take them for granted.
New movements require new language and new tools. Corporate social responsibility infers guilt and reparation whereas corporate sustainability is more future-focussed. Sustainability reporting is a tool designed for justification and to assuage guilt. Energy invested in sustainability initiatives is better spent pursuing innovation than pursuing a ranking on a reporting league table.
Of the sustainability tools on hand, stakeholder engagement appears more relevant to sustainability 2.0 than sustainability reporting. Stakeholder engagement is more future-focussed as it seeks to find the pathway forward in dialogue with stakeholders. Stakeholder conversations are where innovative ideas are likely to arise.
In conclusion, this blog is a tribute to C.K. Prahalad’s acute vision and humanity. In the article referred to here, and in his other recent work such as The Fortune At The Bottom Of The Pyramid, he has helped to open vistas where businesses can prosper, and importantly, we can collectively create a prosperous, just and sustainable world.
This table summarises key differences between sustainability 1.0 and 2.0. Of course, in reality many companies will have characteristics of both.
|Sustainability 1.0 (e.g. CSR)||Sustainability 2.0|
|motives include risk aversion and reputation management||motives more likely to include innovation|
|contribute to stakeholders through corporate philanthropy||focus on creating shared value with stakeholders|
|external communication is dominated by public relations||external communication is driven by engagement|
|sustainability is conceived as a cost||sustainability is conceived as competitive advantage|