I’m Really Listening: Five Steps for True Stakeholder Engagement

By Matthew Landkamer

Have you ever asked somebody for advice you knew you might not follow, but you wanted them to feel part of the decision-making? I’ll admit that I do this with my kids when we’re trying to decide on a destination for a family dinner out. I’ll ask them where they want to go, hoping they’ll choose the place I (secretly) want to go. Sometimes they get what they want, and sometimes I get what I want—but it rarely happens without somebody getting a little cranky. It’s what I deserve for being a sometimes-disingenuous dad.

The kids are stakeholders in my family dinner decision-making scenario. If you’re a leader in an organization, you probably have stakeholders in your decision-making processes that are much higher, well, stakes than choosing a pizza place. These stakeholders might be internal—the team you lead, perhaps—or they may be external, such as your Board of Directors or your funders. How can you truly engage them in decision-making without abdicating your responsibility as a leader?

Real engagement isn’t as hard as it sounds, provided you’re willing to lay a little groundwork first:

1. Decide how tightly to hold the reins
You need to know where your boundaries are. If you are willing to share decision-making, even a little bit, you need to define how little or how much. If you’re leading a team, you may find you want input on big decisions, but you’ll want to retain final say on the decision. Here are some questions you might ask yourself: Am I willing to change course based on input from my stakeholders? How much am I willing to change—is it an evolutionary change, or a revolutionary change I’m willing to accept? Am I willing to let stakeholders make decisions, or do I prefer if they come back with recommendations that I will make a final decision on? Are there some decisions that are off-limits—things that only I can decide?

2. Set expectations with your stakeholders
Once you understand your boundaries, your stakeholders need to understand them too. Be very clear in expressing who gets a chance to weigh in, what the decision-making process looks like, and who gets final say.

We’ve done this at Coraggio when we re-designed our hiring process. When we were smaller, each candidate met with all of the consultants. That’s not practical any longer, so now we empower a team of five to interview the candidates and make a recommendation to the partners. Because the process is carefully documented, we all understand that the hiring committee members are the ones who get to weigh in, that what they decide is considered a recommendation to the partners, and that the partners hold the ultimate decision-making responsibility once they have met the final candidate. There are no surprises because we all understand the boundaries.

3. Use active listening approaches
Gathering input is good—but demonstrating to your stakeholders that you understand what they are telling you is even better. This can be as simple as holding a meeting and capturing what is said on a flip chart or whiteboard. You can check your understanding with your stakeholders as you capture: “If I understand you correctly, you are saying ‘x’—did I hear that right?”

Another approach, if you have a larger group, would be to survey stakeholders and prepare a response back to them sharing the top themes of what you heard from the survey. If you’re good at theming what you heard, almost everybody will recognize some of what they told you in at least one of the themes.

4. Spend time reflecting on what you heard
If you’ve gone to the trouble of gathering feedback, don’t just jump to a conclusion. Spend some time thinking about what reinforced what you thought you already knew, and what surprised you or gave you new insights: How might these things influence your course of action? What changes in course are you willing to make based on this input?

5. Demonstrate learning when you share decisions
This is far and away the most important step! You could do everything I’ve described above, and still have the whole thing blow up by skipping this step. It might even be worse than never asking for input at all. If you have made a decision that aligns with what you heard from stakeholders, it’s an easier message to deliver, but still very important. If they don’t hear this from you, the cynics will believe the whole thing was a ruse and you knew what your decision was the whole time. Be sure to communicate that:

  • You asked in the spirit of shared decision-making
  • You heard some important messages (repeat the themes you created earlier)
  • You made your decision with the assistance of that input
  • You are thankful for the input and look forward to future opportunities to share decision-making with your stakeholders.

If, on the other hand, you needed to make a decision that was contrary to what you heard from your stakeholders, that’s going to be a little more difficult. You need to share mostly the same messages as above, with one really important addition: you’ll need to explain why, despite the feedback, you’re going to go in a different direction. Explaining the whyof that will need to be very clear—it may be that there is additional data that shaped your thinking, or that you have specific insights that the stakeholders didn’t. In any case, it’s really important that you demonstrate you understood and carefully considered their point of view before making the decision. If you don’t, those cynics I mentioned before will be certain that you weren’t listening.

With a little practice, a process like this can become second-nature for a leader, and the dividends it pays in stakeholder engagement are worth the extra effort.