Avoiding Stakeholder Controversy — How to Not End Up on the Front Page (for the Wrong Reasons)

Stakeholders are demanding that their voices be heard like never before in history. And, they have the tools — and increasingly the leverage — to do so.

Strikes. Protests. Lawsuits. Social media campaigns. Unrest on the part of any stakeholder group can very quickly snowball from a Glassdoor review into a costly mess for any business. In just the past two weeks, news headlines included Kroger, Tesla, and Amazon because of employee protests. It seems like every week a new high-profile company is being placed into the unflattering spotlight — often by their own employees!

In the World Economic Forum’s “Guide to Stakeholder Capitalism for Boards of Directors,” they describe attending to stakeholder concerns as not just a moral imperative, but a distinctly economic one:

“The ability of companies to address issues such as climate change, natural resource scarcity, human rights, inclusion and diversity, data protection, and privacy and to be resilient in the face of natural and economic shocks increasingly impacts their ability to create and sustain economic value and to manage risks and preserve value.”

The key here is to understand that big problems most often begin as small problems. Small betrayals. Small inequities. Small aberrations in culture. The mistake is to turn a blind eye. To think that the small things will just go away.

The earlier you recognize and address what is of fundamental concern to a stakeholder, the better. To be sure, this is of practical benefit for the company by preventing these grievances from being legislated out in the open.

Perhaps even more importantly — it’s also what’s required to create a culture that really works. Where stakeholders are happy, fulfilled, engaged, and productive.

As I’ve written in the past, Stakeholder Leadership™ is not about giving every person what they want in every circumstance. If you are running a business that employs many people and interacts with many stakeholders, you will not please everyone, all of the time.

However, paying attention to the domains of discontent will support you in addressing the cares rising to the surface before they get out of hand — for everyone involved.

Have a look around your organization and ask:

  1. Where have I noticed tension / unease / upset amongst my stakeholders?
  2. What has me reluctant to investigate or take action?
  3. What small action or overture can I make today towards addressing it?

Those small actions and overtures will add up over time. For the most part, people are actually quite reasonable — they want to be heard, to be considered, to be taken into account by leadership, even if they don’t always get exactly what they had hoped for. So, take the small steps. Get curious. And you may find yourself co-inventing new possibilities for your organization.

Kari is CEO of an executive leadership firm, supporting leaders to align and elevate performance. See more at www.grangernetwork.com