Each of us sees the world from our own point of view – from a mindset that we have developed consciously and unconsciously over our entire lives. We make assumptions about the way the world works, about what makes a business successful, and about what makes other people tick.
Often we aren’t even aware of these assumptions. Communicating with others who have different perspectives on the world is a difficult, yet crucial stakeholder management task. It is easy to claim that a stakeholder we find difficult to work with is being irrational or acting on emotion, especially when there is much at stake.
Whenever we are tempted to declare that a stakeholder is acting irrationally or “wrong”, we should try substituting the phrase, “I just don’t understand that stakeholder’s point of view.”
It may be that a stakeholder’s interests are different from those of the firm, or there may be external forces influencing the stakeholder, or the stakeholder may be motivated by a different set of values.
Wouldn’t it be nice to understand these things? We believe that there is no conflict that cannot be resolved if both parties to the conflict are willing to assume the other’s perspective.
Understanding a stakeholder’s perspective makes a firm much more effective at understanding the behaviour of, communicating with, and working with that stakeholder, and potentially addressing that stakeholder’s interests.
In our experience, asking a simple set of questions can help a firm understand a stakeholder’s perspective, thus resulting in more effective strategies (Freeman et al., 2007a):
1.What are this stakeholder’s main interests? How do we affect these interests? How are we affected by these interest?
2.Who are the groups and individuals who can affect this stakeholder? Who are the stakeholders stakeholders? And what is the stake (interest) of each?
3.What do the members of this group probably believe about us? What assumptions are they making? What assumptions do we make about them?
4.What are the natural coalitions that could occur? Where are the join interests? What do we and the stakeholder have in common? What are the major points of conflict?
5.What might cause a stakeholder to engage in behaviour that is more cooperative More harmful?
There is no “right” set of questions that works for all stakeholders under all circumstances, but these questions are a good start. Answering these questions is the same as constructing a theory about why stakeholders act a certain way and how their behaviour might be expected to change.
Managers have to put themselves in the stakeholder’s place and try to empathise with that stakeholder’s position. They must try to feel what the stakeholder feels and see the world from the stakeholder’s perspective.
It is not necessary to agree with the stakeholder’s point of view; however, assuming the position of a stakeholder allows the manager to more fully understand that stakeholder’s behaviour, and how to respond to it in a way that minimises potential harm to the firm and works toward a cooperative relationship with the stakeholder that allows more value to be created.