Wednesday, July 23, 2014

E pluribus unum

In our interconnected society, the behavior of public, private and non-profit organizations affects an increasing number of actors. Especially when it comes to complex socio-economic issues, organizational decision-makers face a large number of stakeholders with different norms, values and interests. The vision of consumer goods manufacturer Unilever is a good example for the efforts organizations make to reconcile these stakeholder interests: “[...] to double the size of the business while reducing our environmental footprint and increasing our positive social impact“ (Unilever, Annual Report 2013), which takes into account the impact of business on different actors.

For several years organizations have tried to take into account the perspectives of their stakeholders through thematic dialogues in collaborative settings. Here, a socio-economic issue usually forms the center of the dialogue, not the initiating company. Nestlé, for example, has organized dialogues on the security of food and water supply and is participating as a member of the 4C association in discussions on sustainable international coffee cultivation. On the one hand, by participating in and initiating stakeholder dialogues organizations want to build public trust and demonstrate their proactive responsibility with socio-economic issues. On the other hand, stakeholder dialogues also function as an early warning system for identifying future stakeholder claims that might emerge from the strategic behavior of organizations. Last but not least stakeholder dialogues can also promote innovations at the intersection of the different stakeholder perspectives (c.f. Kimakowitz, 2010).

In research and practice it became clear though that decision-makers consider stakeholder dialogues to be quite resource-intensive and the actors involved are often disappointed with the results. In addition to organizational, political and strategic reasons, social psychology offers another explanation for this phenomenon: In a dialogue, individuals represent the norms, values and interests of their stakeholder collective. In the beginning of a dialogue, these group affiliations are at center stage, which often leads to a positioning and distancing among the different stakeholder representatives. Moderators of stakeholder dialogues therefore aim at showing and emphasizing the similarities in norms, values and interests among the participating stakeholder representatives. This process can be very challenging and may even end the dialogue entirely.

Recent research in social psychology has led to the paradoxical insight that the differences in norms, values and interests of stakeholders can also be considered as a common ground. The consensus on the diversity of the stakeholders participating in the dialogue therefore is the shared basis on which a fruitful interactive process can build. Not a forced focus on shared views but the mutual recognition of differences in norms, values and interests enables discussion and exploration in a stakeholder dialogue. This eventually leads to a deeper understanding of the different stakeholder perspectives and to innovative approaches related to socio-economic issues.

Organizations from the public, private and non-profit sector should therefore see the differences in the various perspectives in a stakeholder dialogue not as a risk but as an opportunity for a mutually inclusive process. You can find this motto, by the way, on every one-dollar bill: E pluribus unum.
Tom Schneider

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