Donna Kennedy-Glans: Facing your Critics, Constructively and Proactively

By June 2, 2016Latest News

In this three-part blog series, Donna provides practical advice on how to begin the sustainability planning discussion in your organization, with your stakeholder communities and with the critics. She will provide tools to accompany each blog post to assist you, as an intrapreneur, in applying the learnings.

Building trust is really hard work. Working to understand what sustainability really means to your company, and what sustainability really means to your critics, and then building the trust needed to co-create a feasible shared vision, may be the most challenging work you tackle.

Energy companies in Alberta have been in the crosshairs of very organized campaigns demanding an accelerated transition to a carbon-reduced world. The debate has been brutal, and polarizing. For many oil and gas companies, it’s been tempting to hit the mute button on the voices of catastrophe. But deep down, most people know, marginalizing those with whom we disagree isn’t likely to lead to success. It’s time to move beyond the polarizing debate on climate change and sustainability. It may be time to engage with your critics.

Your discussions about sustainability with people on the inside of your company and with trusted stakeholders will help you to understand your organization’s strengths and your weak spots. Critics and advocates may not be able to see how you are shoring up performance gaps, within your company, to make sure everyone is working to the same level of commitment on A Measure of Integrity. And, critics may not be able to see how you are working on ways to move up a rung or two on the ladder, to higher sustainability frontiers that include carbon reduction strategies, perhaps through collaboration with partners, your supply chain and host communities.

Sustainability has been described as a ‘wicked’ problem—a challenge that is complex, where uncertainty is high, there is debate over values and where solutions are not obvious. When you tell advocates that your company is working on sustainability, some will accept your good intentions. Some advocates will not, and will accuse you of not doing enough.  And, there will always be critics who say: “Whatever you do, it’s wrong.”

How can you engage with critics, constructively and proactively, on a wicked challenge like sustainability?

Let’s start at the beginning. Who is responsible to set sustainability targets for companies? Not everyone will agree, but it’s reasonable to say that as long as companies and organizations aren’t violating laws set by legitimate and responsible governments or regulators, they get to exercise judgment and decide what ‘sustainability’ means for them. (And, of course…live with the consequences of those choices.)

Many energy companies have been criticized for their sustainability choices, sometimes by advocacy groups that have developed their own definitions of ‘sustainability’ that they would like to impose. Setting expectations for companies is not uncommon – Amnesty International can appeal to companies to respect universal human rights; Transparency International can benchmark governments on transparency practices; The Natural Step can set out principles for sustainable development.  But, publicly shaming companies that don’t operate at an externally prescribed level of positive integrity often shuts down constructive dialogue.

Moving a debate with external critics to a dialogue isn’t easy. But, with some critics, this may be your company’s most effective strategy. How can you help your company move a debate to a dialogue?

  • Be positive with coworkers. Talk about ‘how’ to become more sustainable as a company, and as an industry, not ‘if’. Deliberately frame the challenge in language that moves beyond ‘either/or’ dichotomies. Dialogue isn’t about creating a forum to defend your position, looking for evidence that you are right and your critics are wrong.
  • Invite the right people to the table. Think about who is motivated to sustain the polarizing debate, and who is motivated to move the debate to a dialogue. Think about the people within your own organization who should be at a dialogue table with external critics.  Cast your net widely to consider other possible participants in a true dialogue—-impacted communities and citizens, thought leaders, government representatives, supply chain or business partners, scientists and researchers, youth leaders?
  • Recommend an independent and qualified facilitator. Is there someone who is trusted by everyone, who can frame the dialogue, assemble diverse groups, set inviolable ground rules, surface values, weigh trade-offs and use group processes to discover common ground? Dialogue involves an iterative cycling between divergence and convergence, which must be astutely navigated and wisely managed. Facilitators are responsible to create a safe space for sharing, which often includes up-front agreement on attribution, transparency of data, sharing of information and use of social media. And, remember, a facilitator is not a sustainability expert—in fact, an effective facilitator will suspend his or her personal points of view.
  • Make sure to set the context for the dialogue. You may want to refer to the mind map you sketched, when thinking about sustainability issues and perspectives in the second blog in this series, to remind yourself of the broader systems involved and the wider context for the criticisms directed at your company. Rather than deepening your company’s textbook knowledge of the technical, legal, political, and economic environments of the sustainability issue being criticized, spend time understanding the worldviews of those affected by your company’s sustainability choices. Try to appreciate how these diverse views at the dialogue table can shape resolution of issues and create new values. Encourage your coworkers to do the same.
  • Use the Measure of Integrity Scorecard. This tool was introduced in the second blog in this series, in your engagement with trusted stakeholders. You can also use this tool to deepen your understanding of the perceptions and expectations of your company’s critics, asking:
    • Where do you see our company’s level of commitment to “sustainability” on this scale?
    • Where would you like to see our company’s level of commitment to “sustainability” on this scale?
  • Set firm boundaries on the dialogue. You need to feel some sense of progress in a dialogue. It’s important to set firm boundaries on a dialogue with critics. For example, this particular dialogue may be about how to improve sustainability within a defined geographic zone or project, not the entire province or industry sector…or this dialogue may be about reduction of methane emissions in your company’s operations in a project.
  • Focus on qualitative data, not just quantitative data. Energy companies are familiar with data—numbers and spreadsheets—to back up decisions. This engagement may require different approaches, beyond standard surveys and tick-box questionnaires.  You need qualitative research methods that can help you develop an empathetic understanding of the needs and priorities of external stakeholders. Open-ended questions, deep listening, and a respect for plurality, will be essential.
  • What is deeper listening…even radical listening? Most of us would describe ourselves as good listeners—but the science doesn’t bear this out. To engage in dialogue with your critics, deliberately focus on how you listen. Deeper listening requires us to suspend our opinions and the certainty that lies behind our own opinions, to really hear what others are saying. Value the dialectic. Accept that there is no right answer. It will be important for you to role model deeper listening, not just with your critics, but with your colleagues too.
  • Be innovative in your approach. Talk about how to create the conditions for individuals to contribute as whole persons, not as the talking head of their organization or community reading from position papers and scripts written by public relations experts or lawyers. Encourage participation that levels the ground, requiring that no one act in an official role. Encourage music, auditory and even art as part of the dialogue that needs expression.
  • Figure out ways to authentically capture the learnings. Dialogue mapping is a lot like mind mapping. It’s using images to share what you are hearing. A dialogue map can help you make sense of what you are hearing—help you to create and see the bigger picture. This dialogue map captured the thinking of Albertans on the province’s energy future in the fall of 2015 via ViewpointsAB.
  • Recognize you are out of your comfort zone. You don’t need anyone to tell you this! We are conditioned to one-way dialogue that flows top down or bottom up (for example, sharing suggestions in  a complaint box or submitting ideas to an expert panel); this dialogue needs to flow in a back-and-forth motion. Most people are most comfortable engaging within the silos of our own organization. We are generally less comfortable in iterative dialogue across organizations. Make sure you thank your coworkers and others at the dialogue table who step out of their comfort zone– for being courageous; for sharing; for saying what many feel but don’t or couldn’t say.

Building trust is really hard work. Working to understand what sustainability really means to your company, and what sustainability really means to your critics, and then building the trust needed to co-create a feasible shared vision, may be the most challenging work you tackle. It’s not easy for anyone to accept criticism of the system within which you have operated for decades—to accept, for example, that hydrocarbons aren’t always the most efficient energy source when carbon is factored into the calculation, or that the short-term-ism of quarterly reporting to shareholders can disrupt sustainability strategies.

Always remember what’s at stake. If you can move a debate with a critic to a true dialogue, the upside for your company, over the short and long term, can be material. Likewise, if you fail in this endeavour, or worse, continue to ignore your critics, the downside for your company can be material. Doing nothing is rarely a wise option in a world where advocates have the motivation and capacity to gain public attention and influence decision-makers.

Donna Kennedy-Glans is a former politician responsible for electricity and renewable energy in Alberta, a former energy sector executive, author, and advisor to the Energy Futures Lab.