Four crises of the apocalypse

What do the following four crises all have in common?

In late 2001 it was revealed that Enron’s reported financial condition (alleged revenues of $101bn the previous year) was sustained substantially by institutionalized, systematic, and creatively planned accounting fraud (ably assisted by Arthur Andersen LLP). Enron has since become a popular symbol of wilful corporate fraud and corruption.

In 2008 large parts of the world suffered as a result of a financial crisis which was subsequently deemed an “avoidable” disaster caused by widespread failures in government regulation, corporate mismanagement and heedless risk-taking by Wall Street, according to the conclusions of a federal inquiry.

In 2009 news of MPs falsifying and fraudulently claiming expenses leaked and was then published by the Telegraph. It was subsequently revealed this practice had gone on for several years.

In 2011 Rupert Murdoch, his son James, Rebekah Brooks and others are feeling the heat of the phone hacking scandal, and much more as what seems like organisation wide appalling leadership and behaviour was revealed on an almost daily basis.

They were all caused (in part at least) by an absence of engagement and therefore a reliance on management seeking to coerce people, to bend others to their will. Behaviour that we know to be wrong goes unchecked as a result of fear, a lack of questioning, and a false belief that “I don’t need to say anything, surely someone else must be flagging this.”

A couple of weeks ago Jonathan Wilson and I were invited to talk at Cass Business School with the Organisational Development Innovation Network (ODiN), about stakeholder engagement. As evidenced by these (and other) examples of management failing, us humans are slow learners. Nevertheless something sometimes comes along and tips the balance, opens the door to different thinking. We hope the recent News International scandal may mark a turning away from management and arrogance, towards more engaging and confident ways of working.

We wanted to expose the audience to different ways of engaging. So we experimented with song, a pecha kucha, a few rounds of world café conversations, and another song to conclude. It was our intention to share useful methods as well as our learning and reflection. We spent a lively afternoon facilitating conversation. Some observations from the afternoon were:

Many managers seem to fear that trying to engage with stakeholders inevitably brings conflict, but I don’t think that has be true, once stakeholders have  gone past the initial suspicion that people have that the organisation may be trying to manipulate them. It is a pity that people have learned from unfortunate experience. It is fear that most constrains engaging with stakeholders or indeed anyone.

It is only possible to engage people on their terms, in language and activity that makes sense to them.

People need to feel in control and to feel listened to. They also can work things out, so in practice there are fewer major substantive disagreements than people fear. The time spent in conversation and dialogue listening and exploring is time well spent that leads to wiser, stronger decisions and saves much time and expense later.

Engagement can only ever be invited and earned, never commanded or bought.

The output from the day has been transcribed and is available for you to read at your leisure here. If you have any questions on the document please get in touch.

Jonathan and I are hopeful that much more enjoyable, valuable and sustainable work can and will be done through sincere, invitational and earned engagement. And we believe we (us, you, everyone) have the methods to help us achieve this. And as our experience shows us, the answers are nearly always in the room, and in particular, in the hearts and minds of those closest to the front line. Closest to the customer. What do you think? Has the time come for a more engaging way to work or will coercion once again prevail?


Leave a Reply