Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dealing with an Angry Public

On April 30th and May 1st, I offer a two day training program called Dealing with An Angry Public (  Along with my Harvard Business School colleague Michael Wheeler and Jeff Ansell, a well known Canadian journalist and media consultant, we show how a consensus building approach can be used to reshape interactions with various publics that are angry with you -- either because of what you have done, what you propose to do or what you stand for. Most of what passes for media training in such situations focuses on getting the right message across. We teach how to go beyond that and interact with angry publics by (1) acknowledging the concerns of the other side; (2) encouraging joint fact finding; (3) offering contingent commitments and promising to compensate unintended but knowable impacts; (4) accepting responsibility, admitting mistakes and sharing power; (5) acting in a trustworthy fashion at all times; and (6) focusing on building long-term relationships. 

In my award-winning book with Patrick Field by the same name (Dealing with an Angry Public, Free Press, 1995), we offer a whole series of illustrations that show why merely "sending messages," however they are framed, is not nearly as effective as face-to-face negotiation that aims to confront and resolve differences head-on. Too much of the crisis communications literature side-steps the need to negotiate.  And, almost all of it falls short because it assumes away the possibility of applying a mutual gains approach.  No matter who is angry at you or for what reasons, you can advance your interests by knowing the right way to interact with people.

If you refer to this blog when you register, we'll cut the registration fee by $500. Whether you work in the public sector or the private sector this highly interactive seminar (which will give you numerous chances to role play different kinds of conflict situations) can be of enormous help. More than 2500 people from all over the world have given our Angry Public seminar an average rating of over 14 on a 1 - 16 scale. 

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Why Would Anyone Bother to Cooperate?

In his new book, Free Riding, Richard Tuck challenges long-standing views about social cooperation.  Free riding, as most people know, involves decisions that many of us make not to get involved in group efforts because we can see that the outcome will probably be the same whether or not we participate,  and we will reap the benefits in any case. 

"Why bring something to the pot-luck supper?  The others will bring more than enough and I'll get plenty to eat." This is how a supposedly rational or self-interested individual is supposed to tote up gains and losses (to them) and make intelligent judgments about what to do. Tuck thinks otherwise.  He says, (that at least historically) most people have felt a moral compulsion to cooperate (regardless of what others might do).  They cooperate because it's the right thing to do.  In addition, by acting cooperatively they can take credit for helping to make something good happen. 

Free riding leads to what is generally known as the "tragedy of the commons." The tragedy arises when everyone decides it is not in their best interest to take care of a common resource, so no one does, and they all suffer.  This analysis has led many observers to conclude that the only way to get people to cooperate (i.e. to do "what they ought to do") when their collective well-being depends on it, is to coerce the appropriate behavior. More recent analysts, however, including Elinor Ostrom (Managing the Commons), have documented numerous instances of successful voluntary efforts to manage common pool resources.  Ostrom's work suggests that the tendency to "free ride" isn't as widespread as some people think. Tuck offers an elaborate philosophical explanation for why relatively current notions of (self-interested) rationality have taken us in the wrong direction. He suggests that for many centuries " the idea that we should not collaborate where the outcomes would clearly be beneficial to all of us" was "very far-fetched."  Tuck's point is that cooperation is often in our self-interest, even when our contribution might be negligible and even if we will share in the benefits if others take all the responsibility. I would argue that contributing to a group effort is not just the moral thing to do (the 18th and 19th century view) , it is actually the rational thing to do when we think about the long-term benefits (to us) as well as the long-term losses (to us)  if everyone chooses to free-ride.  We don't need a coercive government to help us see that.  So, I think there is a utilitarian or instrumental argument against free riding, and the economists have, indeed, got us headed in the wrong direction. 

Consensus building efforts in the public arena depend on voluntary cooperation on the part of a great many stakeholders. It is not always easy to explain at the outset why being part of a collaborative policy-making or problem-solving effort will produce a "better" outcome (for everyone involved). Nevertheless, that is the argument we try to make.  Some officials seek to "sell" cooperation entirely in terms of the responsibilities of citizenship, in much the same way they argue that everyone should exercise their right to vote.  In general, though, I think we can make a strong case for cooperating in self-interested terms as well.  "You should be part of the upcoming effort to figure out how your community is going to grow and develop.  If you don't get involved, others may take the town in directions that erode your property values and alter the way of life that keeps you here."  That argument only carries weight, though, when those being asked to get involved think that the officials will listen to them.  The key to that, in my view, is the choice of the decision rule that the participatory effort employs.  

If a group decides to vote on every decision and let the majority rule, then anyone with a distinctly minority point of view is sure to feel that there impact will be negligible.  That's why a commitment to a consensus building approach -- one in which groups "seek unanimity but settle for overwhelming agreement" is so much more likely to attract the full range of stakeholders. Parties say to themselves, "They'll have to listen to me.  They'll have to find a way to meet my wishes as well as everyone else's, or they won't be able to take any action at all."  

People cooperate for three reasons: (1)  because they see what will happen to them if everyone chooses to free-ride; (2) its the moral thing to do; and (3) they want to be able to shape decisions and affect outcomes.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Ethnic and National Reconciliation

I can remember a moment when it seemed impossible that certain groups or nations could ever reconcile:  East and West Germany, North and South Vietnam, North Ireland and England, black and white South Africa, Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda.  Today, it seems equally implausible that North and South Korea, Tibet and China, Israel and Palestine, or Suni and Shia in Iraq will ever reconcile. Yet,  we should remember that the ruined relationships that seemed impossible to repair not so long ago were dramatically transformed. The question is, "How did that happen?"

I'm convinced that consensus building played a part. Four principles, in particular, explain the shift from a climate of hatred and mistrust to one of co-existence:  (1) acknowledging the other; (2) the assistance provided by intermediaries; (3) forgiveness (or the catharsis of apology); (3) a focus on the next generation; and (4) people-to-people and not just leader-to-leader interaction.

The first step in any reconciliation process is an acknowledgment of the other -- their right to exist, their unique culture and their claims or grievances.  That is not to say that reconciliation must begin with a promise to "give the other side everything it wants."  Rather, a statement that acknowledges the other side begins by showing that their enemies "hear" (but don't necessarily agree with) what they are saying. 

At the beginning, when it seems inconceivable that two sides might reconcile, trusted go-betweens, usually working quietly behind-the-scenes can carry messages -- including the acknowledgments that each side needs to hear.  How intermediaries are identified varies in each case.  They don't necessarily need to be trained mediators.  Rather, they need to be individuals who are not "in it" for themselves and are trusted by the parties.  And, they need to know how to speak to and about both sides.

In some instances, a willingness to forgive or apologies (on both sides) are a necessary step in reconciliation, but not always.  When they do come into play, it is important that they are delivered in a believable fashion. Again, a willingness to forgive doesn't mean that either side must drop its demands for justice or compensation.  How public apologies or statements of forgiveness are worded, matters a lot.  

Any effort to "put a country back together" or heal the wounds of decades (or centuries!) of killing must focus on how the next generation thinks and acts.  Elders who fought each other can either turn their children against the other side and extend the conflict, or take the steps described above and put an end to a conflict.  In either case, the question is how the next generation sees its responsibilities. A generation or two after a war, the children of those who killed each other can imagine close relationships with former enemies. But only if their parents give them permission to do that. Those who fought must teach their children to think differently about their enemies.

In the aftermath of wars, peace treaties are signed.  These are usually agreements between the heads of state or the titular heads of various groups. The conflict truly ends, however, when the people represented by those leaders change their thinking and commit to a new way of interacting with former enemies. The signing of a treaty can't accomplish this.  Only sustained people-to-people interaction over an extended period can rebuild trust and undergird the commitments announced in a peace treaty.  A program of people-to-people peace building is as important to reconciliation as a formal treaty.

Reconciliation occurs when the right kind of problem-solving setting is created and managed effectively, the right words are spoken in a believable fashion, individual and group behavior conforms to what is being said, and institutional/organizational arrangements are put in place to reinforce (over an extended period) the commitments that are made.  These are the steps in a consensus building process.