Naikan and stakeholders

At the organization design training program I've been facilitating this week there's been lots of discussion on the politics of organization design. One person described at some length the blocking behavior of one the senior people and the difficulties in moving the work forward in this situation. He was looking for suggestions in how to work with people who were passive aggressive, confrontational, and plain stubborn.

Similar situations people talked about related to managers intent on changing the organization chart relationships without thinking of the consequences and impact on other elements of the organization. They built on the list of blocking behaviors including refusal to listen or discuss, pulling rank (the client/manager saying 'this is what we're going to do'), and discounting alternatives.

Thinking over what they were saying and asking for I wondered what would help the organization design consultants in these types of situation. What sprang to mind was a piece I had come across earlier this year (stuck in one of my books but published in May 2006) about the practice of NaiKan (pronounced NYE-kon) "a little known practice of self-reflection, rooted in Zen Buddhism and developed in Japan in the 1940s". It's based around asking three questions about a relationship:

1. What did I receive from this person?
2. What did I give this person?
3. What troubles did I cause this person?

According to the article:

Naikan's power lies in the details – the good, the bad and the ugly truths that make up the mosaic of any relationship. But the focus is on the role you play, your actions and choices, and on what you received from the other person. What you discover can be surprising. "People are often in denial about their ability to cause trouble in the world," says New York psychologist, Wylie Goodman.

(The article doesn't go into detail but references the Todo Institute. Curious, at the time, I looked at their website and was sufficiently intrigued to sign-up for a one month self-reflection distance learning course to find out more. $80 plus the time involved seems like a good investment if it helps in difficult interpersonal situations. Along with the course comes the book Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection. The course starts in November and it seemed a good way to end 2010)

Why I thought it might be helpful to the organization design consultants is because the three questions ask them to see things from the blocking person's perspective. How might it feel to have, sometimes unsolicited, expertise foisted on you by someone else in the organization? All the stuff about 'stakeholder engagement' is predicated on getting the stakeholders 'on board' but maybe they have legitimate wants, needs, and concerns, that the expert is over-looking or doesn't know how to handle in a way that finds the common ground, acknowledges the feelings, suggests other approaches, etc.

The way participants were describing the interactions sounded like:

  • A locking of horns of expertise versus positional power. The expert is advocating something (an organizational design project) that is often seen as 'restructuring' with the inevitable trouble and difficulty it can cause. The stakeholders feel threatened rather than involved, and the spiral goes down from there.
  • A language barrier – the experts organization design people talking in the language of socio-technical systems, stakeholder engagement, and appreciative inquiry and the perceived blockers talking in the language of business continuity, costs of downtime, and disruption to motivation and productivity. In this instance the participants simply don't understand each other.
  • Territorial protection – the blocker defending the ideas, approaches, and departments that he/she felt were 'his', and the organization design consultant 'attacking' with the ideas, approaches, and organizational level mandate he/she felt were his. Here is a basic territorial protection tactic.

So if the Naikan three questions take you (the organization design consultant) part of the way in these difficult situations what else might help? Here are some suggestions:

  • Communication: Learn the language and concerns of the person you think is the blocker and communicate/tell and sell in those terms e.g. through finance/cost
  • Education: Discuss the risks and benefits in a variety of approaches so that they can make informed choices on good information
  • Involvement: Include people in the process in a way – don't dismiss their capability. Remember "Real participation does wonders"
  • Incentives: Offer both carrots and sticks making link to the person's personal or financial goals

Stakeholders who block are difficult but not impossible to deal with. Learning how to deal with them and recognizing the part you play in the situation is the challenge.