Before the ‘mother of all Canadian elections’ began, a client asked me who I thought would win, and what that would mean for their organization. My answer was: “It doesn’t matter.”
I meant it.
To be clear, my answer was not a cynical attempt to denigrate or trivialize our government system—nor was it intended to convey arrogance about our abilities as consultants, or ignorance about the very real differences between parties. It reflected my honest assessment of the reality in which organizations now operate.
We live in an era of engagement, where the approval of individuals is more powerful than the authority of institutions. We live in a time where social acceptance determines which programs, policies and projects move forward. We live in an age where IQ and reason can be secondary to EQ and passion.
Social acceptance is now the determining factor in the success or failure of new initiatives.
I prefer the term ‘social acceptance’ to the term ‘social licence,’ because there’s no ‘social licensing authority’ who can issue binding permits to companies. And, the term ‘licence’ wrongly implies that there’s some form of social approval out there that is somehow permanent, reliable and irrevocable. Unfortunately, that doesn’t exist either.
Social acceptance is a constantly evolving mix of public attitudes, personal biases, preferences, fears and concerns. It is, by its very nature, a loose amalgam of different opinions that can change in real time. Securing and preserving ‘social acceptance’ is extremely difficult, and often elusive. There’s no ‘bright-line’ test; no commonly understood or generally agreed upon threshold to be met.
So, you can see why social acceptance can be a difficult and frustrating concept for those trained to deal with logical certainties—lawyers, accountants, engineers, etc. It varies wildly from situation to situation, and what might be wholly sufficient in one case may be totally inadequate in another.
Obtaining social acceptance for a project, program or policy can only be achieved by earning the trust of a critical and credible mass of people. It requires exhaustive and expensive efforts to understand and engage with individuals, communities and other stakeholder audiences. And, governments won’t help.
There was a time not that long ago, when governments would take bold decisions and then build a constituency around them. Times have changed. Government institutions now expect the private sector to secure public acceptance for initiatives before decisions are made—but, they won’t do any of the heavy lifting needed to garner that support.
So, how can we build support?
Every day, we see companies—large and small—trying to influence our opinion through one-way communications. We’re bombarded with continuous flow of advertising through every possible medium. Information overload. The level of creativity required to ensure that your content breaks through the noise is greater than many can reasonably attain.
There is a solution: Engagement.
Genuine collaboration between organizations and their stakeholders is the best way to build support—bring your audience in at the earliest possible opportunity and engage them in the process. People who have a sense of ownership in an idea or initiative are far more likely to defend it and advocate for it. It’s human nature.
Individuals and institutions therefore need to have a continuous, collaborative dialogue designed to facilitate the co-creation of plans and messaging. That doesn’t mean focus groups or opinion polling—which serve a different purpose. I’m talking about bringing people to the table and working with them.
It might sound naïve—the idea that we could find common ground between companies and communities. But, what I think is naïve is the view that companies can still ‘go it alone’ and impose unwanted projects on unsuspecting audiences.
Some of the largest and most powerful companies in the world today have become hamstrung by the failure to perceive this trend and adapt to it. The analogy I use is from the classic story of Gulliver’s Travels, where the giant Gulliver is held down by the army of Lilliputians with hundreds of little strings. In the real world, of course, those hundreds of little strings are actually hundreds of individual tweets, blogs and websites liked and shared with global reach. Anyone can be an influencer. The virtual army is in no way limited by geography. Gone are the days of borders and barriers—it’s now about bandwidth and broadband.
Fortunately, these tools can be used as shields as much as swords. When engaging early, these same platforms can be leveraged to achieve social acceptance—identify and mobilize supporters without antagonizing those who disagree. The strategy is to empower people, not overpower them.
When you engage and share information, you’re actually building a community. In an age of personal devices and micro-targeting, we often think of communications as focusing on the individual. But communications should be about bringing people together to share common knowledge, common understanding and common beliefs.
Like I said, it didn’t matter who won the election—I stand by that assessment. It doesn’t matter because while the party in power may have changed, the reality in which they will govern has not.
Those who will succeed in the years to come will be those who embrace and adapt to this new reality. Those who continue to live in the past will be left behind.
This post was adapted from remarks Goldy made as guest speaker during an Ottawa Chamber of Commerce event on November 3, 2015. The event was an opportunity for business leaders to network and catch up on the latest information in the Ottawa business community.