You probably already know how it starts. You’re sitting at your desk when the reception or front gate calls to say that the road is blocked by a group of angry people.
You may not have known that it was coming – that’s a separate problem for a later post – but once it happens, there are nine straightforward things you can do to manage the impact of the situation.
Preparing a response to such events needs to be an effective part of your social management system, which should be carefully crafted to identify and manage the kind of drivers that can produce sudden crowds on your doorstep. That way, what you do next will be a considered corporate response, rather than on based on knee-jerk or feel-good emotions.
Here are nine steps that can serve as a foundation for managing social conflict.
1. Be direct
Tell people what you can and can’t do to respond to their concerns and set ground rules for the discussion. For example, it’s impossible to negotiate with a crowd, so if there isn’t already an accepted leader or leaders, make having the crowd choose its leaders a prerequisite for talking.
2. Listen and don’t overreact
Nobody wants to be wrong. But when it comes to cross-cultural communication – and construction or operations cultures are different from whatever social culture you’re working in, even if your workforce is largely national – it’s easy for people to misunderstand. Listening actively indicates that you’re concerned and is the first action you can take to show (not tell) that you want to understand people’s concerns. If you don’t know what’s going on, say so and get clarification. Don’t let your assumptions or emotions get in the way of understanding what’s actually happening.
3. Find the drivers and understand what you bring to the situation
Take responsibility. When it comes to heated encounters in communities, being “guilty” is in the eye of the beholder. Years ago on a greenfield project, we faced a demonstration by a group of people who said the project was not delivering on the jobs they had been promised. We wondered how that could be and started to listen actively to people’s stories. It was no surprise to hear that more than five years before, a company representative had told local farmers that if the project went ahead, everyone would have a chance for a job. That might not sound like a promise to you, but to a subsistence rice farmer, the “chance” of a job eventually became the promise of one. Moving forward meant accepting the farmers’ viewpoint as the place to start.
4. Create effective expectations about what you’re going to do to “make things right”
In the farmers’ case, we soon discovered the real issue was that local people felt excluded because of the large influx of workers from other areas. To address it, we created a multi-department program to hire local people and backed it up with a strong communications outreach to inform and consult local people on how we would do it.
5. Create space
Running with that program created space around the issue, and we did it by giving people a role in evaluating our collective success. If nothing else, creating space around an issue prevents any one party from laying claim to it and – more importantly – sets up a transparent space to act in.
6. Create expectations you can live with
Fill the space you’ve created with reality. Once the initial tensions have been redirected into a constructive path forward, you’ll have an opportunity to actually deliver on achievable goals. Avoid grand gestures and bland statements: make sure your commitments are limited, concrete and achievable.
Like guilt, delivering on a promise is in the eye of the beholder. Once people see that you are genuinely responding to their concerns, they will usually get behind what you’re doing, especially if you’re not imposing a unilateral “solution”. If the steps you’ve chosen aren’t working, say so immediately and involve people in thinking about ways to make them effective.
Once the initial crisis has passed, your work has just begun; now it’s time to communicate intensively about progress and next steps. Otherwise, what happens will be fair game for anyone with a story to tell, and that story may not be accurate. It’s time to incorporate what you’ve learned into your social management system so that it becomes sustainable and improves the ability of your enterprises to respond.
9. Capitalize your opportunity
If you follow these steps, you will have invested significant resources into changing your relationship with the community. Turn those resources into social capital by building on them to create a stronger platform for action. For example, do you already have a social monitoring group that involves key community members and other stakeholders? If not, creating one at this point further underlines your commitment to being part of the community and aligning your interests with its members.
These aren’t the only options you have, but they are ones you control directly and manage. In the end, that’s what managing social performance is all about.