The rainy season drove the humidity to the point where the heat could make you crazy. Which is partially what had happened at the site – a group had stolen some company vehicles and ransacked a local village. We had been called in to help get things back on track.

I was there with the Colonel, a former tank jockey and commander, who was looking at the security side of things. He’s known for being, mmmm, direct. When he asked what the company was planning to do to prevent a recurrence of the event, the local manager said they were going to beef up the fence and hope it didn’t happen again. That look we know so well crossed the Colonel’s face.

“Hope is not a method,” he said.

He’s right, of course. But even more so, when it comes to community interactions and engagement, hope is often a trap. In this case, the hope that strengthening fences would be enough to prevent another crisis was an easy trap to fall into.

Why? Because it fools us into not seeing reality. We have a natural tendency to see unexpected events as things that just ‘happen’ and let our optimism over-ride our judgment. But most social performance practitioners with any experience quickly identify that events are simply the visible face of the currents that drive them.

There are three main elements to this dynamic:

  • We fail to see or understand the difference between our intentions and those of others;
  • we let cognitive bias color our understanding of what’s happening; and
  • we rely on an ad hoc understanding of what’s happening and a process to deal with it.

How that happens

We believe in the power of our intentions. How often has it turned out that we go into a situation thinking we know everything that is going on, but the critical piece of information – why other people are acting differently than we thinkthey should – is rooted only in our narrow perception of what’s happening?

Part of the challenge, as Jack Himmelstein of the Center for Understanding in Conflict says, is that: “We judge ourselves by our intentions; we judge others by the effects of their actions on us.”

We believe in the power of our intentions and that they represent reality, and that often blinds us to what’s actually going on. We know our intentions are good, so the only reason we can see for an event like this happening is that others’ intentions aren’t. “Why don’t they like us?” is a common response to community protest or incidents.

This dynamic becomes even more powerful when it is reinforced by our cognitive bias. We want a particular outcome, so we tend to see the current situation in that light. If we hope the situation will get better, we’ll often only take in the things we accept as positive indicators. And when we see the situation as negative we accept and endorse the indicators that support an interpretation of conspiracy.

When I was a reporter it was often easy to believe that there was more ‘meaning’ behind events than there might have been. Fortunately, I had a crusty news editor who used to keep us straight by quoting Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity,” he used to say.

Now, in our experience, communities are not “stupid”. And we’ve come across few “conspiracies.” Most of the time it’s going to be much simpler than that and it usually has to do with lack of information and relationship building leading to misunderstanding, which can spiral quickly out of control.

Of the hundreds of projects we’ve looked at, the ones that had the best understanding of their operating environment also had the most thorough plans, systematic approaches and tools to develop that understanding. This isn’t a case of funding, but of attitudes. Do you have to have a huge engagement team? No, you can do it with a handful of key employees. Or with all of them, for that matter. But doing so takes a different attitude than we commonly find.

Three things we can do to keep hope from being a trap

OK, how can we incorporate our learning in a way that helps us move forward?

1) We can create a systematic process for gathering and analyzing what’s happening around us by:

  • implementing a fit-for-purpose engagement and information analysis system that will do what you need it to do;
  • making someone accountable for how the system works; and
  • demonstrating to decision-makers that the information the system generates has value.

2) We can look at our ‘biases’and find concrete ways to change them by:

  • mapping management’s ideas about the communities and stakeholders and looking for gaps between the perceptions and reality;
  • creating a common – and accurate – understanding of what’s important to our stakeholders; and
  • creating questions or tools to check for cognitive bias or to help prevent it.

3) We can be patient.

Engagement is a video, not a snapshot, and requires a system to support it. Don’t be discouraged if it takes some time to set up one that takes ‘hope’ out of the equation. When there’s a problem,use that opportunity to check your bias and to notice the obvious and not-so-obvious ways it can be affecting what you do.

Use the opportunity as the way to continue developing real engagement.