August 19, 2014

Selena McLachlan

5 Techniques to Increase Community Confidence

August 19, 2014
Selena McLachlan

5 Techniques to Increase Community Confidence

Does your community have confidence in your organization? In you? Your decisions? Your ability to lead? These are critical questions that all organizations and their leaders need to ask themselves – especially those in the publicly funded space. Without community confidence, the job of leadership becomes nearly impossible, and the role of public organizations such as school districts can weaken and erode over time.

As a leader, gaining the confidence of your community, stakeholders or constituents is one of the most important things you can do, as you strategize and plan for the future success of your organization. It also happens to be one of the most difficult things to achieve.

But you can increase success in this area by following these five, proven, systematic techniques:

1.   Engage regularly, not just when you want something
2.   Show your community that you are listening and learning
3.   Allow those affected by decisions to inform them
4.   Avoid asking leading questions that can erode trust
5.   Share both your achievements and your challenges

Building Community Confidence

In 1999, Dr. James Grunig and Dr. Linda Hon published “Guidelines for Measuring Relationships in Public Relations”, which provides a valuable tool to assess mutuality, trust, commitment, satisfaction and quality of relationship – all necessary ingredients to gain stakeholder confidence. But what their publication appeared to leave out was the “how”. Exactly how do you negotiate mutuality, build trust, demonstrate commitment, and increase satisfaction? Or more simply put, how do you create healthier, more productive relationships with stakeholders? That’s where we think these five techniques can help.

1. Engage regularly, not just when you want something

If you’re like most of us, you’ve probably had a friend, neighbour or relative who only seems to drop by when they want something. And again, like most of us, you probably felt used. Public engagement is no different, and engaging your stakeholders regularly – not just when you want something from them – may be easier than you think. Keep them in the loop on things, be transparent, and invite their participation or opinion on important matters. Regular engagement builds relationships, trust, and social capital; all of which translate into community confidence.

2. Show your community that you are listening, and learning

Nothing builds confidence for an individual or organization more than being able to denote that you’ve listened, heard and learned. There are two keys to this. The first is to genuinely learn from your experiences and the insight of others. The second is to clearly demonstrate that you’ve learned from it. Just as educators have long since used behavioural measures to assess learning in their students, leaders can demonstrate their own learning in a similar  fashion. Don’t make your community guess or assume – look for opportunities through your communications’ channels (e.g. a newsletter) to show your stakeholder community that they’ve been heard, you’ve learned something as a result, and are exploring ways to incorporate this into your work.

3. Allow those affected by decisions to inform them

The mantra “nothing about me without me”, began as a battle cry in the field of mental health, but it’s long since evolved into mainstream thinking. Not only is it best practice, but it’s also now an expectation (by stakeholders) that any decision that will impact a stakeholder group, should help be informed by that same community. Keep in mind that this doesn’t equate to relinquishing your power or responsibility to lead. On the contrary, it means taking a leadership position by inviting stakeholders into the decision making process; which establishes collaborative ownership and empowerment.

4. Avoid asking leading questions that can erode trust

Or stated another way, ask questions that increase community confidence. For example, asking questions like “Which option do you like better?” or “What options do we need to have for students?”, can easily set up the expectation that you will certainly heed to their advice. So unless you do plan to explicitly follow any suggestion they may make, you run the risk of creating a false sense of democracy – also a sure way to losing confidence and credibility.

Instead, ask questions that elicit new, creative and actionable responses. Better questions lead to trust. That doesn’t mean you need to stop asking your stakeholders about their preferences between options, or suggestions on critical issues. It simply means framing up the questions differently so you gather interests instead of positions. “Which option do you like better?” may become: “What are your concerns about option #1? What are the positive things about option #1?”. And likewise, “What options do we need to have for students?” becomes “What concerns do you have about current options for our students? What are some creative ideas you have for giving students more options?” The differences are subtle but when you go to action the responses it is critical that they have been put into a useful framework.

Questions are a critical starting point to problem-solving and innovation, whether we’re talking about business or social issues. Questions – or “thoughtful inquiry” – also help to identify and understand the challenges around us more clearly, while sparking the imagination. Hummm…

5. Share both your achievements and your challenges – it’s ok to be vulnerable!

The most common response to “Hey, how’s it going?” is “Good”. I’m good, we’re good , everything’s good. Yet most of us recognize that this isn’t always the truth, but rather a social convention designed to reduce discomfort. It can’t all be good, all the time. So when we share our challenges as well as achievements, not only are we being truthful, but we also appear to be more genuine and  believable; which are two key elements to building confidence. And while talking openly about our challenges may be difficult for some – especially those of us in leadership roles – showing a bit of vulnerability is proven to help strengthen relationships by leading to empathy and compassion; which can inherently lead to your community genuinely wanting to stand by your side and support you. And who wouldn’t want that?

Build it (Confidence) and They Will Come. But Will They Stay?

At ThoughtExchange, we’ve worked with many exceptional, collaborative leaders who are masters at gaining and maintaining the confidence of their community. They’ve successfully implemented the five techniques above to engage and build healthy relationships with their stakeholders. But they don’t stop there, as confidence can erode just as quickly as it’s gained, if these techniques don’t become part of your regular practice. Just like teaching… repeat, repeat, repeat!

What are you doing to gain and maintain the confidence of your community?

Selena McLachlan

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