Empathetic Stakeholder Engagement is a guest blog by Michael Burns, PE, PgMP, DBIA
Previously, I encouraged you to broadly engage your network as you explore your professional intentions, creating balance, reducing stress, and inspiring learning objectives. A positive step in a naturally closed system, relying on trusted peers. Yet, as professionals in the Architectural, Engineering and Construction (AEC) Industry, we learn early on in our careers that a wide variety of dynamic voices, which we refer to as stakeholders influence our work and the infrastructure assets we deliver. For sustained success, we must consider the voices who inform and are informed by our work.
So how do we build confidence as we face challenges, working with these dynamic stakeholder groups? The Project Management Institute (PMI) is one of many good resources to learn the science associated with stakeholder management. Let’s focus on the art of engaging diverse voices for our collective success — personally, professionally, and across the project delivery lifecycle.
My career started as a civil engineering designer. Attempting to understand project delays, I learned to step back from the technical details of my work, considering the broader influences on the projects my clients were delivering. Typical of any learning experience, this approach empowered career growth and created a new set of biases. My respect for the roles of architects, contractors, and the variety of public agency staff members grew as I understood their roles, learning to respect and work within their professional frameworks.
On the other hand, through my initial engagement at public hearings, I formed an opinion that NIMBY (not in my backyard) perspectives were an unnecessary inhibitor to improving our infrastructure. Yet as I continued to grow, the reality that we all have NIMBY tendencies set in. Michael Lewis’ “The Undoing Project” tells the story of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who were awarded the Nobel Prize for Behavior Economics, progressing economics from a simplistic “rational man” to a psychology-based approach: testing bias, framing, and anchoring in our decision-making. Accepting that humans don’t have a shared rationality, how do we reduce the impact of bias as we progress complex programs? How do we engage NIMBY voices as our vision progresses to implementation?
Overcoming my NIMBY bias was an arduous, but ultimately rewarding journey. I was responsible for entitlements, design, and construction for several new communities in Erie, Colorado, a town primed for growth as an attainable housing provider with immediate access to urban job centers. Of course, as is often true with new growth, significant headwinds were present: an adjudication order on their wastewater treatment plant, limited water supply, overcrowded schools, and immature social services, all inhibited by a limited sales tax base. As growth accelerated in the market, slow growth desires naturally butted heads with pro-growth economic expectations. Polarization led to a significant increase in entitlement complexity; residents voted on annexations, physical altercations occurred in the boardroom, and recall elections were the norm.
I vividly remember my first public study session at the elementary school. After two hours of intelligent debate coupled with bouts of vitriolic name-calling, I was asked to introduce my role as our company pivoted from a recent annexation election loss. As I stood, trying to recall the key points my bosses felt would win the day, I froze, simply stating, “We are a for-profit developer whose ability to move forward necessitated learning from and responding to the numerous issues which had been discussed this evening.” That evening was the start of a deeply engaged and dynamic visioning process — planning commission study sessions, chamber of commerce events, and school board workshops. These public events, which intimidate some voices, were coupled with individual meetings responsive to any constituent willing to share their voice — at the coffee shop, on a street corner, or on one particularly dark night, in a barn, sitting on hay bales surrounded by a particularly unhappy group of rural residents.
These broad feedback loops were filtered into our program plans as land planners, engineers, and attorneys evolved a complex set of entitlement documents. This documentation, coupled with structured public messaging, garnered staff and then board support for an annexation election on our first development: Erie Commons. A cold, rainy day outside the polls shaking hands and hoping to inform voters resulted in a particularly interesting election result — Erie Commons was approved by the residents, concurrently flipping the board from pro to no growth.
Several years later, after a continued commitment to broad and consistent stakeholder engagement, I was particularly pleased at the groundbreaking for Erie’s community park, home to their new Library and Community / Senior Center. Numerous no-growth advocates, present at that first meeting in the elementary school, went out of their way to thank me for our willingness to hear their desires, expressing appreciation as improvements in housing diversity, accessible open space, and balanced commercial development exceeded their expectations.
Consistently garnering program or project buy-in through internal and external stakeholder engagement is incredibly challenging. As we identify key influencers, we must concurrently leverage a large enough coalition to message your maturing vision as a basis for support. Artful engagement is necessary to garner majority support, balancing the polarizing opinions of some who will never buy in. This engagement is the foundation of entitlement for infrastructure assets, which have broad economic implications. In “The Social Animal,” David Brooks discusses the concept of reductionism, “the assumption that once we understand the parts, it will be easy to grasp the whole.” This has evolved to the concept of emergent systems, which “exist when different elements come together and produce something that is greater than the sum of their parts.” Yet, from the perspective of stakeholders (people who influence our work and lives), is it possible to reduce human wants and needs into manageable parts? If so, how do we efficiently bundle these human interests and opinions into an emergent system, supporting our complex objectives?
As I’ve faced subsequent challenges managing diverse and often divisive groups, I often reflect on the lessons from my Erie Commons experience, respecting the incredible support from trusted colleagues and a wide range of community members. What ultimately led to our collective success?
9 Types of Intelligence
My daughter Whitney, who is studying psychology and economics at Humboldt State University, is an excellent resource for my continued growth and blogging. As we explore a wide range of topics, attempting to better understand how to thrive in varied group dynamics, she recently introduced me to the “9 Types of Intelligence”. Respecting the value of a diverse and inclusive world, never wanting to compartmentalize people, this framework has helped me to better articulate my approach to successful stakeholder engagement:
- Accept that we have varied backgrounds, inspirations, and aspirations
- Engage empathetically, striving to truly understand and articulate others’ perspectives
- Create inviting forums for input, responsive to individual and group norms
- Define feedback loops, which empower and respect varied Types of Intelligence
- Continuously test your inherent and evolving biases, reducing their limitations
- Communicate transparently, balancing attention to areas of concurrence and outstanding disagreements
- Strive to keep lines of communication open, respecting that progress will empower detractors and supporters
Recently, I directed Enterprise Risk and Alternative Delivery programs at AECOM, an inspiring and equally frustrating role, reminding me of the incredible effort it takes to form, mature, and leverage integrated teams to effectively deliver sustainable infrastructure. Coupling these industry complexities with the diverse wants and needs of our community stakeholders requires broad engagement, supported by experts and laypersons willing and available to engage individually and educate collectively, as we mature the next generation of teams who through active engagement in their communities will meet rapidly evolving infrastructure delivery demands.
Good luck, and please feel free to reach out as you continue to grow your career, knowing that AEC Industry Professionals play a critical role in making the world a better place.
About the Author – Michael Burns, PE, PgMP, DBIA
Mike’s 27-year career has included planning, design, construction, and finance roles across a broad set of public and private development projects. His empathetic leadership style and program management experiences honed his understanding of complex governance and economic models, deepening his enthusiasm for leading teams delivering sustainable infrastructure in our communities.You can learn more about Mike here.
We would love to hear any questions you might have or stories you might share about why you think having confidence is important with stakeholder engagement.
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To your success,
Anthony Fasano, PE, LEED AP
Engineering Management Institute
Author of Engineer Your Own Success