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Balancing stakeholders amid controversy

Leaders need to be prepared for how to handle sensitive emotional issues among organizational stakeholders

Published: Apr 12, 2021 02:22:17 PM IST
Updated: Apr 12, 2021 02:33:37 PM IST

Balancing stakeholders amid controversyImage: Shutterstock
The goal of social justice movements is to bring about deep institutional and community change. So, it’s unavoidable that such a massive mission would spark intense debates in people’s hearts and homes. But what happens when they bring that passion to the workplace? Leaders need to be prepared for how to handle sensitive emotional issues among organizational stakeholders.

In the wake of the summer 2020 protests in support of racial justice, a nonprofit called TechTeen1 issued a statement saying it rejected “hate, racism, violence and bigotry of any kind” and supported the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Given that TechTeen aimed to increase access to technology for teenagers — many of whom might be dealing with these issues — it made sense for TechTeen to take a stand. The move wasn’t unusual; many prominent companies, including Bank of America and Airbnb, had made similar public statements.

Yet at the Washington, D.C., branch of TechTeen, influential board member Melanie Hobson disagreed with the nonprofit’s statement of support for BLM. While she didn’t oppose the sentiment at the core of the Black Lives Matter name, at the heart of her objection was language on the BLM website, which she interpreted as rejecting the importance of the traditional nuclear family — a stance that conflicted with her Christian beliefs.

After a heated board discussion, Hobson called CEO Alyssa Harris to say she wanted to resign from her position.

Harris was shocked. She didn’t think TechTeen could afford to lose Hobson, who had a track record of stellar service. As a volunteer, she had chaired five out of six board committees, helped overhaul financial reporting and was responsible for an important partnership with a local computer company.

What should the CEO do?

Harris immediately sprang into action. She offered to set up a call with Hobson and the organization’s headquarters in Palo Alto, California, to see if someone could clarify and further talk through TechTeen’s rationale for its statement. Then she convened an emergency meeting with other board members to discuss the issue and the value Hobson added to the organization.

Next, a board member contacted TechTeen’s vice president of fundraising to get his opinion. At issue was whether fellow staffers would feel silenced if they perceived the organization was violating its own values to placate Hobson. They also discussed whether Hobson would be satisfied with the explanation that TechTeen hadn’t specifically endorsed the language in question on the BLM website: “We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family.” Rather, TechTeen supported the broader principles of the movement for racial justice, and many people and organizations supported the words “Black Lives Matter” without necessarily becoming members.

Harris believed she was right to fight to keep an important board member. Ultimately, however, she was not successful. Despite efforts by two board members who discussed the issue at length with Hobson and highlighted the need for diversity of opinion — and after Harris offered to facilitate a discussion with TechTeen headquarters — Hobson resigned.

The experience made it clear that Harris needed a plan on how to handle such differences of opinion in the future.

At first glance, the issue may seem focused on how the CEO should solve the problem of keeping her board member. Yet the case really offers a bigger lesson on managing multiple stakeholders who all may have equally strong and varying opinions about controversial matters. In this case, those included board members, TechTeen staffers, donors, students, the public — even Harris’ conscience.

For leaders in similar quandaries, the first step is to identify the stakeholders and then prioritize the issues to manage. For example, the CEO might evaluate relationships with board members to decide how to navigate conversations with the dissenting board member. And she should consider whether her own personal views align with those of her organization — and how her choices might affect public opinion.

A skilled leader must be able to help each stakeholder feel that their points of view are seen, heard and respected — while acknowledging there’s often no single right answer. Also, a leader should accept that not everyone will be happy with the final decision. Such truths can help alleviate leaders’ anxiety to say the “right” thing.

In dealing with any charged issue — whether it’s a political controversy or social movement — the best approach is to diffuse emotion by focusing on the facts at hand. Stay neutral, acknowledging value in each argument. In this case, a leader might parse out the content of TechTeen’s statement about Black Lives Matter without expressing agreement or disagreement. Focus on what is known, what is unknown, what the objective is and what actions need to be taken.

One strategy is to acknowledge that people likely will have emotional reactions and reassure them that it’s okay to express them. Here’s a sample script: “This topic is emotional. Let’s agree to create a space where we can speak openly so we can find the best resolution as a team. I’d like to make sure that we say what’s on our minds right now.”

It’s a fact of life that sensitive issues will make their way into the workplace — often when leaders least expect them. So, it’s good practice to prepare in advance by identifying an organization’s core values during periods of calm. By developing a conflict-resolution toolkit, you’ll not only be able to quickly and objectively determine what’s best for your organization, you’ll create a more engaging workplace in which people feel safe debating issues that matter most to them.

The preceding is based on the case The #BlackLivesMatter Movement: Balancing Stakeholders at TechTeen (Darden Business Publishing) by Meghan Murray.

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[This article has been reproduced with permission from University Of Virginia's Darden School Of Business. This piece originally appeared on Darden Ideas to Action.]

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