By Dr. Rebecca Sutherns


We’re living in a time when people expect involvement and transparency in decision making, especially when the outcome affects them. Involving people in decision-making leads to wiser decisions that people will stand behind.

Engagement activities can range from informing local residents about an upcoming event, to hosting a public meeting to gain insight on what people want to see built in their neighbourhood, to establishing an online forum for ongoing conversation about a topic, to inviting participation in an advisory group with direct policy influence. Whether you engage stakeholders primarily because you have to or because you want to, their involvement and input can be invaluable to the decision-making process. It provides new perspectives and a deeper understanding of needs to help make informed decisions.

When it comes to decision-making, multiple perspectives are protective. We need other people’s views to provide information, understanding and insight to create ingenious solutions to problems that suit many different users and scenarios. Diverse opinions fill in blind spots more effectively than any individual could do alone.

Collaborative decision-making also leads to increased support. Joel Brockner, in his book The Process Matters, highlights the fact that people are much more likely to buy into a decision — even one that affects them negatively — if they are involved in making it.Go slowly at the beginning to go quickly at the end.

Yet stakeholder engagement can be time consuming and therefore costly, both for you and your stakeholders. It also has a reputational risk attached — both to doing it and not doing it. It’s important to keep your level of investment proportional to the stakes of your project. If your project is small and low risk, keep your engagement plans small and low risk.

And how do you know how to involve people, when and to what extent?

Stakeholder engagement requires a specialized skill set. Unfortunately, it is often assigned to already busy people (like Communications staff!) who aren’t necessarily trained in it or resourced appropriately to do it. Whether you are the sole communications practitioner expected to lead the engagement process, you hire a specialist to do the work, or you provide communication support to others’ engagements, you have an important opportunity to influence the quality of engagement that occurs —  including deciding not to do it – if you are equipped to do so.

Join me for the pre-conference workshop, Hearing From Who Cares: Stakeholder Engagement & the Communicator’s Role, on October 27 to gain a deeper understanding of why, how and when to engage stakeholders. This workshop will equip you with skills, tools and templates to design and support effective engagement opportunities.


About Rebecca

Dr. Rebecca Sutherns is a Certified Professional Facilitator and the CEO of Sage Solutions in Guelph, Ontario – a consulting firm that specializes in facilitating collaborative planning. She is a high energy communicator and coach who has worked to strengthen the impact of public benefit organizations for more than 20 years. She specializes in facilitating strategy development, stakeholder engagement, strong governance and effective teamwork, and has a particular gift for helping leaders make wiser decisions faster.