Beyond Empathy the Importance of a Social Licence

Beyond Empathy the Importance of a Social Licence

After October’s Senate Estimates hearings, several publications dubbed Futureye the “Empathy Consultants” for advising the government on how to engage with impacted communities about the Inland Rail project.
The outrage that ensued surfaced three core questions that are interesting to reflect on. Should governments need advice to be empathetic? Was the government empathetic? If not, why not?

We know engaging communities in decisions is smart politics. Communities have expectations and rights to information, participation and that those with whom they are dealing with value and acknowledge them and their views. That makes it very important for those with the power to make decisions – whether businesses or governments – to work actively to ensure such rights are embedded in the work they are undertaking. Without empathy, the strategy, engagement, and process often falls short.

Governments can get impacted when they don’t operate empathetically and earn a social licence for their decisions, particularly now social media enables individuals to influence decision making.

So it beggars belief that any department or organisations project would be criticized for doing the right thing during Senate Estimates.

The criticism comes at a time when trust in our institutions is at historical lows and governments are openly asking themselves why.

Put simply, people and communities expect more and they deserve more.

As the founder of Futureye that for almost twenty years has specialised in social licence, I have skin in the game.

Humans are naturally empathetic and we feel each other’s triumphs and failures, pain and success. We also respond differently to the risks and issues we are confronted with.

Government and business want to see decisions made on facts. Government demands “evidence-based public policy” and business demands “risk-based assessment of shareholder returns”.

The fact is, facts don’t trump emotion. However much government or business wants to make fact-based decisions, if they ignore the individual or public perceptions and attitudes, they are going to create outrage.
Understanding the critics and opponents and the changing societal values that underpin their views is crucial. Yet typical issues management or consultation processes tend to look for the supporters and seek to amplify their voices while dismissing or ignoring the critics as noisy minority groups. Without understanding what the concerns of the public are and why they hold those views, consultation by governments and businesses come across as one-way promotional exercises rather than problem-solving processes. It may satisfy the marketing team but it often leaves most people disillusioned and angry.

The Futureye model helps people within companies and organisations to demonstrate their humanity so that they can take into account values, risks, and expectations to address concerns about projects and product. We have established collaborative partnerships with external stakeholders in a way to deliver real and lasting benefits for all parties.

Our model, tried and tested over hundreds of projects is not about spin, and it is not about PR. It is about how to listen to and engage stakeholders and be responsive to the things that matter to them. Earning a social licence requires ongoing alignment to society’s values, paying attention to their concerns and resolving the issues.

In an age of declining trust, it is an approach that all organisations, public or private, should consider.

Katherine Teh was interviewed by Sydney Morning Herald journalist Latika Bourke, this article reflects Katherine’s views as outlined above. Click onto the headline below to read the full story.