The power of stakeholders is what matters most of the time in the minds ruling corporations, businesses, governments, and international institutions. But most of the time as well, lives that are impacted most by organisations are not accounted for in decision-making….think for example of the climate strikes led by children worldwide every Friday.
So how do we include the voice of marginalised stakeholders whose lives are directly affected by an organisation? In our new paper with Krista Bondy “Mitigating Stakeholder Marginalisation with the Relational Self” published in the Journal of Business Ethics, we show that the problem is about the mindset in decision-making, and especially a mindset that closes the boundaries around who a stakeholder is.
In theory, stakeholders are perceived as isolated islands (“essential selves”) without connection to others, or without connection to the organisation. However, in practice, every individual within an organisation relates in one way or another to other individuals inside and outside, for the simple reason that they share a common experience, life here and now. Hence, we argue that reconnecting marginalised stakeholders to the organisation depends on changing the mindset of decision-making away from this “essentialist self” to a more holistic “relational self” where each self is encouraged to recognise common selves outside and inside the organisation.
Changing our mindset around who the stakeholders are is really about thinking about who we are marginalising within ourselves. Let’s take a couple of examples to illustrate: one, looking at International Women Day, and taking women as the marginalised stakeholder and two, looking at the climate talks, taking the environment as the marginalised stakeholder. Or are they marginalised?
2019 International Women's Day: Power within?
For this year’s International Women Day, we were encouraged to strike the #BalanceforBetter pose on social media. It’s a “hands out” balance pose calling for action for more balanced gender relations worldwide.
Two things are striking in this campaign. One is that the people involved in the pictures of the campaign are both male and female, and from a diversity of culture, race and ethnicity. It’s striking because gender here stands under the umbrella of diversity…the diversity of individuals in a global and balanced society….but it also reflects the diversity from “within”, our inner diversity that makes a balanced individual. As we show in our paper where we draw from the feminist literature on the relational self, the power of our mindset is to start relating the experiences of others to ours. In other words, engaging and recognising the outer diversity allows us to enrich and recognise our inner diversity. Why does it matter? Because their voices become our voice.
Another interesting aspect of this hands out pose is that it can trigger in our imagination the hands out pose of “who cares?”. Here, unconscious bias by people around this marketing campaign about what women are might become self-defeating if we adopt the view of an essentialist “who cares” self, rather than the relational self of inclusion and diversity.
Climate talks and actions: without power?
With power within comes the question “how do we define a stakeholder then?”. A stakeholder definition based on a relational self would question whether marginalised stakeholders are actually without power. Our take on the stakeholder definition in the paper is therefore as follows:
“Stakeholders are groups of relational selves who have experienced organisational processes, inputs and/ or outputs at one or more points in time, and whose experience can be legitimated through the common living selves within & outside the organisation”.
An example to illustrate such perspective relates to the stakeholders around the recent COP24 Climate talks. An outcome of the talks was the pledge made by governments to bring in rapid change by broadening the “coalitions between governments and non-party stakeholders”. So who are the stakeholders? And how can we be sure they are genuinely committed to meeting carbon targets? We saw for example the commitments of major organisations and development banks to divest from fossil fuel. And we saw that one way to push for more climate action is to empower women. We also saw the power of the voice of Greta Thunberg who has been heard by the youth worldwide, out in the streets every Friday.
Whether all these commitments and actions will bear positive fruits has a lot to do with how our mindset towards “who are the stakeholders” is wired, around the essentialist self or the relational selves.