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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Engaging Stakeholders to Create Effective Change

The research reported here addresses the question of what is required to engage stakeholders to create effective change. It is a case study of one organisation, Melbourne Water, which is located in Victoria, Australia. The research is undertaken using a qualitative, action research framework and a systems psychodynamic perspective. Volunteer participants participated in one-on-one interviews and focus groups. The data is also generated through organisational observations and reflection utilising the methods of supervision and journaling. The organisation is transitioning from an old way of doing things. In the past, technical expertise was considered to be all that was required to make changes. In the current environment, in which alternative water supply sources are being developed in response to chronic water shortage, Melbourne Water and its stakeholders, have to find new ways of working to ensure a sustainable water future. Melbourne Water has to engage, partner and collaborate with stakeholders. The research shows that multiple complex factors influence which stakeholders to involve, how to involve them, and how much engagement is enough. There are difficulties sharing information across different cultures within the organisation, and at times external stakeholders experience issues of communication, described as 'the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing'. Traditional quantitative evaluation methods are not adequate to demonstrate key factors of effective stakeholder engagement, such as levels of trust, feelings of respect, strength in relationships or a sense of being heard and understood. Effective stakeholder engagement requires individuals in organisations to develop personal awareness of their own behaviours and to develop strong interpersonal skills. Taking these findings into account, it is argued that in order for stakeholder engagement to be successful in this organisation, individuals need mature interpersonal skills and the ability to form stakeholder relationships alongside their technical expertise. Information about stakeholders shared strategically across the organisation builds organisational knowledge and capability. The capacity of negative capability, a psychodynamic concept describing the ability to work with unknown outcomes, on the edge of knowing, and engage in a non-defensive way with stakeholders is one approach. Working in this way will create greater capacity for organisational adaptation, however, not all members of the organisation can develop this wisdom.