In theory ... Stakeholders

Emma De Vita's weekly look at management-speak.

Do you remember ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair talking about the 'stakeholder society'? The idea was to make Britain a little more inclusive and egalitarian, while at the same time conferring on each of us a greater sense of responsibility. 

The term comes from the business world and is a favourite among managers who want everyone in their organisations to feel part of the cause. But what does it actually mean?

According to the theory, a stakeholder is a person or an organisation with a vested interest in the successful running of your organisation. It can be an employee, a customer, an investor or even the person who lives next door to your factory. As a manager of a stakeholder organisation, you have a responsibility to make everyone feel part of the decision-making process.

In practice, humans are often far too self-interested to make this happen in any meaningful way. Some stakeholders will be far more powerful than others, and it's your job to work out who they are and butter them up to keep them happy. Then you'll have those stakeholders who have little power or influence but who tend to be the most vocal. Keeping them happy is a headache in itself.

Charities, whose causes engender far more public interest than those of businesses (everyone cares about a homeless dog, but who has strong feelings about vacuum-cleaner production?), have a harder time putting this particular theory into practice. Public attention is the lifeblood of voluntary organisations, but it tends to make the number of concerned stakeholders skyrocket.

Keeping all of them happy would lead every charity chief executive to the edge of a breakdown. Better instead to console yourself with the axiom that, although all stakeholders are equal, some are more equal than others. Keep the most important people (those with the money) happy and placate the rest with free pens and newsletters.

- Emma De Vita is a senior section editor on Management Today.

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