Among the many other more topical events around us, in the UK 2021 started with the screening of a new drama series on BBC called The Serpent. It is a gripping watch “inspired by real events” of serial killer Charles Sobhrai. He posed as a gem dealer based in Bangkok during the mid-1970s and drugged, murdered and robbed backpackers on the “hippie trail”. The drama centres on him, his heinous crimes and the man responsible for tracking him down – Herman Knippenberg, a Dutch junior diplomat. Kippenburg’s job was investigating narcotics and, in almost every episode, his Ambassador reminds him that the disappearances of European backpackers were a local police matter. Knippenberg continues undaunted, and when events come to a head, the Ambassador spells out his role:
“The task of any diplomatic mission in the world is to influence softly and invisibly.”
Knippenberg’s investigations eventually lead to the arrest and imprisonment of Sobhrai. He continued to influence in his own way to get the outcome that was the best for the families of the victims, and for the reputation of consular activities for foreign embassies – to help compatriots in peril.
Diplomats are, of course, the high priests of influencing and engagement – they have been doing it professionally on behalf of their governments for centuries. Diplomatic services around the world deal primarily in geopolitical foreign and trade affairs, as well as responding to shifting priorities, issues and risks to the relationships they nurture and maintain. Their craft is something we all engage with to a lesser or greater degree when flagging matters of importance and relevance in the interests of our organisations.
The context of risk and maintaining a safe and legally compliant environment may not reach the heady heights of national and geopolitical visibility. A lot, however, can be drawn from classic diplomatic influencing approaches, wider communication skills and personal styles in determining individual approach towards mitigating and managing risk. There is plenty of evidence to support this.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) details various case studies of organisations that have fallen foul of legislation put in place to protect workers and the public. It often talks about their “failure” to identify the various risks and safeguards required to comply with the law. Ultimately, it is the company directors who shoulder responsibility and face corporate fines, or in the worst cases, custodial sentences. Reputation also suffers, and in extreme incidents, business is irrecoverable as customers lose trust. In these extreme cases, there is likely to have been an internal culture problem. However, this can to a large extent be exacerbated by the compliance, risk or health and safety officer responsible being ignored or silenced.
A case I am following closely where this scenario was likely is the Capitol Hill riots on 6 January. Clearly, the public safety risks were flagged in advance with requests and recommendations made. We saw what happened. Those responsible now face the consequences of their actions (or inactions) and the reputation of the US as a global beacon of democracy is damaged. Foreign affairs writer Robert Kaplan summed it up in a recent comment reported in The Sunday Times:
“The visuals coming out of the Capitol Hill riot were reputation destroying. And once you lose a brand, it is hard to recover from it.”
So what can we all take from this in our everyday professional lives? One thing I have learned over the years is that senior management and directors get very twitchy about three things:
- Regulatory compliance.
- Trust and reputation.
- Issues that carry a public safety risk.
Invariably, compliance officers, risk managers, and health and safety professionals are in the front-line managing elements of these, so being able to effectively influence and engage with those that shoulder the responsibility is hugely important. Why? Because directors’ actions can cost them financially, lead to a custodial sentence, and – in worst-case scenarios – bear ultimate responsibility for serious injury or death as a consequence of inadequately or ineffectively communicated risks.
Being able to effectively influence and engage is not just part of a wide range of professional skills we need to master as we progress through our careers. There is also an ethical and moral dimension, which is particularly important when public safety is at risk. Knippenberg was able to use diplomacy to gather information and engage with the Thai authorities and other victims’ embassies. Although it wasn’t his job, he was driven by a moral imperative to put Sobhrai behind bars
While we may not face such gruesome and extreme scenarios as Knippenberg, from time to time we find ourselves in situations where we are flagging issues or concerns that won’t be welcome news. This may, but not exclusively, have the following impact:
- Business disruption or cancellations.
- Change of working/resistance
- Product recalls/loss of sales.
- Legal or regulatory ramifications.
- Reputation damage.
So how do we raise our game when we need to confidently, effectively influence and engage, particularly during tough situations? The first thing to acknowledge is individual strengths and weaknesses and how this is reflected in an individual style. Solid subject matter knowledge, integrity, shyness and lack of confidence are just a few examples.
Developing a ‘personal brand’ has become the latest description of style – how will people remember individuals and what will make them respected, valued and sought after? Other soft skills that support an individual style of influencing and engagement are the following classic communication approaches:
- Audience – understanding who you are seeking to influence and engage with.
- Listen – both passive and active methods.
- Advocacy – building and articulating what needs to be understood
- Methods and timing – how and when to influence and engage
Throughout my career, I have specialised in communicating some of the most complex subject matter in some very challenging settings. This has involved some special and very high stakes risks that directly impact lives and the environments in which people live. I have also been privileged enough to witness how different cultures use different techniques and fully appreciate there is not a ‘vanilla’ approach to effective influencing and engagement. It is as individual as we are, with approaches tailored to each setting and risk. The higher the risk and stakes, the greater skill is required to achieve the best outcome. No one wants to end up as a case study for the HSE, or worse.
Working with the IIRSM, I have developed the course “Effective influencing and engagement” to help anyone with a ‘tough sell’ role when it comes to risk management. I know how difficult communicating risk and the consequences of various actions can be. I fully appreciate how hard it is to be persuasive in the face of competing priorities, resistance or hesitancy. It should not be feared though. It is an opportunity to make a positive difference to the operational and financial success of organisations, as well as displaying leadership and integrity. The course covers technique on how to improve and develop personal influencing style as well as all these approaches mentioned – understanding your audience, listening techniques, building a compelling case and how and when to deliver.
We may not all seek to be seasoned international diplomats, but we all share the same sentiment when it comes to outcomes; getting our point across effectively, identifying consequences and ensuring mitigation is understood, and the right decisions can be taken. That is the essence of successful and effective influencing and engagement.
IIRSM has developed a course to help risk professionals understand the relationship between risk and safety management, communications and influencing which will be run by Sheena and Steve Fowler. The first “Effective influencing and engagement” course is on Wednesday 21 April. IIRSM’s virtual training is interactive, fast-moving and delivered in a welcoming environment. To find out more or to book, visit the IIRSM website: https://www.iirsm.org/events/effective-influencing-and-engagemen
BBC series "The Serpent".
Wikipedia page for the 2021 storming of the United States Capitol