Recently a journalist I admire skewered a National Marine Fisheries Service employee in an online article. The author accused the man, who I do not know, of abuse of power and corruption. The worse part is the author asserts the US Government no longer cares about the Alaskan “little guy” halibut angler. I don’t know the facts associated with the issue and need not discuss them in this post. But the article reminds me of the public trust we need to conserve fish, wildlife and their habitats. Without trust the public won’t be a part of the solution. And if they’re not involved they may not accept the final management decision. Can we make the best management decisions without that trust? I don’t believe so.
In Leadership Without Easy Answers, Harvard professor Ronald Heifetz, posits the public looks to government generally to provide direction, protection and order. Yet, sometimes that direction is likely not what a sector of the public wants. For that reason, among others, the public regularly expresses their discomfort with this dependency. When we propose solutions likely to cause loss for some we test that trust. Ultimately some withdraw their support of the agency or the authority figure in question. Clearly our journalist no longer trusts the National Marine Fisheries Service with providing direction, protection and order for management of Alaska’s halibut populations, and because of his article there may be others.
At a time when leadership is needed in conservation, how can we make necessary decisions affecting the public without losing their trust? I believe we can exercise leadership without losing their support by paying attention to a few traits of effective leadership:
Identify and get to know your potentially-affected interests. When a conservation problems begins to appear, try to decide who is likely to be affected by this problem and the possible solutions. Find them and engage them early. Be careful not to avoid the individuals most likely to sabotage your agency’s efforts. In fact, these are the people you should spend the most time with!
Show them there really is a problem. Show them your agency is the right entity to address it and to ignore the problem would be irresponsible. Listen to their concerns and then listen some more. Tell them everything you can about the problem, potential solutions, and anything they want to know. If you can’t tell them something or can’t answer a question, let them know why.
Protect the voices of dissent. Don’t let the dissenters go unheard. Show them that you care about how the solutions could affect them. Imagine how you would feel in their place. What would be your fears. Find your common interests and help them see you as an individual not as a faceless bureaucrat. By showing them respect and their connections to you, you will engender trust.
Disappoint at a rate they can tolerate. And be ready to be disappointed. Be honest, but strategic, about the potential consequences of the proposed solutions. And when the criticism is high remember to remove self from role. Take the criticism of your agency’s ideas as evidence that allows you to see where people are at. Don’t take the criticism personal, this isn’t about you, it’s about what the agency and what its proposed solutions represents.
Being a public servant in the field of conservation isn’t easy when we’re tackling messy conservation challenges. We can be heckled, ridiculed, reassigned, fired or worse. But the best conservation solutions come from the people with the problem so we must engage and test the public’s trust. We can survive by identifying who is most likely to be affected and engaging them as soon as possible. I believe it is important to treat people the way we would want to be treated. I also believe we can gain their trust and informed consent when we are open and honest about the problems and potential solutions – even if the ultimate solution goes against their desires. With the public’s trust and involvement, agencies will find a solution the public helped create. And that’s the best kind of solution.
What experiences have you had in retaining trust of the public? What tips do you have that could help others? As always, I urge you to share your thoughts, subscribe and encourage your colleagues to join the conversation.