What’s missing from sustainability? The skills needed to create change.

What’s missing from sustainability? The skills needed to create change.

In my more than 20 years in the communications industry, I’ve learned that sometimes the most important thing isn’t what’s right in front of your face. Sometimes the most important thing is in the white space. It’s what’s missing from the equation.

Over the years, as sustainability’s definition has continued to evolve, it’s taken on multiple dimensions: environmental, economic, social, local and global. And, depending on who you ask, there may be others.

But here’s what’s missing from sustainability. The understanding and skills to implement large-scale change. Sustainability needs to learn more about the principles of change management if we’re to see meaningful change in individuals, society and organizations.

Sustainability has plenty of rabble-rousers, visionaries, big dreamers, model makers and theoreticians. And they’ve played a critical role, waking people up to the pressing issues of the day. But what sustainability needs now are more implementers, executers and doers.

Sure, there are folks out there now, feet on the street, making things happen. But all too often we run across this scenario: there’s a new person hired to promote sustainability within a company, charged with not only employee engagement, but also with external communications. They may or may not have a budget. But more importantly, they don’t have a background in change management. They have no grounding in the important work of how to motivate and inspire change, how to build critical cooperation among multiple, and often competing, interests, or even where to start.

Here’s one place to begin the journey. Understand that there are three levels of influence, and that each must be understood and leveraged to create real change. The first is the personal level. This is the influence that a person’s knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and worldviews have on their own behavior. This level is based on intrinsic motivation, reinforcing self-concept and creating new experiences. It’s about helping people realize their own moral code and priorities, and then making changes to align with those beliefs.

The second is the social level. Here, it’s about how other people’s behavior influences individual behavior. This is the level of social norms and peer pressure. When in doubt, people tend to watch others and emulate their behavior. This is about providing social support, social networks and social capital – it’s about reinforcement from the larger group. It’s also about letting go of dictated solutions from the executive levels, and inviting those who are contributing to the problem to be part of the answer. It’s about creating “villages of accountability” where each person feels ownership and responsibility for the success of the group.

Finally, there’s the organizational level. This is the influence of organizational culture and settings on individual and social behavior through expectations and sanctions. At its heart, this level is about institutional change and community mobilization. It’s all about external motivation and rewards. But, as we’ve noted here before, rewards are tricky things. They must be given with the right attitude, in the right levels at the right intervals. Rewards need to be around acknowledging the desired efforts, not only the desired results. This is the time and place to remove institutional obstacles, and giving people meaningful chances to “do their best” by changing things like process and procedure. This level is not about changing people. And it’s not about punishment. This must be reserved as an absolute last resort. There are many threats at this level, and nothing kills motivation faster than a looming threat. Threats may generate short-term results, but in the long run, they can breed a culture of defiance, contempt and cynicism – the mortal enemies of change agents.

If you’re charged with creating more employee engagement, driving sustainability initiatives, or meeting goals that can only be accomplished with behavior change, then don’t stop at understanding the science behind what you need to do. Don’t stop at the rewards and punishment strategy. Change your approach and keep moving into what you will really need to accomplish your sustainability goals – change management. And let the change begin.

About the Author

Karen Barnes

Karen is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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