December 18, 2014

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Why Most Sustainability Behavior Change Programs Fail

Most practitioners approach sustainability from their own, green point of view rather than from that of the people whose behavior they are trying to change.

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By Gareth Kane

I was running an employee engagement workshop in one of the U.K.’s largest manufacturers when a plant operative, still in his dirty overalls, turned to me, shook his head, and said “They’ve put these stickers on the machines telling us to switch them off, but there’s nothing in the standard operating procedures. It is drummed into us from day one to follow those procedures so if it ain’t in there, it ain’t happening.”

This guy had precisely nailed the problem with the vast majority of attempts to ‘green’ employee behavior. At best they blithely ignore the prevalent culture in the organization and, at worst, try to change it wholesale.

Sustainability: Someone's Point of View

Most practitioners approach sustainability from their own, green point of view rather than from that of the people whose behavior they are trying to change. So over and over again we get the same old hackneyed ideas wheeled out: ‘switch it off’ stickers, awareness posters featuring hands cradling the planet, worthy presentations showing graphs of rising global temperatures and so on. None of this is in any way relevant to the day-to-day duties of employees, so it simply gets ignored.

The 'Green Jujitsu' approach to employee engagement throws the concept of culture change on its head. In the martial art of jujitsu, instead of trying to batter your opponent into submission, you make use of their strength, height and momentum. In the same way, instead of trying to correct employees’ Green Jujitsu: DoShortsperceived weaknesses, Green Jujitsu works to their strengths, habits and interests – working with the existing culture of the organization rather than trying to change it.

Framing Sustainability as an Engineering Solution 

So, for example, when I work with employees from a major engineering company such as BAE Systems or Johnson Matthey, I frame sustainability as an engineering problem requiring engineering solutions. Engineers can be a skeptical bunch when it comes to anything they perceive as ‘political correctness’ (I’m an engineer so I can say that), but they love to solve problems.

So instead of presenting them with images of imperiled polar bears, I get them to apply engineering tools such as fishbone diagrams, “5 whys” and all the rest to sustainability problems. And it works - the skepticism flies out the window, the sleeves get rolled up and the solutions start coming.

As a bonus, those solutions are incredibly valuable and practical as they come from those who know what they are talking about. And they are already owned by the people who thought of them in the first place, making implementation much easier.

Organizational Culture – and the Role of Teams

Something else I discovered from running sustainability engagement workshops was the importance of teams when it comes to the culture of organizations. It is traditional when training employees to try to break up such cliques to ‘get people out of their comfort zones.’ I find the opposite: that teams tend to work much better together - and even better if established teams are pitched against each other in friendly competition.

Often the loyalty of front-line staff is to their team rather than to the brand. So Green Jujitsu recognizes and exploits the importance of teams. Like many organizations, Newcastle law firm Muckle LLP has had a lot of success pitching teams of employees against each other in carbon saving competitions, exploiting that camaraderie.

Other Green Jujitsu techniques come from the popular media.

Take the classic human-interest story – ‘someone like us’ experiencing something incredible whether organizational culturegood or bad. If this can sell millions of magazines, it can sell sustainability.

"Selling" Sustainability

Muckle LLP use this technique effectively in their newsletter, for example using the story of how one of their partners uses shredded paper from the firm as bedding for her horses. This is engaging, quirky and about someone the other employees probably know. BAE Systems used the story of how one of its engineers was impressed with how his son’s new car could switch off its engine automatically at traffic lights but start up again the moment it was needed and applied the concept successfully to the production line.

This is a great story illustrating how a fellow engineer was using his engineering talents to cut the company’s carbon footprint. Both stories reflect company culture and are million miles from the usual stolid fare served up on green issues in corporate newsletters.

All that it takes to use Green Jujitsu is the humility to understand that your sustainability expertise is not important to other employees. What is important to them is their day job, their status and their sense of belonging. Once you grasp that, you can throw out all the clichés and me-too-solutions and tailor your employee engagement program to the prevailing corporate culture.

Then, and only then, will you be able to properly embed sustainability into the DNA of your organization. [Stay tuned for a book giveaway!]

Previously in DoShorts:

Why Your Company Should Not Account for Sustainability

Navigating the Sustainability Landscape in a Constant Game of Chase

Are NGOs Right To Dismiss Standards Along With CSR?

The Corporate Sustainability Beauty Contest: Making Room for Full Product Transparency

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About the Author

Gareth Kane (@GarethKane) is an author and blogger on sustainable business and owner of the consultancy Terra Infirma Ltd. This article draws on his ebook Green Jujitsu: The Smart Way to Embed Sustainability in Your Organisation.

Gareth's book is part of Dō Sustainability's new DōShort series of concise, sustainable business ebooks for professionals. These practical ebooks support professionals in the vanguard of sustainable business -- who are often forging new paths in their organizations -- by giving them the confidence, information and tactics they need at every stage of their career.

CSRwire Discount: For 15% off the RRP of any DōShort title, use code CSR15 at checkout when you order from www.dosustainability.com/shop. Currencies will be converted, and orders can be fulfilled immediately, anywhere in the world.

Subscriptions: You can also get access to the entire DōShorts Collection via a personal or corporate subscription. Read more about subscriptions here.

Queries? If you would like to contact Gareth Kane or find out more about the DōShorts series, email gudrun@dosustainability.com or visit www.dosustainability.com.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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