7 Ways To Get Employees To Change For The Greener

Filed under: 1sdn,Employee Engagement,Lists | |

business manager outdoor with green necktieIn this post, Jennifer uses excerpts from an article on change management and applies the seven strategies outlined in the article to the specific challenge of getting employees to change their habitual behaviors in ways that help the organization achieve its sustainability goals. Actually getting people to adopt change in their lives is a lot more involved than a glossy vision statement that outlines lofty and worthy goals; unless the message connects with the people it needs to reach it will soon be forgotten.

by Jennifer Woofter, President of Strategic Sustainability Consulting (SSC). Follow Jennifer on twitter: @jenniferwoofter. Like SSC on Facebook; Join the SSC Consultant Network on Linkedin.

In a recent edition of Inc, authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath (of Made to Stick fame) discuss their new book on change management in an article How to Get People to Change. It’s a fascinating look at what it takes people to shift their thinking and their actions, and I wanted to look at some of their thoughts in a “green angle”. What follows are excerpts from the article, with my reflections as a sustainability consultant.

1. “One of the main mistakes is when leaders come up with a new vision but never translate that broad analytical vision into something people on the frontlines can actually execute. I was talking to an entrepreneur who wanted his employees to have a “mindset of customer service.” But if you’re an employee, when you hear that, all you hear is buzzword, buzzword, buzzword, jargon, jargon, jargon.

Ahh, this could not be more pertinent for the “green” crowd. Think back to your last conversation—around the water cooler with your climate skeptic colleagues, or networking at that small business happy hour. Consultants pitching their wares and inside sustainability champions make the same mistake again and again. We throw around terms like “sustainability” and “systems thinking” without providing any kind of common context. Hell, even the term “green” is vague.

Is it any surprise that we see people nod (and perhaps even agree with us) and yet behavior goes unchanged? Companies create broad GHG reduction goals, but employees have no idea how to implement them. Consultants provide slick reports to clients, who quietly place them into a drawer and go about their business. Green teams create vision statements that speak compellingly of holistic change, but never get traction with the company decision makers.

While there are many reasons that change doesn’t happen, buzzwords and jargon is certainly one of the main problems. I challenge you to look hard at the language you’re using to convince people of the importance of sustainability. Can you explain all the concepts in a way that people on the frontlines can execute? If not, go back and practice on your loved ones…they have to sit patiently and listen. [See: CEOs See Sustainability as Engine for Growth but Industry Sectors Split on Priorities.]

2.Microsoft had some very stubborn programmers who thought they were writing brilliant software. But six out of 10 customers Microsoft surveyed couldn’t figure out how to use the new feature. When they told the programmers this, their response was, “Where did you find six dumb people?” Microsoft brought the programmers into a usability-testing lab and put them behind a two-way mirror. When the programmers watched a real customer struggle with the software they designed, the programmers immediately started thinking about ways of changing it.

People need to see the final results of their actions. Take a company field trip to your local landfill and watch people’s eyes open. Not so radical, but equally effective: show them the electric bill. Consider posting the electric bill at the front doors every month and you’ll be amazed at how energized people become about turning off those unused bathroom lights.

Lesson: some people need to see with their own eyes before they will be willing to change their behavior. Don’t just tell people about the importance of going green—show them.

3.Our analytical capacity is wonderful, but we face too many choices. If you give customers in a grocery store an assortment of 24 jams to sample, they’re actually less likely to buy any of the jams than if there are only six jams. Very often we paralyze our analytical side by offering it too much to analyze. The same thing happens if you give your employees too many things to think about — like having a “mindset of customer service.” As an employee, there are 45 things I could do that might improve customer service, and I don’t have time to do all of those things, so I end up doing none of them.

This is SO important for companies with a green program. You can’t just encourage employees to “go green” or “reduce your carbon footprint”. Get specific! Part of creating a smart sustainability strategy is creating a set of guiding principles that allows you (and everyone else in your organization) to set priorities. Give people a few key options to choose from—rather than leave them in limbo with a hundred thousand potential actions. That not encourages employee to change their behavior, but also makes sure you get the biggest bang for your buck from a green initiative.

4.One of the most basic mistakes that psychologists have documented is that we tend to blame people and their personalities for problems and ignore situations. One of my students, a director at Nike, thought of herself as a very open manager. She had an open-door policy, but when she asked for feedback, she learned that her staff thought she was a bad communicator. After talking with her team, she realized the problem was the way her desk was set up. When an employee came in and sat across from her, her computer was right in the middle. She got distracted when e-mails showed up. After she rearranged her office so she would have to turn her chair away from the computer when an employee came in, she immediately got positive feedback. By fixing that environment, she fixed the problem.

I see this problem a lot working with clients. Take the issue of recycling. Companies often complain that employees don’t take advantage of recycling opportunities, throw up their hands, and admit defeat. Instead, we recommend they try three simple things before giving up (or investing in anything expensive):

■ Make recycling bins more accessible. Instead of a single, central location for recycling, give each employee a small recycling bin to keep at their desk. People will do what’s easy, so make it easy to recycle at the point of disposal. Put recycling bins every place you might want to throw something away—the copy machine, the bathroom, the kitchen, the conference rooms…you get the idea.

■ At employees’ desks, swap out large trash cans for smaller pint-sized versions. Smaller trash cans make employees notice how much trash they are actually generating—and that awareness is a key part of changing employee behavior.

■ Add clear and concise information about what can (and cannot) be recycled in easy-to-access places. A summary chart posted above the kitchen recycling facilities, a simple sticker on the office recycling bins, and a more comprehensive resource available on your organization’s intranet is a great mix.

The next time you’re up against a green problem, look for a solution that makes it easier for people to change. Often, just making the green option more convenient will result in a noticeable difference!

5.Social influence is strong. If a third of your employees aren’t filling out their expense reports on time, what they may not know is that two-thirds of your employees are. Sometimes just understanding that a crowd of people is moving in a direction makes people uncomfortable enough to change. One of my favorite studies in the book is about a group of researchers who went into hotels that have those “Please reuse your towels” signs. They changed one of the signs to say, “Most people in this hotel reuse their towels at least once during their stay.” Immediately, towel reuse rates went up 25 percent, and laundry bills went down.

This is not just about letting people in your organization know about the “green things” that their colleagues are doing, but also about setting expectations. And to do this effectively, you need to have some simple metrics. Do you know how many of your employees recycle? How many of them telecommute at least once a month? Take advantage of public transit commuter benefits? Before you can use social influence in the workplace, you need to have credible data backing you up.

6.We commonly think that fear is a good motivator, but fear works for only a short time. And this recession has gone on for a couple of years in some parts of the country. So when we try to motivate people, we need to find feelings of hope and optimism.

Remember the movie An Inconvenient Truth, and how it swept over the United States and marked a huge turning point in our nation’s awareness of the perils of climate change? It turns out that the movie was great at giving us a sharp slap to the face (metaphorically speaking of course), but not great at inspiring change. The doom-and-gloom scenarios presented by Al Gore didn’t really make the case for responding to climate change. People were shocked, but then went back to their every day lives—just check out the latest surveys showing that fewer people believe that climate change is real today than they did two years ago.

People need something to run to, not just something to run from. As you think about a sustainability strategy for your organization, make sure it isn’t just about “reducing greenhouse gas emissions” or “using less water”. Put a positive spin on it – how many trees will you save by going paperless? How much money will you trim from the electricity budget by installing computer power management software? How many more hours will employees spent at home with their families instead of commuting, when they have the option to telecommute once a week? Find the positive. [See: Hewlett Packard: Sustainability as a Competitive Advantage]

As sustainability consultants, we often work with clients that are approaching sustainability from a “have to” perspective. Walmart is knocking on their door, saying you have to lower your greenhouse gases. Investors have filed a shareholder resolution, saying you have to implement a supplier code of conduct. Customers are asking for it, saying you have to pursue third party “green” certification.

We work with clients to address stakeholder needs, but also balance that impetus with finding internal motivation. What can employees rally around in this sustainability journey? It’s where high-impact issues meet high-enthusiasm that the most amazing things are accomplished.

7.There’s a technique we talk about in the book: looking for the bright spots. When you face a change situation, you’re often demoralized and depressed. Instead of focusing on what isn’t working, you need to shift people over to thinking, What have we done in the past that has been successful for us?

When we work with clients, we often use this technique—especially when employees want to “go green” but are skeptical or hesitant about whether or not it can actually be accomplished. We ask them about a past work initiative that were successful, and try to figure out what characteristics of the project made it a winner.

■ Was it delegated throughout every department? Or led by a specific team?

■ Was it well funded? Or did a shoestring budget push people to be innovative?

■ Were the CEO and executive management were actively involved? Or did the CEO stay out of the way?

■ Were there clear deadlines and a detailed timeline for implementation? Or was it a grassroots initiative that organically spread throughout the organization?

■ Were there lots of meetings to keep everybody informed? Or was it successful because everyone wasn’t bogged down by unnecessary bureaucracy?

Once employees are able to articulate characteristics that make a workplace initiative a success, we are better able to help them plan effective guidelines for a sustainability program. We can spot potential red flags early and guide our client around pitfalls. And by engaging employees in a process where they recall past successes, they are often able to grab hold of that enthusiasm and apply it to this new sustainability venture.


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Published with permission from SSC, where the post first appeared.

© 2011, Jennifer Woofter. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Jennifer Woofter (1 Articles)

Jennifer Woofter is the founder and president of Strategic Sustainability Consulting (SSC). In this role she draws upon more than a decade of experience in the fields of organizational sustainability, corporate social responsibility, and socially responsible investing. She has worked with more than 50 clients on projects including Green Auditing, Sustainability Master Planning, Carbon Footprint Analysis, Stakeholder Engagement, Training and Facilitation, and Sustainability Reporting. She currently manages the SSC Consultant Network, an association of more than 450 professionals with expertise in virtually every area of sustainability.Learn more at www.sustainabilityconsulting.com. Follow Jennifer on twitter @jenniferwoofter. Like SSC on Facebook. Join the SSC Consultant Network on LinkedIn.

  • CleanerUSA

    Amazing Article on different strategies for employers to help motivate their employees to behave more efficiently. Love the idea of posting the electric bill as a physical way of knowing as a collective to reduce the amount of electrical consumption. CEOs, Facility Managers and Business owners could use this article for a Business Policy Plan for implementing a strategy for their corporation in promoting sustainable practices and truly be Green! Thank you Jennifer…

  • http://www.sustainabilityconsulting.com Jennifer Woofter

    Thanks CleanerUSA! I think one of the hugely overlooked elements of sustainability is how to get people to change their behavior. It’s such a complicated issue, with different motivations, incentives, and trade-offs. My prediction is that the intersection of employee engagement, change management, and sustainability is going to be one of the top issues for sustainability consultants in the coming years!

  • http://www.onestoneadvisors.com Andrea Spencer-Cooke

    Jennifer – great article, thanks! I couldn’t agree more with your linkage of employee engagement, change management and sustainability – but think it runs wider still: the need to spur change certainly starts with employees, but increasingly stretches up and down the value chain, too. Driving change among a wider group of stakeholders, including investors and consumers, is firmly on companies’ radars too. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on whether the same approaches you outline in the article can work at a wider value chain/societal level too!

    • http://www.sustainabilityconsulting.com Jennifer Woofter

      Thanks Andrea. You make some great points about the need to drive sustainability throughout the value chain. However, I think that employee behavior change is best managed directly within companies, and not pushed beyond to upstream suppliers or downstream customers. I’ve seen MANY projects fail when leaders in one organization try to change the behavior of employees in OTHER organizations (up or down their value chain). It’s one of the main reasons that the Walmart sustainability imperative isn’t doing such a great job at changing suppliers’ employees’ behaviors — the distance is too far to be effective. As a junior-level employee, am I really motivated to change my behavior based on what my customer wants? Nope — I’m going to be much more driven by what my boss wants.

      That said, I think that many (if not all) of the specific approaches described above WILL work to advance sustainability beyond employee behavior change. Specifically, when working throughout the value chain, it can be really helpful to use this checklist as a way to spot potential obstacles. For example:

      1) am I providing enough tangible, specific information on what I want?

      2) do they (suppliers, customers, etc.) really understand the challenges we’re dealing with?

      3) are we providing the right balance between flexibility and consistency?

      Thanks for your comment!

  • Jillian Glenn

    Hi Jennifer, I am a PR student enrolled in an Issues & Trends class. My professor assigned us a blog to write on a topic we found interesting. I chose businesses going green and stumbled across your article. I gained so much knowledge reading your post that I had to go out and tell it to my readers. Thank you for your help and I am looking foward to reading your upcoming posts!