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Understanding Change Management to Guide Implementation of Sustainability

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Before attempting to implement sustainability across your company, it’s important that you first truly understand how your company and employees manage change within its operations, processes, and culture. Only after you have that understanding of behavior change can you break down barriers, engage the skeptics, and set your company on a path toward sustainability that will last for the long term.
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Change is tough. Nobody likes to be told to change how they do things, whether it’s at work or in their personal life. Don’t believe me? Cross your arms in front of you. Now cross them the other way. This feels weird, right? Now cross them back to your normal way again. Feels better and more natural, right? This is what you are up against. People are comfortable in the way they do things and even the smallest, simplest behavior changes run up against both real and perceived barriers.

It is no different with sustainability, where you might be asking employees to act or think differently. You will run into barriers that will need to be overcome, especially from employees who have done their job a certain way for a long time. You need to have a compelling vision of the future and a good rationale as to why the new, more sustainable way will be better. This is going to require a ton of heavy lifting, so you need to explain why it is worth doing.

Kevin Hagen, the former corporate social responsibility director of REI, says it best: “A sustainable business will outperform a traditional business; it’s the change required to make the shift that is most difficult.”1

Therefore, before attempting to implement sustainability across your company, it’s important that you first truly understand how your company and employees manage change within its operations, processes, and culture. Only after you have that understanding of behavior change can you break down barriers, engage the skeptics, and set your company on a path toward sustainability that will last for the long term.

Change Is Tough and Nobody Likes to Change

Think back to the last time somebody looked at the way you did your job and suggested that you do something differently—how did this make you feel? Probably not too good. Your first thought probably was, Why is this person trying to tell me what to do? This was likely followed up by the thought, I’ve been doing my job successfully for a long time. Who are they to tell me to do it differently? These are very real emotions that everyone has, which can create a natural resistance to any suggestion toward change, however logical the idea is or regardless of whether the person believes she needs to make a change.

Then there is the rational level. Think about the last time you were introduced to a new piece of technology or your firm upgraded its computer operating systems. Even though the new system was supposed to be better and provide productivity improvements, your comfort level with the existing system wouldn’t be the same and there would definitely be a learning curve that you probably didn’t feel that you had time for.

Suggesting behavior change around sustainability is just like anything else. Even though it shouldn’t be tough, it is. The common misconception that many environmentalists had over the decades was that if people just understood the facts, they would jump to acceptance and change their behavior. This was naïve and is at the core of why so many change efforts are unsuccessful.

The reality is that we all see and relate to the world through our perceptions. As John Koriath, a leadership professor at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, states, “None of us are seeing the world as it is. We’re seeing it through our own beliefs and our emotional response to events. This is fundamental to understanding change. Nothing can change if we only see things the way we’ve always seen them. If we only see things the way we’ve always seen them, we can only go where we’ve already been. And, with sustainability, we need to take a new path.”2

Change Brings Emotion

Change has a direct and significant impact on people. “Not every employee will have the exact same response to every initiative, but by acknowledging the different ways that employees respond to change, you’ll be better positioned to understand their reactions and how to best move forward,”3 says Mary Kay Chess, the change management lead, Bainbridge Graduate Institute.

“Additionally, you have to show how the adoption of a new way is attractive and will be better for them. It can’t come across as, ‘Do this just because the boss or company says so.’”4

The diagram shown in Figure 7.1 illustrates the progression of emotions when one is trying to implement change within organizational change.5

Figure 7.1

Figure 7.1 Stages of change.6

For example, when you talk to a skeptic about climate change, sure, some of them don’t believe the science. However, the underlying psychology is that there is a fear that they’re going to have to change and that you are going to be telling them what to do and taking away things they care about.

Your role as a change agent on sustainability is to facilitate with your employees and skeptics how the new way will be better. Show them all the business benefits outlined earlier relating to cost savings, lowering risk, the ability to attract more customers, enhancing the brand, and attracting new employees, but be sure to demonstrate how the change will be better for them individually as well.

Change Is a Phased Approach

As your company embarks on sustainability or as it tries to regain momentum that it might have lost, it is helpful to realize that change is not linear. As much as a strategist would like to map it out on a flowchart, change is a process. There will be people who “get it” right away, whereas others will take more time. People move along at their own pace, and even those who get it might understand something entirely different from what is being presented by the company or leadership.

There are varying levels of idea adoption, as illustrated in Figure 7.2. There will be first movers, fast followers, the middle majority, and the naysayers. They will adopt and accept change at a different rate.

Figure 7.2

Figure 7.2 The Sustainability Adoption Curve (SAC).

The first thing you want to do is identify the first movers. Leverage their passion and expertise to bring the fast followers along, because they’ll move into the adaptation and integration phase relatively easily and this will build momentum. Next, your efforts need to focus on the middle majority, on moving them from the resignation phase to one of possibility as soon as possible. After they are engaged, your ability to make sustainability stick will greatly improve because this is the largest group to try to shift. The naysayers and skeptics will take the most time and potentially drain your energy, so you don’t want to start or focus there. Deal with them last.

Change Is a Constant

After the change process has begun, it is important to take into consideration that this will require “multiple attempts at a process because with each change there will be ripple effects,” according to Chess.7 The reality is that when you try to implement change, even benign actions will have consequences, both good and bad, on other aspects of the organization. So realize that when you push on one point of the star shown in Figure 7.3, it will tend to put other things out of balance.

Figure 7.3

Figure 7.3 Change management star.

The goal is to make sure that all five factors are internally consistent. When this occurs, you will enable effective behavior and have the greatest chance for successful implementation. And remember, sustainability change is not much different from other change; it is just that the language is different for most people.

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