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Understanding Your People

As mentioned, people will be at different points on the sustainability adoption curve. That makes it essential that you make an extra effort to understand the people within your organization.

Understand not only their opinions about sustainability, but their different personality types, speaking styles, and learning styles. You cannot apply a one-size-fits-all approach to your sustainability implementation plans.

You will need to tailor your message and education of your employees using various methods and techniques based on how they see the world and what they care about. As Steven Covey is fond of saying, “First understand what the other person cares about, and then try and talk to them about that.”16 Don’t start trying to talk to someone about sustainability and change without knowing what the person on the other end cares about.

This will be more difficult within larger organizations, but this work is essential. Dawn Danby, the sustainable design program manager of Autodesk, states from her experience that “some people are effective at being collaborative. Others need to be told what to do and work better under a more authoritative manager. Some are driven and self-directed. Others need education and want a safer route with a plan and formula.”17

The style you use will depend on the culture of the company, and it’s important to realize that your change efforts will need to reach both extroverts and introverts, as well as visual and auditory learners. Each type of person has different ways in which he or she wants to learn and embrace new initiatives.

For example, I’ve found that most CEOs with whom I interact are extroverts. Because of their time constraints, they learn best from short, succinct, summarized reports with easy-to-understand visuals. Because this works for them, they sometimes think this is the best and only way to reach all of their employees. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Having a fair understanding of these stylistic differences will open the door to assorted methods to reach your employees, expand your reach, and ensure that you will be appealing to all cross sections of employees and not to only one group. This requires some nuance but it is doable.

The Culture Outside of the Office

Understanding your people means also considering the culture outside of work—what the norms are in their lives, in their community, and in the communication styles of their culture. This is especially important with multistate and multinational companies.

Different offices from around the globe will be home to employees with different cultural norms. For example, North American employees tend to be more individualistic, talkative, pragmatic, and goal oriented, and believe that their destiny is in their own hands, whereas in Japan or the Far East, employees are more group orientated and listeners. Here, a 20-second delay to listen and think through an idea is commonplace.

You need to recognize these cultural norms, because if you are suggesting sustainability ideas in a boardroom in the Far East and “hear no objections,” you’ll think you’ve nailed it, when the reality is that maybe people are just being polite. Similarly, if you aren’t used to direct communication and you present an idea to someone from Germany or the Netherlands (where they tend to speak more directly), when they start intensively asking you questions, you might take this the wrong way if you aren’t prepared for that type of communication style. They might simply be asking questions and are in total support.

Culture norms are the things you are doing and the way you are doing them, without knowing you are doing anything at all. For example, Table 7.3 shows the differences between the aforementioned individualistic and group-oriented cultures that you’ll need to be aware of when talking sustainability with your employees.

Table 7.3 Behavior Styles


Group Oriented/Collective



High-context communication style.

Provide little context when communicating.

Give feedback: verbally, nodding. Uncomfortable with silence.

Prefer silence. Don’t offer verbal or physical cues.









When you’re working toward change within an organization, it is 50% about learning about other people and their cultural norms and 50% about inflection/learning of your own. So before you try to talk to your employees about sustainability and why they should care about it, understand both your culture and theirs and ask yourself, “What emotions and expectations am I holding? Do I have an anticipated outcome or am I open to any occurrence?”

Connecting Personally First

One technique I use when talking with someone about sustainability for the first time is that I don’t try to get into the technical aspects of the work before I connect with them on a human scale. So rather than asking people about what they think about sustainability, I start by asking them where they are from because we all are from somewhere. I look for some type of shared connection or shared cultural experience (whether it be a travel experience, knowing someone from there, rooting for the same sports team, etc.). This then helps smooth the path into talking about sustainability, because when we get to that point of talking about change, you will have made a personal connection and won’t be seen so much as “that green/sustainability” person.

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