A few Tried and True Strategies for Inspiring Environmental change
Many business leaders find it challenging to lead others on the path to sustainability – and not necessarily because they’re working with a tough audience (although that happens too). Rather the trouble lies in their inability to communicate in way that generates real-world action and measurable results. But certain individuals seem to have cracked the code – they’ve figured out how to turn environmental conversations into sustainable changes for their companies, and for the environment. What exactly are these leaders doing differently, and how can we learn from them?
Principle I: Emphasize the business necessity.
Aspiring change leaders must have their heads wrapped firmly around the financial implications of their pet environmental initiatives. Environmental strategy consultant believes that creating a compelling business need is by far the most critical factor for getting decision makers on board with green initiatives. The good news for aspiring sustainability leaders is that the case for business necessity is getting easier to make with every passing day.
“Customers are asking questions about environmental performance,” and “Companies like Wal-Mart will give more shelf space to those companies that can reduce their footprint. Employees demanding more from companies they work for is another clear force that creates a compelling business need – it’s tough enough to compete for the best talent without turning them off on values-driven and environmental issues.”
The take-home? When seeking to serve the sometimes elusive triple bottom line, make sure you start with the bottom-line that decision makers value most- cold, hard cash. This topic is sure to get them listening.
Principle II: Frame environmental goals in terms of the other’s self interest.
With work demands and obligations bombarding them at every possible moment, how can we get organizational leaders to make our green initiative a priority? Here’s the secret of all motivational conversationalists: Take the perspective of the person you are speaking to and frame your agenda so that it occurs to other person as highly relevant to their own personal goals.
Of course, to accomplish this requires that we do a minimal amount of homework to learn more about our audience. What are their goals? How do these goals relate to our proposal? What do they have to gain by our success? This may seem like a lot to think through up front, but if we are willing to make a habit of this sort of analysis our persuasive abilities will skyrocket.
A good example comes from environmental initiatives for one company. Which has a distinguished track record of leading change in the organization and attributes much of the success to this simple habit? “There are multiple benefits to all environmental initiatives, so the language we use to impart the message has to mirror that diversity,” “For example, if I’m promoting an energy conservation initiative such as a lighting retrofit for the facilities, I will need to alter my message based upon my audience. I need to address the financial savings on our utility bill to the finance folks, the labor and maintenance benefits to the technicians in the field, and the quality of light with clients or tenants of the facility.”
Principle III: Appeal to enlightened self-interest.
Once you’ve framed your proposal in terms of ever-pressing financial imperatives and the other person’s self-interest, feel free invoke the “better angels” of your audience’s nature. Invite them to see how jumping on board with your initiative will also serve the more high-minded planetary and humanistic bottom-lines. Sometimes the best way to do this is directly, by discussing the positive global impact that your green proposal will create in terms of waste and greenhouse gas reduction. Other times it may be preferable to first be discreet, seeking topics that evoke in your audience a feeling of selflessness and a desire to contribute.
Creating rapport through meaningful conversations. “A great tactic is to look around and find something that the person you’re talking to really cares about. I’ve found that a universally powerful topic is children. If you can get people take a second to think about their children, and the effect that their choices might have on them, they seem to open up and be much more willing to consider higher causes like the environment.” Whatever your angle, remember that – beneath the cynicism and chaos – people want to do the right thing. You are, in fact, giving them a fresh opportunity to do just this.
Principle IV: Use humor to melt defensiveness.
Unfortunately, for most people there is still a huge gap between environmental awareness and environmental action. This gap often causes them to feel slightly guilty and defensive when the topic of saving the environment is even raised. If we don’t overcome it, this subtle mental block can make our audience unreceptive and make our words more likely to fall upon deaf ears. What are we to do? How can we get past this mental filter and raise our audiences to consider new possibilities? One strong approach is with humor.
One company has turned the tactic of using humor to overcome environmental guilt into an art by designing a stylish faux legal contract called an “Environmental Guilt Waiver.” This contract bestows clients and friends with a “24-hour exemption from all existential torment in connection with the environmental crisis” for making simple positive environmental choices in their daily life. The result? After receiving the waiver, clients who might normally be resistant to discussing the environment open up more easily and take a more active interest in the topic. “Making people feel guilty doesn’t help the environment,” “People want to have fun and be part of the solution. We’re doing what we can to make saving the planet a more pleasant experience!”
Principle V: Paint an inspiring vision.
John F. Kennedy gave us the image of a man on the moon. These world leaders knew that all great accomplishments start out as little more than compelling images that capture our imagination. Granted, few people will ever reach the heights of power and influence that these historical figures attained, but each of us can nonetheless draw from that same well of wisdom when we seek to cause changes in our own work-life sphere.
Want to be a true visionary? Simply do this: envision the end result that you are seeking to cause for your organization and help others see it too. Make it vivid, make it compelling, make it believable and make it personal. What are the implications for your audience of this goal coming to fruition? How will their life – and the life of their organization – be changed as a result of small efforts made today? If you can get others in your organization to use their imagination to experience your environmental proposal in this way, you will generate astounding levels of motivation for your cause.
Principle VI: Stick with it.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were our current environmental challenges. As you do your part to reinvent the wheel in a new shade of green, remember to be patient and – even more importantly – be persistent. No matter how eloquent, business savvy and sincere we may be, sometimes the only way to get through to people is with good old-fashioned repetition. Allow yourself to be the squeaky (green) wheel that gets the grease!
Someone once remarked that breaking up with someone is a lot like trying to tip over a refrigerator…you have to rock it a few times before it actually topples over. Getting people to change their environmental thinking and behaviors is the same way. So stick with it. Be persistent. After all, how much does environmental change really matter to you? Are you in it to win a popular contest or to do the right thing? Are you willing to continually raise the issues that matter to you most, even when those around you don’t seem interested? If so, you are a true leader, and success is only a matter of time.
YJ Draiman, Energy, Telecom & Water Conservation Specialist