VIEWS: How to Get People to Change (for the Greener): Part 1

Dispatch from SSC President Jennifer Woofter

In the February 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.

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.

Next time: dealing with stubborn people.  Really, really stubborn people.

Members of the SSC Consultant Network can continue the discussion on change management skills for sustainability consultants on our discussion board here.