Feature Article - Responsibility & Power Pt - 3 Engaging and Empowering
Parts 1 and 2 of this article explored the importance of Personal Responsibility and Personal Power as two critical pre-cursors for sustainable behaviour, and offered some guidelines for assessing the relative levels of these elements in individuals and groups. This third and final instalment suggests some methods for stimulating and increasing levels of Personal Responsibility and Personal Power.
In some ways, this is the most challenging job for sustainability advocates - getting people to care about sustainability and to take personal accountability for behaving in an environmentally friendly way. There are, however, a few principles that, if observed, can increase the likelihood that this responsibility will be accepted.
Firstly, I am often asked the question as to whether we need to change peoples values in order to get them to behave more sustainably. The answer, I believe, is "no". By and large, the core values which people hold deep down are consistent with the spirit of sustainability. Most people want to breathe fresh air and to be able to enjoy a pristine environment. Most people want the same for future generations. The problem is not that our values are inconsistent with sustainability, but that our actions are inconsistent with our values. This observation gives us a clue as to how to approach the task of engaging personal responsibility - through linking sustainability to our core values. An effective way to do this is to raise peoples awareness of their values and then invite them, from this enhanced state of self-awareness, to examine their behaviour in relation to sustainability. The objective of this approach is to wake people up, and get their heart engaged. Traditional educational efforts speak to the head and try to convince people through facts and figures. While awareness is important, real behaviour change is best achieved at a deeper level of being.
Another concept at play when values awareness is raised is known as cognitive dissonance. This occurs when we perceive an inconsistency between our own beliefs and our behaviour. For instance, we may consider ourselves to be serious about environmental protection, then it is pointed out to us that our jet setting lifestyle is leaving a mammoth eco-footprint. The discomfort which this recognition creates give us 3 options
Stick our heads in the hand and deny the links, perhaps claiming a technicality ("Yes, but I buy carbon offsets"
Change our belief to match our behaviour ("OK, maybe I am not so serious about environmental protection"
Change our behaviour to be more consistent with our belief ("Right, maybe I had better review my lifestyle")
The process of helping people to connect to their values, then examining their behaviour, has the effect of creating cognitive dissonance in circumstances where people observe inconsistency between their values and their behaviour. This creates the opportunity for the skilled facilitator/educator/communicator to steer the "subject towards a commitment which will see them take option (3) above - to change their behaviour to be more consistent with their values. One way of doing this is to get them to make a public commitment.
This approach was used by researchers in California, in a program designed to reduce campus gym shower times. In brief, the researchers created cognitive dissonance in students, through highlighting the inconsistency between their stated shower duration and their actual duration. Those students were then asked to put their name to a public campaign for water conservation. When discreetly observed on a subsequent occasion, the students showed significant reduction in their shower times. (Using Cognitive Dissonance to Encourage Water Conservation)
In practical terms, not every program to develop sustainable behaviours has the resources or access to put their target audience through a complex cognitive dissonance enhancing exercise. However, any communication can be made more effective through
Getting people to connect to what is important to them
Contrasting this with how they are behaving
Giving them a cue or prompt to align their actions with their values
Once the heart is engaged, then the rest should be easy - "where there is a will there is a way". This is true to a certain extent, but sometimes people need some help to put their will into action.
The obvious first step to empower people who have a desire to act sustainably is to educate them, and give them the physical resources and incentives they need. This process is a given in any program for increasing sustainable behaviour.
More challenging, however, is the task of getting people to recognise and exercise the power which they do have. Two areas in which people often need support are decision-making and interpersonal skills.
Decision-making. Often a perceived lack of options is simply a reluctance to make a decision which aligns with the things which are really important to us. Following on from the points above, regarding the importance of values in developing personal responsibility, there is a skill involved in keeping our values top of mind when making choices. One of the key roles of a life coach, for instance, is to support people with tools for making decisions aligned with their long-term interests, rather than succumbing to convenience and temptation. In a sustainability context, this translates to providing cues, prompts and decision-making aids which get people to think about the eco impact of every action. The more we exercise this skill of considering our options in relation to our values, the more it becomes habitual and eventually automatic. Just as we habitually check the price tag when shopping (well, most of us!), imagine if we habitually checked the "eco tag". Therefore, sustainability programs can benefit from providing guidance and opportunities for people to practice sustainable decision-making.
Interpersonal Skills. How many times have you heard people say "I am doing my best to save energy, but my husband/wife/kids/flatmates are always leaving the lights on"? Despite our best intentions, it can be hard work gaining support for our environmental efforts from those around us. There is therefore a role for assisting people with interpersonal skills to ensure their passion does not become a dogmatic crusade which alienates our nearest and dearest.
The key skills here are helping people to give effective feedback, manage conflict and to work on creating empowering agreements, rather than making it "us against them". It can be very easy to see things in black and white, and fail to recognise that we are all at different stages of "enlightenment", forgetting that a few short years ago many of us were completely unaware, for instance, of the electricity used by appliances in standby.
By helping people to act with empathy and compassion, they stand a better chance of both being supported in their own efforts, and influencing others to get on board. We can also go some way to ensuring that the environmental movement does not create a backlash of people who are sick of being lectured and stop listening because of who we are being, not what we are saying.
Growing up next door to my Grandma Ruby who never wasted anything!
Also, growing up in the country and being surrounded by nature and a
supportive community has had a great impact on the way I think about ecological and
What is the sustainable choice you have recently made of which you are most proud?
Actively riding my bike rather than driving. I'm proud of the holistic benefits of this choice: I'm reducing impact on the environment, able to be more social on my bike and saving $$!
What is the sustainable choice that you are struggling to make?
Getting a compost heap. It is hard because my back yard is not big enough and it will attract rats, however I know that I should go out and buy the special compost bins that break down the food and don't attract rats. But have not got around to it. No excuse really. I think I might go and buy it today!!!
This article reviews lessons from the medical world about the things which really support behavioural change when our life depends on it.
What did they find?
present change in a positive light, rather than through fear.
get people to make radical changes, so that the immediate benefits provide reinforcement.
provide ongoing support to those who are making change.
Key quote - "Providing health information is important but not always sufficient. We also need to bring in the psychological, emotional, and spiritual dimensions that are so often ignored"
What can we take from this?
While this article applies lessons from medical change programs to the business world, there are also some pointers here for those looking to stimulate change for sustainability. Even when people are faced with a choice, literally, of "change or die", 90% of people do not change their lifestyle. Can anyone see any parallels with the plight of the environment? Could sustainability programs benefit from incorporating some of the key principles of behaviour change outlined here?
Exercise of the Month - What do you value about the environment?
This months exercise takes a look at how environmental sustainability can be related to many of our values, some maybe not obvious to us.
List 5 activities you love doing that involve interacting with the natural environment (eg. going to the beach, cycling, walking, surfing, playing with the kids at the park….)
For each of these 5 activities, note what personal value this might represent. For instance, Cycling might represent your value of Wellbeing. Surfing = Fun. Playing with the kids = Family etc. If you need some help, a short list of human values can be found at the bottom of the page at http://www.valuestest.com/aboutmvq.html
These are just some of the values which a healthy environment can help you live. Isn’t that something worth protecting?
The exercise of the month provides a tool to help you get engaged, inspired, aware and in action around sustainability. Feel free to use it on your own, with a friend, or in your work. If you do use it with others, please tell them where you got it!
Upcoming Workshop - Psychology for Sustainability Champions
Does your job (or passion) involve influencing others to adopt sustainable behaviours?
If so, it helps to have psychology on your side. Awake has developed a workshop which is designed to provide insights into the important psychological factors which impact on sustainable behaviour, and practical tools to trigger them.
This workshop is for anybody who is trying to encourage sustainable behaviour at work, in the community or in the home, and will cover such things as
Identifying current levels of personal responsibility and personal power
Modes of decision-making
Uncovering underlying beliefs
Identifying and using values
For those of you who have registered your interest already, thanks. A pilot workshop will go ahead early in the new year, more details to come soon.
To register your interest in being involved in a pilot workshop, or keeping informed about the development of this workshop, email email@example.com ____________________________________________________