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How to Motivate People Toward Sustainability

People determine the success of a company’s sustainability initiatives. Seven strategies can motivate everyone from employees to communities.

“Alone we can do so little,” said educator and activist Helen Keller. “Together we can do so much.“

It’s easy to focus on the role of leaders, but the success of any initiative requires widespread support. Here are some of the groups who can be valuable allies:

  • Employees implement company initiatives and can contribute ideas based on their specific areas of expertise. Everyone from mid-level managers to operational staff to front-line employees can make a difference.

  • Customers can purchase green products and services and promote the company’s brand.

  • Communities are especially important if your company has a significant local footprint — for example, if you’re engaged in manufacturing or resource extraction. Keeping your social license to operate within the community reduces friction and costs and can even lead to collaborations on projects with local stakeholders.

How to Motivate People toward Sustainability

The field of conservation psychology studies people’s attitudes and behaviours toward the natural environment. Researchers have found seven ways to motivate greater environmental action. Because these draw on general psychological principles, they apply to most people you will encounter.

  1. Equip people with (the right) knowledge. People need to know both why an action is important and how to do it. People are often hesitant to do something that’s unfamiliar, so being able to try new actions out in a small way can be reassuring. Pilot programs are a great low-risk strategy.

  2. Help people process information. People absorb ideas and make decisions in specific ways (see NBS’s report on Decision Making for Sustainability for a full review). For example, people are more affected by stories than by abstract statements. They’re more moved by positive messages than gloom and doom — no more images of drowning polar bears! And hearing a message multiple times, in multiple ways, is often necessary for it to sink in.

  3. Leverage the leaders. People look to leaders — formal and informal — as they’re deciding how to act. If others they respect by doing or endorsing behaviors, people are likely to follow them. Leaders might be nearby in the organization or more distant public figures. Peer action also sets a standard. Group activities can be a way to show that peers are engaged.

  4. Make actions easy and enjoyable. People can have wonderful intentions, but without practical support, the action often won’t happen. If a recycling bin is close by, people are more likely to use it. If a product’s not readily available, people may not seek it out. Positive messages, social norms, and group activities can make sustainability-related behaviors seem more fun.

  5. Allow participation. People want to be involved in issues that concern them. Participation can mean many things, including just having information, but people often want the opportunity to contribute ideas as well. Participation leads to positive attitudes and often innovative ideas.

  6. Take one step at a time. People can be overwhelmed by major change; generally, they prefer to get comfortable with one behavior before they try another. Consider introducing a new initiative gradually and connecting it to things people are already familiar with. A simple example might be expanding community outreach efforts from philanthropy to volunteering, with the same organizations.

  7. Pause rewards. Rewards should be used carefully. They tend to be effective while they continue. But once they stop, the behavior usually drops off. Rewards are “extrinsic motivation,” motivation from outside the person. Motivation that people develop internally, rooted in their beliefs, is more long-lasting.

As You Work with Specific Groups….

You’ll need to apply these general principles to your specific context. Here are some priority strategies for different groups.

  • Employees. Key strategies: Equip people with knowledge; leverage the leaders.

Reframe the company’s general sustainability messages to make them applicable to individual work situations. But as you clarify the messages, leave people room to innovate and participate. Consider making activities a group effort, to draw on social norms and make a sustainability initiative more fun – Green Teams follow this approach. See NBS’s Organizational Culture guide for more ideas.

  • Customers. Key strategies: Take one step at a time; make it enjoyable; leverage the leaders.

Gradual changes in a product are often easier for customers to adapt to than a dramatic shift. Link new features to what’s already familiar. Green cleaning products are a good example: the products are packaged and used in familiar ways. Advertising best practices still apply: green products can be sold as enjoyable and as popular. See NBS’s Socially Conscious Consumerism guide for additional suggestions.

  • Communities. Key strategies: Allow participation; equip people with knowledge; leverage the leaders.

Public participation is vital if company actions affect communities. Connect with communities early on, when a project is just in planning stages. Communities want to tell companies about their priorities and to understand what will happen. Communicating with communities can be challenging, but making an effort and working with respected leaders can help create positive outcomes. See NBS’s Community Engagement guide for specific guidance.

It Takes a Village to Build Sustainability

Too often, we look to a single leader to create change. Here’s a cautionary tale: When Bill Ford Jr. took over as CEO of Ford Motor Company, he was a self-described environmentalist committed to transforming the company. But his sustainability priorities got limited buy-in from Ford executives and the broader workforce, and the company continued to sell gas-guzzling vehicles.

Leaders need allies and supporters. Motivating others is easier when you build on people’s natural ways of processing information and making sense of the world.

Update from the Author

This article was originally written in 2013, and updated in 2020. Increasingly, solutions to sustainability challenges are seen as coming from the combined efforts of different parts of society. NBS has published a series of resources on how companies can be part of these more systemic efforts Some recommended resources — and civic dialogue, social change, and multisector partnerships — are just below.

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  1. Thanks, Maya, for the inspiring post. Your tips on achieving business sustainability are mindblowing. I work as an HR manager for a famous rehabilitation centre, and your tips would help equip our staff to give their best. We usually make use of rewards to motivate our team.

  2. Maya, this is amazing. I am a budding researcher in this field and seem to understand that there are a lot of Systems based and Complexity based aspects in the implementation of sustainability that cannot be ignored. I can see these elements emerging here.You talk on leveraging emergent leaders within smaller employee circles is quite connected to the debate of the role of an alpha leader – the CEO in the company. The topic of Complexity argues whether it is structure or power that decides who is the real change maker within an organization. It also talks about small but consistent changes to bring about a large transition in the company which is also what is beleived by researchers of Complex Adaptive Systems. The one (but consistent and all pervasive) step/s at a time chime in well here with this story.All these topics gel so well and tell the same story in interesting different lenses, dont they? 🙂 Thanks again for this engaging post!Cheers!

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  • Maya Fischhoff
    Knowledge Manager
    Network for Business Sustainability
    PhD in Corporate Sustainability and Environmental Psychology, University of Michigan

    Maya Fischhoff is the Knowledge Manager for the Network for Business Sustainability. She has worked at NBS since 2012. She has a PhD in environmental psychology from the University of Michigan and has worked for government, business, and non-profits. She also covered the celebrity beat on her college newspaper. Working for NBS allows her to combine her passions for sustainability, research, and journalism.

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