In this guide
- Finding common ground to engage colleagues with sustainability in practice
- Gathering information to find common ground
- Inviting people to take the next step
In a previous episode I talked about How to build support among directors and senior managers for sustainability using three phases:
- I talked about the importance of conversations with your colleagues to discover what they care about and why.
- And then making sense of what you discovered to find common ground between their personal and professional interests, the organisational values, culture and commitments and the sustainability agenda.
- And finally inviting people to join you on the next step of the sustainability journey.
In this episode I’m joined by Morag Watson, to go into more detail about why values, culture and organisational commitments are so important to finding common ground to engage colleagues with sustainability. And how you can go about gathering them.
We start by talking about some examples from organisations we’ve worked with, before discussing the lessons from this, and how you can apply them in the organisation you work with.
Finding common ground in practice
Incorporating sustainability into the education system
Let me start with a significant experience that initiated my work in sustainability leadership over the past 20 years. I was working for WWF, and my task was to incorporate sustainability into Scotland’s formal education system. Just a very small task!
At the time the government were undertaking the biggest overhaul of the Scottish school’s curriculum for a generation. That process was already off and running.
Although sustainability wasn’t in there per se, when we actually started to look at the policies they were bringing forward, there were some real opportunities.
The purpose of Scotland’s schools curriculum was to develop successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens, and effective contributors.
Using their own language, we were able to very effectively find hooks on which we could hang sustainability and it enabled us to by opening up important conversations:
“Well, if we say ‘responsible citizens’, what does that mean?”
“If they’re going to contribute effectively to society, what does that mean in the context we’re in?”
That’s how we began to open up the conversation about sustainability in Scotland’s education system.
Linking sustainability with the mission statement
But I can also bring it back to a much more internal process. I was working with a training organisation and they were looking at their mission statement. They wanted to have a facilitated workshop to address the problem that their staff didn’t seem very bought into the mission statement.
They were very focused on health and safety and good practice. The mission statement said that they wanted to be the most responsible organisation in their field.
Although sustainability wasn’t in mission statement, when we started talking about “What does responsibility mean in the environment in which you work, with all the things that are going on in the world?”
That gave us the opportunity to start a conversation around sustainability.
Finding what resonated at the University of Edinburgh
Responsibility is an interesting word that often comes up in discussions. Who wants to be irresponsible? No organisation sets out to be irresponsible.
I remember a real turning point when I was helping the University of Edinburgh develop their social responsibility and sustainability strategy.
It was their first sustainability strategy, and it involved a long-term process engaging various stakeholders. Initially, the draft strategy was the “sustainability and social responsibility strategy”.
We conducted workshops and conversations, but there wasn’t real enthusiasm, except among a few champions. However, during a workshop with senior academics and managers, I mistakenly swapped the terms “social responsibility” and “sustainability.”
The vice principal leading the project said “Osbert, that’s it! It’s social responsibility and sustainability!”
Right away she stood up and talked about the importance of social responsibility and sustainability, and how it related to the university’s values and culture.
Just turning the words around triggered a significant change in perspective. People really engaged with the idea that sustainability was an expression of their, and the university’s, social responsibility. It resonated better with their values and purpose. The choice of words and alignment with existing beliefs are crucial.
We hope those ‘case stories’ give you a bit of insight into what finding common ground can look like in practice. Now we turn to how you go about it…
An hour with other sustainability directors and managers to explore the key issues and challenges that matter to you. To be notified of the next event…
Gathering information to find common ground
When it comes to finding common ground to engage colleagues with sustainability, words matter. Most people do care about the world and want to contribute to making it better. However, sustainability can often be an abstract concept for them. If we want their support, we need to find make it relevant – and engaging.
To do this within an organisational context, we need to find common ground between:
- people’s personal values, concerns and motivations,
- organisational culture, values and commitments,
- and sustainability.
We talked in previous episodes about how to have conversations so you can understand what people care about and why.
When you have those conversations should also to be alert to people’s experience of organisational culture – which may vary across different parts of the organisations and between different roles.
Gathering information about the organisation’s stated values, mission, commitments, etc. is more straightforward. It’s a case of desk research, pulling out relevant information from documents like company values, mission statement, business plans, and website.
Look for commitments the organisation has made that are relevant to some aspect of sustainability. Often commitments may be made through an organisation’s membership of an industry initiative, etc. rather than directly.
In your conversations, be alert for commitments and so on that might be relevant.
As you have these conversations and do your research make sure to take notes, collate the information and look for patterns. It could be as simple as organising what you’ve discovered into those aspects of values, culture, commitments, etc. that:
- connect positively with sustainability,
- and those that are potential barriers.
What you’re really looking for is the common ground that you can use to tailor your invitations to people to take the next step towards supporting the sustainability agenda.
Are you struggling to engage colleagues with sustainability? There is a way to turn your colleagues’ disinterest or grudging acceptance into active collaboration and support for your organisation’s sustainability initiative.
We’ve distilled 20+ years experience into five key steps in our Get Buy-In to Sustainability Quick Start Guide:
Osbert Lancaster, director, Realise Earth
Inviting people to take the next step
While the urgency of sustainability issues, and the pressure to meet targets and deadlines, might tempt us to rush, it’s essential to ‘make haste slowly’.
Successful sustainability initiatives are built on strong relationships and mutual trust.
That’s why it’s important that your initial invitations aren’t about fully embracing sustainability, instead the invitation should be to explore common ground and if there’s interest, consider the possibilities to advance shared objectives.
This allows for greater understanding, relationship-building, and trust before progressing to concrete plans.