Humans are naturally kind and caring because we are social animals. Caring for each other has been central to our evolutionary past and remains deeply rooted in each of us today. But we live in a culture which glorifies the worst in human nature by holding up people, organisations and countries that exploit others to gain wealth, power and influence as examples of ‘success’ to be admired and emulated.
We all hold both compassionate and selfish values to some extent. Which values dominate is largely shaped by our experience of the world – families, peer groups, education, workplaces, politics, media, advertising, etc. The more we are exposed to the dominant narrative that people are fundamentally selfish and self-serving, the more likely our own values will shift to become less concerned and caring.
This matters because the relative strength of our compassionate versus selfish values influences how we think and what we do. It’s no surprise that the more we care, the more we take action by, for example, volunteering, adopting green behaviours, becoming politically involved, etc. Conversely, the more we think other people are generally selfish, the less connected we are to our communities and less likely to act for social and environmental good.
SUSTAINABILITY LEADERS SHOULD USE THEIR ORGANISATIONS’ REACH TO SHIFT THE NARRATIVE FROM ‘ME’ TO ‘WE’
As humans are naturally kind and caring, compassionate values predominate in around three quarters of people. This means the majority of the population are predisposed to act positively for people and the environment. Unfortunately most of them think other people are selfish, which means they are less likely to take positive action – because what’s the point if so few people care?
There is a huge potential for social change if only people realise that, despite what they believe, they are part of a concerned and caring majority. Simply spreading this truth will unlock most people’s natural propensity to act in ways that are good for people and the planet.
Sustainability leaders, especially leaders of organisations which communicate and engage with large numbers of people, have an extraordinary opportunity to tell this story in ways that fit with their mission – and in doing so shift the dominant narrative in society from ‘me’ to ‘we’.
For wide ranging and deeply illuminating study of human nature read Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman. Set to be one of the most influential books of the decade, Humankind provides powerful arguments and evidence to debunk the pervasive and pessimistic view that people are fundamentally selfish. Bregman allows us to be hopeful about the potential for people to work together collaboratively at a time when this is perhaps the one thing that is most needed to enable humanity to change course so all can thrive.
DESIGN SUSTAINABILITY PROJECTS THAT ENGAGE AND REINFORCE COMPASSIONATE VALUES
Using an organisation’s culture and values to shift the narrative from me to we, is relevant to all leaders. Implication 2 is particularly relevant to anyone designing and delivering campaigns and projects that aim to influence and engage people and organisations to adopt sustainability-related actions.
Promoting sustainability initiatives in ways that emphasise economic benefits are highly likely to backfire. This is because values behave like a see-saw with compassionate values on one side and selfish values on the other. If people’s compassionate values are engaged, their selfish values are suppressed – and vice versa.
Sustainability initiatives which use economic messaging will engage people’s selfish values, reinforcing the dominant ways of thinking that drive the problems we need to solve. For long-term success, initiatives need to first and foremost be designed and delivered in ways that engage and reinforce people’s compassionate values. This means appealing to people as concerned and caring humans, not job titles with corporate targets to deliver.
One of the leading organisations in the understanding of values and their role in creating an equitable, sustainable and democratic society is the Common Cause Foundation.
Common Cause have a useful collection of resources. Especially relevant is:
- The Common Cause Handbook: an accessible and easy to read guide to how values work and why they matter so much.