Why you should use emotion to build support for sustainability
Emotion is the most powerful motivator to build support for sustainability and it’s the key to your initiative succeeding and making a real difference.
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In this guide:
- Does tapping into concern sound fluffy or unprofessional?
- Three objections to this approach
- Emotion is the most powerful motivator
- Emotion works with everyone
- You can work with the emotional case in a professional context
- Action: Watch ‘How great leaders inspire action’
- Links to articles and other resources
Have you ever talked with colleagues about why it’s a good idea for your organisation to do more about sustainability only to be met with disinterest or even hostility?
In this series of guides we’re sharing our experience to help you build support for your sustainability initiative, so that you can create a group of enthusiastic and committed collaborators, and have key allies standing by to help out when you need it.
In previous guides we’ve explained why building support is crucial to the success of your sustainability initiative and two approaches to build support for sustainability – and why you should tap into people’s concern about the climate and nature crises rather than using the ‘business case for sustainability’ to engage them.
Here’s a quick recap:
There are two approaches you can use to build support for sustainability in businesses and many other organisations:
First approach: the business case for sustainability, i.e. the fact that action to tackle sustainability can reduce costs, improve performance and reduce risk.
Second approach: tapping into the fact that most people are concerned about sustainability and want to do something about it. That’s over three quarters of the population in G20 countries.
The business case is important, but in our experience, every successful sustainability initiative is led by people who care deeply about the climate and nature crises.
But caring about what’s going on in the world isn’t just a motivation for sustainability leaders. People like you and I aren’t the only ones who care – most of your colleagues do too.
Tapping into this is potentially the most powerful and effective approach you can use to build support for your sustainability initiative among your colleagues and other stakeholders.
Does tapping into concern sound fluffy or unprofessional?
What do you think about this?
When I talk about getting people engaged and motivated with sustainability at work in this way, I get two very different responses:
- Some people are hugely relieved that it is OK, in fact it’s worthwhile, to talk with their colleagues about sustainability at this more personal, emotional level, that’s it’s OK to be human about this!
- But some people are dubious (to put it politely) and don’t believe this approach will work.
Three objections to tapping into people’s concern
Here are the three objections to this approach that I hear from people most often:
- They believe that the emotion-based approach just doesn’t motivate people, that they’ll only respond to rational arguments, to ‘carrots and sticks’, or to ‘what’s in it for them’.
- Sometimes they accept it might work for some people, in some circumstances, but it won’t work with their colleagues – because their colleagues just don’t care about this fluffy stuff.
- And sometimes they’ve tried talking about the ‘emotional case’ for sustainability, and it didn’t work.
Do any of these objections resonate with you? Even if you’d like to believe in the emotion-based approach? Let’s look at each of these objections in turn.
Emotion is the most powerful motivator
Let’s start with the view that people aren’t motivated by emotion, that they only respond to rational arguments, to carrots and sticks, or what’s in it for them.
Of course, rational, logical thinking is hugely important, it’s a defining feature of the human species! And self interest, rewards and disincentives, can influence people’s behaviour. But emotion is much more powerful, it’s a much more fundamental part of our biology.
Understanding how people feel and using emotion to engage them is central to successful leadership and management, and indeed it’s behind the success of marketing in helping create the culture of mass consumption that is overwhelming the world!
Have you seen the TEDx video from Simon Sinek? It’s one of the most viewed TED videos with over 60 million views.
What people usually remember is his idea of the golden circle, with why in the middle, then how, and then what around the outside.
Sinek says that most companies communicate by talking about what they do, i.e. their products and services, but he argues great leaders start with why – they appeal to people’s emotions and sense of purpose.
Although most people remember “Start with Why”, the title of his talk was actually “How great leaders inspire action”. In 16 minutes he makes a compelling case for leading with emotion (why), not rational arguments. I highly recommend watching it – it will help you get the most out of this guide. See the ‘action’ box below.
I’ll be going into this idea of developing an emotionally compelling purpose for your sustainability initiative in future guides, but now, let’s take a look the second objection.
Emotion works with everyone
Here’s the second objection to working with the emotion-based approach that I regularly come across when speaking to directors and managers leading on sustainability in their organisations.
They accept it might work for some people, in some circumstances, but it won’t work with their colleagues – because their colleagues just don’t care about this fluffy stuff. Basically they’re saying even though “I might care about the climate and nature crises, other people don’t”.
This is a common attitude, and researchers have even given it a name: Pluralistic ignorance. This is where people who are in the majority think they are in the minority.
Here’s a powerful – and very moving – example that demonstrates this through young people believing that other people are selfish and don’t care about people and the planet.
Despite what many of us instinctively believe, there’s more and more hard evidence most people do care, so when people tell you that no one else cares, and there’s not point in appealing to their better nature – take it with a large pinch of salt.
‘Sustainability’ and ‘climate change’ are often too abstract
Another part of the problem is that too often we talk about ‘sustainability’ or ‘climate change’ which are pretty abstract concepts. In the previous guide I invited you to think about what sustainability means to you, and to write down what you cared about and why.
I expect you came up with people, places and issues that are much more tangible and emotionally meaningful than ‘sustainability’ or ‘climate change’.
When we do this kind of exercise in workshops, people tell us their worries about life for their grandchildren, or for the farmers they’ve met in Africa, or the effect of climate on wildlife, like the deer they see on their walks in the Scottish hills.
It’s real people, and places and wildlife, that people actually care about, not the concept of ‘sustainability’.
You can work with the emotional case
And finally the third objection I hear: People tell me they’ve tried talking about the ‘emotional case’ for sustainability, and it didn’t work.
In fact, I’ve had this experience myself. There were many times in the past when I tried to convince people to get involved with a sustainability initiative by talking about the damage that’s being done to nature, and the impacts on people across the world. And I had absolutely no success.
The thing is, it’s easy to go about this the wrong way. Without intending to, or being aware of the consequences, talking about sustainability and climate change can easily make people feel:
- anxious and depressed,
- guilty and ashamed,
- inadequate and powerless.
Not surprisingly when I did that, people didn’t feel keen to get involved. It was a long time ago. I know now that it is possible to go about it differently, to talk with people about sustainability and climate change in ways that lead them to feel:
- that their concerns matter,
- listened to, not judged,
- that they can make a meaningful difference.
I said above that every successful sustainability initiative that I’ve come across has always been led by someone who cares deeply about the climate and nature crises, about what we are doing to the living world, including our fellow humans.
I’m guessing that you care, because most people do. So if you want to develop and lead successful sustainability initiatives, you will need to build support and you should start by tapping into the fact the people you’d like to have as collaborators and allies, almost certainly care about sustainability too.
The business case for sustainability will be important, but it’s not the place to start when building support
We’ll be going into exactly how you can do this in the next guide.
Action: Watch ‘How great leaders inspire action’
Watch this video from Simon Sinek to understand the power of appealing to people’s sense of purpose.
A list of resources shared in the podcast episode and mentioned in this guide:
- TEDx video: Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action
- Wikipedia: Pluralistic Ignorance
- Global Action Plan: Do we live in a selfish world How do you see the people around you?
Struggling to engage senior colleagues with ESG, climate strategy, Net Zero or another aspect of sustainability?
Find your way forward by understanding people’s resistance and motivations so you can win their support.
Masterclass: Build Support for Sustainability, 19 April 2023, online, 12 places. Check it out…
We’d love to answer your questions, and feature your experiences, about any aspect of leadership for sustainability on our podcast.
How to build support for sustainability in your organisation
This guide and accompanying podcast is part of a series to help you build support for sustainability in your organisation:
- Why building support is crucial to the success of your sustainability initiative
- Two approaches to build support for sustainability
- Why use emotion to build support for sustainability
- How to talk about sustainability with colleagues
- How to build support among directors and senior managers for sustainability
- more coming soon…