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Why Change Is So Hard (for Some)

There’s an old saying that people fear change. If that were true, people would not play the lottery. They would not uproot themselves and travel across the world for job opportunities or a chance at what they see as a better life.

In fact, most people do not fear change; what they fear are the unforeseen negative consequences of change. And when their current situation is stable, the fear of what might happen can be enough to prevent action.  This is why people often seek to motivate by invoking two specific drivers; fear and greed.

Fear – the idea that change will prevent a catastrophic future disaster is a powerful tool. We hear it all the time in Washington debates (think the debt ceiling), environmental advocacy (climate change threatens the survival of the human race), etc. In fact, this lever is pulled so often that it is losing its credibility. Like the old story of Chicken Little, we’ve been told the sky is falling so often that at this point, we’re skeptical unless or until we actually see the cracks forming. And by then it may be too late. 

Greed – another powerful force that we’re told in inherent in human nature is the desire to have a bigger house, nicer car, designer clothes etc. This is at the heart of the consumer culture. Economies have been built – but so have bubbles – when emotion takes over rational thought. This is true of everything from fads (pet rocks, or the one ‘must-have’ toy for the holidays). The ‘new’ internet economy which is real leads to its not-so-distant cousin the bubble. Oddly enough, it is the 1960s idealists who became the yuppies of the 1980s and became the every exemplars of shallow consumerism.

In today’s world there is a third lever that is increasingly in evidence among the younger people joining our workforce. And that is the idea of a ‘better future for all’ or ‘shared fate.’ Perhaps because this generation witnessed the economic devastation of 2008 they have embraced the ‘practical idealism’ expressed in the concept of a ‘rising tide raises all boats.’ Perhaps it is also because they have lived all their lives in a globally connected world where the idea of communicating and understanding people around the world is no longer new and novel, but a way of life. Love thy neighbor takes on a global perspective when the person you’re playing video games with lives on another continent.

Demonstrating that the future state is preferable to the existing is the secret to building a successful culture change around sustainability.  Perhaps this is why sustainability is gaining traction among the newest workers and those in business school today. And why those of us working in the space for the last few years find ourselves increasingly answering the question ‘how’ rather than ‘why’.

In order to convince those who fear change, we have to first understand why they are so invested in the status quo. People will not act in a manner that is against their own interest, even while they share and embrace the idea that ‘we’re all in this together.’  A company that wonders why best practices are kept within product lines and divisions might do well to understand the impact of a bonus structure that pits its various units against each other. If the bonus pool is a certain amount of money, and it is pro-rated based on performance against measurable goals that are set for each unit, there is an inherent competition between those units for the reward. Employees intrinsically know that there is one way to earn the highest compensation – have the best results compared to others in the company. That means that sharing best practices is counter to their own interest. Even companies that have a portion of their bonus based on overall performance often have a much higher percentage based on individual and unit performance. By reversing those percentages, or developing a new reward structure, companies can align long term and company-wide goals with individual ones.

The future state has to be preferable, and people need to be rewarded for aligning with the vision. Jack Welch talked about the ‘most dangerous’ people in an organization were those who were outliers to the culture but who continued to achieve success and were rewarded. We have all seen this in organizations – they ‘put up with’ someone who challenges the new business model because they make so much money. Those counter culture leaders often serve as counter examples to what you are trying to accomplish. Welch’s recommendation, which was radical at the time, was that these people should be publicly removed from the organization to send a message. I prefer the more compassionate approach – winning them over. Because when they align with the new paradigm, it sends a strong message. And getting rid of power performers not only hampers your results, it may send a short-term advantage to the competition. Of course, if they refuse or are unable to change, that option may not be available.

Employees must be empowered and encouraged to live their values at work. That’s the best way to turn ‘workers’ into ‘passionate team members.’ As more globally attuned, socially conscious, environmentally concerned people join our workforce, giving them an avenue to satisfy those needs at work is a great way to inspire recruitment, build loyalty, productivity and retention.  People may be content to work with the one hand and give with the other, but those who work and give at the same time are more productive, happier and efficient.

When each of our vocations and avocations are in alignment, we will have built a truly sustainable economy.


Different generations

I'm not clear how the idealists of the '60s could become the yuppies of the '80s - they were a different generation...

1960s teens were in their 30s and 40s in 1980s

I based this comment on the fact that people who were in their teens in the 1960s were in their 30s and 40s in the 1980s, the very people who were buying into the fad toys and keeping up with the Jonesses attitude that they rejected in their youth.

John Friedman is Sustainability Manager at WGL. Prior to that, he headed corporate responsibility communications for Sodexo worldwide. He is an award-winning communications professional and internationally recognized sustainability expert with more than 20 years' experience in internal and… [Read more about John Friedman]

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