Practice Makes Perfect in Executing Sustainability Strategies

Motivating employees sustainability

In my last post I discussed the importance of using personal motivation to make behavior change real, substantial and ongoing. Savvy sustainability leaders know that is just one piece of a complex puzzle.

As Vital Smart’s Influence Model states, leaders often fail to execute successful sustainability strategies or programs because they bet on a single intervention to create transformation, rather than a diverse arsenal of influence strategies. In addition to creating conditions where others want to engage in your sustainability initiative, you must also help employees by teaching them new skills.

Why Training Doesn’t Work

I’m not saying that training isn’t important. It is. You need to teach others what you need them to do that is different, whether it’s technical or interpersonal skills. However, most organizations are ineffective at putting all that classroom time into practice.

According to an article by McKinsey, “Companies around the world spend up to $100 billion a year to train employees in the skills they need to improve corporate performance—topics like communication, sales techniques, performance management, or lean operations. But training typically doesn’t have much impact. Indeed, only one-quarter of the respondents to a recent McKinsey survey said their training programs measurably improved business performance.”

Think about it. What’s the last training class you went to? Now, what are doing differently based on what you learned in that class? I’d guess not a whole heck of a lot. Some of the reasons training doesn’t stick are that it’s short-lived, event-based and conducted in a classroom bubble. The biggest reason training fails at delivering the solution we were hoping for is that we tend to assume that knowing something and doing something is the same thing. It’s not!

Learning is a performance art. It takes a violinist hours of concentrated practice to create something truly beautiful to listen to. So, too, building momentum and influencing positive change in your organization for creating long lasting sustainable outcomes calls for specific behaviors that can only be learned by practice.

As popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s work, many believe it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice in a given field or area of expertise allows a person to become truly “expert.” I don’t know if you can actually become an expert with 10,000 hours of practice, but I do know that becoming proficient at something takes more than just dedicated practice — it takes deliberate practice. It’s not only the number of times you repeat something, it’s how you practice that makes the difference.

Demand Deliberate Practice

Sustainable leaders must be holistic in their approach to learning. Not only do they need to construct engaging classroom materials, they also need to build systems that ensure training transfers to the day-to-day behaviors of individuals that will make their initiatives a success.

Those building engineers with decades of experience behind them aren’t going to change their habits overnight. They need to understand why sustainability is important. Then, they need to be taught the new skills required and given a support system to practice until they are proficient.

According to Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, there are four key steps to deliberate practice:

  • Break skills in to smaller, manageable bite-size pieces. The amount of knowledge, skill and ability it takes to learn something new can be overwhelming, especially if engineers have been doing their jobs a certain way for a long time. Instead of tackling a big project all at once, break it down into small, clear and achievable goals. Gradually add tasks that require more effort or are more difficult. Succeeding at small goals builds the confidence in employees that they can change their behavior.
  • Allow for “quiet time” to help others really pay attention when they practice. We all go through much of our day on autopilot. Seriously, when’s the last time you really concentrated on common effective email writing tips when cleaning out your inbox?  Deliberate practice requires intense concentration so you know exactly what you are doing, what is working, what isn’t and why. Carving out specific practice time for busy building engineers ensures they have the focus needed to really learn instead of trying to practice while multitasking.
  • Use mentors. Create a pilot group of super-users that have already mastered the skills you are trying teach to others. Make mentors accountable to give on-the-spot feedback. No one learns by practicing the wrong thing. Providing immediate feedback allows individuals to make small corrections along the way.
  • Prepare for setbacks. Deliberate practice isn’t deliberately perfect. Employees are going to fail at least some of the time. Whatever they are trying to learn is hard. Help others build resiliency skills, prepare for setbacks and use those stumbling blocks to improve your training and learning plans. Turn those bad days into useful data to refine your program.

Program Launch Advice

You and your green team are committed to creating sustainable outcomes for your business. You truly believe that you will create value and increase profits through creating efficient building operations. You do this by creating a space that is engaging and allows building occupants to do their best and most productive work while using resources wisely as not to cause adverse impacts on the planet.

You will be greeted with cynicism when employees are faced with understanding and learning how to implement the new initiatives your company launches every year. They know it’s going to be hard.

I would encourage you to participate in a specific deliberate practice session as you launch each new green initiative. First, ask your launch team to brainstorm a few of the toughest questions or resistance points they will need to address. Then, based on what they learn, the team can collaborate on developing consistent and authentic message points. Third, the team should practice the key messages with each other until they are comfortable in delivering them and are ready to answer questions and alleviate any concerns.

This deliberate practice will enhance your team’s credibility and the time invested will pay off in earning the commitment of employees to more readily engage in learning new skills.

Julie Honeywell is Vice President, Talent Management, at Paladino and Company.

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