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“Fish discover water last” … Ethiopian proverb

Fish know nothing else besides water. They are so immersed in it they are unaware of its existence. It simply is.

Our physical environment is so natural it also becomes invisible to us. It simply is. We don’t pay much attention to it. Fred Steele, a renowned sociotechnical theorist, says that most of us are “environmentally incompetent.” He means that we miss the subtle impacts that our work environment have on our behavior and, therefore, don’t use these impacts to our advantage when transforming our organizations.

Change “Things” to Change the Environment

In my series of posts I have been working through the Vital Smart’s Influence Model for driving rapid, sustainable, and measurable change in behaviors. We have discussed strategies that motivate and enable individuals to engage in your sustainability initiative, leverage the social capital available to you in your organization and other stakeholder communities and design rewards that also demand accountability.

Now I’ll describe the last source of influence, using “things,” or subtle impacts, to create change.

I love this source of influence. Why? It’s easy! Things are easier to change than people. You don’t have to influence things. Things sit there quietly without resistance and do what you want them to do.

What is a “thing?” We all use the word constantly in conversation, such as, “What are the things that will bring us all together?” We know “things” exists. We just need to define and capture them to create a physical environment that works to advance your sustainability change initiatives.

A simple thing like a metal spindle solved a problem that arose when GI cooks returning from service after WW II began to displace women in the kitchen, forcing them to go back to waitressing. The waitresses were angry and rude to customers. The male cooks didn’t like taking orders from the waitresses, so they slowed down or refused to take orders.

The National Restaurant Association asked William Foote Whyte, a professor at the University of Chicago, to find a solution. He did. Whyte bought a 50-cent metal spindle so that waitresses could hand in their orders without talking to the chef, and cooks could just grab the orders without waitresses barking at them. Both sides loved it. Service Improved, all because of a 50-cent “thing.”

Follow Google’s Lead

As a sustainability leader, you no doubt are looking for things that will make it easier for others to enact the behaviors that will lead to your desired results. Think of your office recycling programs as an example. People know where to place materials to be recycled because of the ubiquitous blue bins with the recycle sign on them. It’s a cue that tells folks “put your recycling here.”

These visual cues make it automatic for people to remember what they have to do. There is no effort involved. We simply follow the instructions. What’s also great about cues is that they tend to increase our interest in enacting those behaviors. When we see something every day we tend to care about it more.

Make it easy to enact the behaviors you want. Make it difficult to enact the behaviors you don’t want.

For example, Google hid candy and sugary soda in opaque containers and behind screens and put out healthy snacks and water at eye level and in clear containers. The results? The staff consumed 3.1 million fewer calories from M&Ms in 7 weeks.

So, if you want to reduce the use of paper, put the printers in a location that’s difficult to reach. If you want to encourage recycling, put recycling bins next to each employee’s desk.

Force-feed Behavior Change

You can use things to remove human choice entirely. For instance, only stocking green cleaning supplies eliminates the choice of using other products. Creating a purchasing policy of only using recyclable office supplies doesn’t allow for other choices.

Stocking your cafeteria with compostable or reusable plates and cups eliminates other types of waste. Putting in sensors that control lighting for occupied spaces means you don’t need to rely on people to remember to turn off the lights.

Paladino employed this strategy in gathering transportation data for one of its clients. Instead of sending out a survey that could easily be ignored, we had individuals collect data from employees about how they got to work as they walked into the building. We made the data collection unavoidable simply by the place we chose to stand.

Also use this strategy to make it unavoidable for others not to work with you. Where are you sitting? Who’s your neighbor? Are you in the right location to interact easily with your stakeholders? Where can others find you? Be close to those who you need to gain support to move your initiatives forward.  I’m not suggesting you need to camp out in front of the CEO’s office but you do need to be visible. Make sure you’re located in places that keep you and your change initiatives front of mind.

We’d love to know how you’ve made it easy for others to find you, what “things” you’ve changed that have been most effective for your organization and what visible cues have worked well for you. Tell us your stories in the comments.

Julie Honeywell is Vice President, Talent Management, at Paladino and Company. To read her previous posts in this series on Sustainable Leadership please click on:

What Does it Take to be a Leader in Sustainable Development?
Creating Change by Having Clear, Compelling and Measurable Results
Is it the Carrot or the Stick That Motivates Employees?
Two Heads Are Better Than One in Creating a Sustainable Organization
If Everyone Recycled – Would You?
Practice Makes Perfect in Executing Sustainability Strategies
Motivating Employees to Achieve Your Sustainability Goals

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