The forgotten human element required for sustainable business

Why harnessing your people—and having the biological and behavioral science insights needed to support them to change what they do and how they do it effectively—is the only way to fully integrate sustainability into your business and implement your sustainability commitments in time.
Nick Jankel

Co-Founder & Creative Director, FutureMakers,
Author, Keynote Speaker

4 October 2021

The Missing Element in Sustainable Business

The race for organisations to transition into fully sustainable businesses is on, with COP26 and the latest IPCC report showing just how urgent things have got. To remind us, we have fewer than 10 years to act to limit global heating to 1.5ºC. Catastrophic changes—from the floods in Germany and the UK to the fires in the US and Australia—are occurring well before we have reached 1.5ºC. Air pollution has recently been linked to 6 million premature births. In Germany, flying insects have declined by 76% in 26 years and key pollinators could disappear globally by the end of the century.

A cause to celebrate is that many companies have made public commitments to decarbonise, reduce pollution, and deliver more equity to workers. Many of their customers, employees and even investors want them to make this transformation happen. A few have a clear 2030 net-positive strategy—and sign-off from their boards to execute it.

51% of companies surveyed affirm that their senior management has made sustainability commitments, but only 21% say they have a clear roadmap to implementation, and just 26% say they have fully integrated sustainability into their business strategy.
– Sphera’s Sustainability Survey 2021

But what it is so easy to side-step when trying to lead significant, lasting, and necessary change like this is that reports, plans, and intentions don’t make change happen. People make change happen. People action technical sustainability roadmaps by changing how they work. People implement plans by doing things differently. People integrate sustainability in their functions by changing their ways of working.

Without using the very best insights from the behavioral sciences, that have been optimized over many years in research institutions and even in marketing and innovation departments—and also having the budgets allocated to help, guide, and support your employees and supply chain to change what they do and how they do it—we simply will not keep global warming under 2.0ºC let alone 1.5ºC.

Whilst it’s tempting to think that we can reach net-positive ambitions through materiality studies, technologies, plans, and reports alone, it’s easy to forget is that your workforce, your employees, your customers will have to behave differently—reduce their usage of some things and increase usage of other things, change supply chains and ops systems, sell and market different types of products and services, tell new stories to convince others, and work in different ways—to make the technologies, plans, and reductions work.

Your people—users, managers, leaders, vendors, shareholders—will have to give up some comforts and conveniences; deal with constant existential risks, uncertainty, and ambiguity; and build competence in ‘unusual’ arenas like agility, storytelling,  experimentation, and innovation.

They have to do all this whilst delivering on existing business targets and KPIs. This is no mean feat—in fact, it might be the greatest challenge in the history of modern business. So we need all the help we can get from the human sciences—from anthropology to behavioral economics—as well as harness the art and craft of mass behavior shifting, coaching, empowerment, and culture change.

Organisms not algorithms

In this age of techno-optimism, digital boosterism, and big data obsession, we must remember that the human beings that make up your business—that means employees, investors, and customers, and partners—will have to work differently, make different decisions, and use different tools and technologies to deliver us a 1.5ºC world.

It is essential for all climate activists and sustainability professionals to realise that human being are not algorithms. Our organisations are not machines. 

We do not change as easily as code can be changed. We do not shift behaviours as simply as data can be shifted in a spreadsheet. We do not change as quickly as sustainability reports can be changed.

We are organisms: living, breathing, and extremely complex organisms. Our biology was not designed for simple and streamlined change dictated to us by a strategy or ambition, no matter how well-publicized or how pretty the report looks. We cannot just alter our mindsets and behaviours when told to by a manager or sustainability expert.

This means that more technical reports, management directives, COP agreements, and policy changes are unlikely to get such organisms—our people!—to change their behaviours and mindsets. People, cultures, and organisations can transform. Just not by decree.

Although some professionals see transformation as a threat, most find chances for creative expression, especially as companies evolve from siloed departments to flexible collaboration.
– Harvard Business School

Sustainability Cannot Bypass Biology

Although we humans are definitely hard-wired for adaptation, learning, and innovation, when encountering difficult challenges—that threaten our status, livelihoods, and comfort zones—our usual reactions are resistance, confusion, avoidance, and manipulation… even if we are nodding, agreeing, and audibly saying yes to the plans and presentations.

We don’t mean to do this. It’s just how we evolved. We are geared to favour stability, control, and protection slightly more than agility, creativity, and connection. This makes sense. Better over-react, resist change, shut down creativity in the hope of surviving a threat… than take a risk by being innovative and collaborative—and die.

In addition, the cultures that pervade all our customer communities and employee functions, resist change unless we tap into the specific codes, language, and behaviors that drive much of Business As Usual.

Therefore, biologically and culturally, we have two different ways we can respond to challenges. We can be totally responsible, creative, agile, flexible, and fluid… and we can be utterly reactive, resistant, obtuse, rigid, cynical, and static. 

Very recent research has actually shown that uncertainty alone—about our job role, status as an expert, business model, the future—is supremely challenging for us. We tend to prefer certain negativity than uncertainty, confusion and possible positivity. We move to reduce the risks of a downside to us rather than seek the opportunities of an upside. Being ‘told off’ by sustainability advocates makes matter worse.

What this means is that, in periods of great change, turbulence, and challenge, most people, most of the time, will resist lasting, positive, and necessary change—even if they say they want it and support it—because they feel threatened, stressed, and out of control.

At base, emotions are about the future, not the past. From an evolutionary standpoint, feeling pain or pleasure that can’t change anything would be a useless waste of the brain’s efforts. The true benefit of emotions comes from their power to guide decisions about what comes next. – Professor David DeSteno, Northeastern University

Biology (and culture) eat strategy for breakfast

I’ve spent my life doing my best to understand such phenomena and working with human biologies and cultures to land lasting change. From studying medicine at Cambridge to developing global ad campaigns for PlayStation and Nike; from running innovation programs for orgs like Microsoft, Diageo, and Oxfam to running leadership and change programs for orgs like Unilever, HSBC, and Intel, I have worked hard to understand how to break through resistance, shift mindsets permanently, activate behavior change that delivers on ambitions, and empower innovations that land strategic and exponential value not just chaos.

One of the key realisations I have had over the 20+ years I have been working on this—and that behavioral science has had in general in the last decade—is that our emotion systems are the primary way we are guided to make decisions about what to do next. This is not an evolutionary afterthought. Our emotions guide us to engage with what is important and to decide how best to react or respond.

For example, research shows that provoking fear and judgement—like many in sustainability do, even if for the right reasons (which the press then amplifies with dark warnings about terrifying futures)—means we are even more likely to stick with planet-negative, carbon-increasing, justice-damaging behaviours.

Another example: intrinsically linked to powerful emotions are our beliefs, thoughts, ideas, ideals, and cognitive biases. We have over 100 such biases that shape how we see the world “out there”. Merely telling people to see things differently doesn’t do much to change their base assumptions and frames of meaning.

Other studies show that the more we tell skeptics and resistors the hard data on climate change (or any other issue we care about), the more likely they are to strengthen their existing beliefs than change them. It’s called the Backfire Effect.

Employees are what they think, feel, and believe in. As managers attempt to drive performance by changing the way employees behave, they all too often neglect the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that, in turn, drive behavior.
– McKinsey Report

Leveraging emotions and cultures

Our emotions guide us. If we are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, confused, pressured, judged, put upon, or that we are likely to lose something we value, then we are more likely to be controlling and protective—and play a part in maintaining culture that blocks necessary change.

If we don’t feel our sense of meaning, community, place, and unique culture is being respected and appreciated, we will respond in kind. The behavioral science literature is full of studies of change programs thrust upon a group of people by well-meaning experts that failed to gain traction; and failed to deliver on their grand strategies.

It is only when people feel supported, safe, purposeful, respected, and like they are in it together—and communicated to using their cultural codes and activated with respect to existing behavioral ‘rituals’—that they can find their way to be the insightful, creative and collaborative people we need for them to implement our plans and integrate our ambitions into their functions and silos.

People change most fluidly—with least resistance and confusion—when they feel inspired, supported, trusted, safe, engaged, and committed to a shared ambition that is coherent, meaningful, exhilarating and urgent—and where they are given easy-to-understand and easy-to-use tools and practices that deliver change in the everyday moments of work that hook into how they already do things.

Culture is king. When people discover their voice, they become unstoppable.
– Ben Kohlmann, Founder Chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell

We Cannot Avoid The Human Element

Sustainability leaders cannot bypass human biology and existing company cultures—no matter how much we might want to. Biological states, emotions, beliefs, meanings, ways of working (both obvious and hidden)… all combine to make a culture that either accelerates or blocks sustainable transformation.

It is natural to attempt to avoid, deny, repress, downplay, and under-budget the human element. Human beings are messy, difficult, complex, chaotic, and hard to measure. People do not change as easily as production lines, supply chains, and energy contracts do. So if we like detail, metrics, and getting funding from the CFO easily… it is very tempting to hope that the engagement, activation, and implementation piece—”bringing people along the journey”—will just happen.

Just ask colleagues in marketing, comms, advertising, and design just how much time and effort it takes to drive true, lasting, and sizeable attitudinal and behavioural change!

The simple fact is that until sustainability leaders understand the critical importance of the human element—and invest time, energy, and resources to shifting individual emotions/beliefs and shared culture—the change they want to see, that looks so good in strategies and ESG reports, will not happen.

It certainly will not happen at the pace, and with the boldness, needed.

Unless we can work with, not against, human biology, psychology, and anthropology—and we can harness how human beings work to deliver our low to no carbon/ pollution/ inequality/ prejudice strategies—the chances of organisations becoming planet-positive is minimal.

Simply put, without people-powered change, nothing ambitious in sustainability can be achieved.

Did you find this article interesting? Join us for our next webinar where we’ll share key insights on why people engagement is critical for turning 2030 strategies into action—and how to think about going about it.


Activating your people to achieve your organisation’s sustainability goals

Wednesday 20 October 2021
10:00 – 11:00 BST