The Five Stages of Coping with Sustainability

32311 five stages coping sustainability - The Five Stages of Coping with Sustainability

Going green would be easy if people were rational. Instead, even the most well-intentioned companies find that becoming sustainable is like a trip to the analyst’s couch. They find themselves asking “why are such simple changes so hard?” over and over again.

It turns out that sustainability initiatives are often as emotionally difficult as they are logistically challenging – and companies that don’t take this into account are asking for trouble.

Being sustainable usually interferes with how people do things and, at least at first, makes it harder to work. An office trying to do away with copying and paper forces each person to look at how she does her work, and make adjustments that can be frustrating and difficult.  Reducing waste often threatens the status and perks of executives. In one company, you knew you were a successful exec when you got your own refrigerator. Then the sustainability committee calculated how much energy that took. 

A private office has always been sacred; but it’s not always an efficient use of space.  The focus on sustainability often cuts into deep habits and the trappings of power and status, which are highly disruptive.

It demands emotional and behavioral adjustment to adopt such new behaviors. We can learn something about this by looking at personal health practices. While some practices are clearly connected with longer life and wellbeing, we find people struggle to adopt them. Sustainability is not just using paper cups and recycling—it demands major shifts in how we do everything, and sometimes major rework and extra energy.  We find that people adopting sustainability follow the stages of a model that Cynthia Scott and I call “The Transition Curve.”  Our model shows that before you can say “yes” to a change, especially a major one, you have to first say “good-bye” to the old ways.

This struggle resembles the stages of death and dying posited by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. First, people deny the need for change, by ignoring it or even by citing negative publicity or skeptics. We might say that this one pizza is OK, or that we will begin our diet tomorrow. Nobody can ignore that sustainable eating will mean forgoing what we think of as pleasures. So after we awaken from denial, we go into a period of resisting—with difficult feelings, not wanting to change, and even anger at the messenger. But too often when we look at sustainability initiatives, leaders try to simply mandate change and ignore or deny their people’s inevitable resistance.

Several practical things can be done to help people say good-bye to their old ways and begin to explore and adopt new commitments. Denial is chipped away by patient explaining as well as by not-too-patient statements that change is not optional. The challenge is to get people’s attention and to take it seriously.

Resistance can emerge overtly or covertly by people who simply ignore the change. A company must expect and allow people to complain and struggle, by taking time to show up in person and listen, and accepting resistance as natural and to be expected. Successful adaptive companies have designed good-bye rituals like the old Underwood typewriter enshrined in the newsroom when the newspaper moved to computers.  Dealing with resistance is sometimes seen as indulging negativity, but in fact, when a company can allow people to complain and share feelings, they begin spontaneously to look ahead, as they cross the bottom of the change curve to begin to explore new ways, and move towards new commitment.  Leaders need to understand that making changes is not just about rational argument or stating the need—it is about engaging people and understanding the struggle they feel to give up their comfortable old ways, which they now hear are harmful and destructive. It isn’t easy!

NOTE: This post was originally published by the blog Triple Pundit on May 24th, 2010.

Read other posts by Dennis Jaffe

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