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The Five Stages of Coping with Sustainability

Saybrook University | Monday May 24th, 2010 | 10 Comments

The following is a guest post by our friends at Saybrook University’s Organizational Systems Program (a 3p sponsor) – designed for students who want to understand the nature of organizations, collaborative practices, and transformative change.

By Dennis T. Jaffe, Ph.D

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!

Dennis T. Jaffe, Ph.D. is the co-director of the Organizational Systems program at Saybrook University.


▼▼▼      10 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • http://twitter.com/saracrouse06 Sara A. Crouse

    Companies are often not forward thinking in their efforts to become sustainable. Being prepared for all five steps is important. Realistic article yet inspiring!

    • Dennis Jaffe

      thanks for your comment. It is a challenge to realize change
      Dennis

  • http://aboutworkecology.typepad.com Lavinia Gene Weissman

    Dennis, nice to hear your voice. My best to all your clan and everyone at Saybrook. This is truly Kubler Ross's stages of grief. I have been reviewing Russell Ackoff today for an opening to an article and I think Mindy Lubber, said it in a nutshell what it takes to clean up the mess we are in/

    http://bit.ly/aJQ1lA

  • Dave Shires

    HI Dennis,

    What do you think are the most difficult things to overcome? When we're talking about this workforce transformation, we must be talking about things more challenging than using a recycle bin instead of the trash right? Is it always a sacrifice? What about just thinking about how you'd change the business, perhaps what the company manufactures to at once be “Greener” but also take advantage of the times? I feel like, in some ways, thinking more sustainably can be liberating, motivating, and a great business opportunity, not always a grief filled cost.

  • http://aboutworkecology.typepad.com Lavinia Gene Weissman

    David, I understand where you are coming from.

    Dennis is a remarkable practitioner and academic.

    It is not that he said anything wrong or there is a better way or bad way.

    All our systems of thought right now are coming into question. I have been working out a new system of thought from live action research and it is hard for me because my peers and the people I respect engage in ways that have brought them success and livelihood.

    I have begun a new practice grounded in social media, action research and science and more. I am now ready to go on the road with it.

    What it requires, however, is a new format to communication that moves us beyond our emotional containers and brings about the energy of learning with joy and building accomplishment in our communities in away that is economically sound.

    Speaking of economically sound, we need to learn to move beyond open forums that are built in community and give community change the resources it needs to accelerate so people are not doing this work in survival.

  • Dennis Jaffe

    thanks for your comment. It is a challenge to realize change
    Dennis

  • Dave Shires

    HI Dennis,

    What do you think are the most difficult things to overcome? When we're talking about this workforce transformation, we must be talking about things more challenging than using a recycle bin instead of the trash right? Is it always a sacrifice? What about just thinking about how you'd change the business, perhaps what the company manufactures to at once be “Greener” but also take advantage of the times? I feel like, in some ways, thinking more sustainably can be liberating, motivating, and a great business opportunity, not always a grief filled cost.

  • http://aboutworkecology.typepad.com Lavinia Gene Weissman

    David, I understand where you are coming from.

    Dennis is a remarkable practitioner and academic.

    It is not that he said anything wrong or there is a better way or bad way.

    All our systems of thought right now are coming into question. I have been working out a new system of thought from live action research and it is hard for me because my peers and the people I respect engage in ways that have brought them success and livelihood.

    I have begun a new practice grounded in social media, action research and science and more. I am now ready to go on the road with it.

    What it requires, however, is a new format to communication that moves us beyond our emotional containers and brings about the energy of learning with joy and building accomplishment in our communities in away that is economically sound.

    Speaking of economically sound, we need to learn to move beyond open forums that are built in community and give community change the resources it needs to accelerate so people are not doing this work in survival.

  • Jane Talkington

    I see these same five stages in the university classes I teach at OSU and OU. I am a blue who teaches green to the Reds. They are incredibly anger because “no one told them” the truth about the state of the planet, then they are mocked by their friends and family when they speak the truth. The only cure for getting them unstuck in these stages it personal action so they feel like they have control at least over their lives.

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  • http://leadershipliteracies.wordpress.com Heather Davis

    You might be interested in the Dunphy model of sustainability development which theorises stages of sustainability development. A short description is summarised here, http://leadershipliteracies.com/doc/sustainable_development.htm.
    Dunphy, D. C., Griffiths, A., & Benn, S. 2007. Organizational change for corporate sustainability: a guide for leaders and change agents of the future. (2nd ed.) Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, Routledge.