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Why Herd Mentality is the Key to Green Success

By 3p Contributor

By Ryan Honeyman

The problem

Over the past few years, many businesses have launched an office green initiative with high-hopes, enthusiasm, and cheer. Six to 12 months later, many of these initiatives are rudderless and ineffective. Why?

Because most businesses overlook the key to green success: motivating and engaging their employees.

While physically greening your space is important, understanding what drives human behaviors--and how to motivate people to change--is more valuable. It doesn’t matter how many compost bins or energy efficient plug load adapters you install in your building. If your employees don’t understand how or why they should use the latest green thing you installed, they won’t. You will lose the majority of the benefits that come with an effective sustainability initiative without the buy-in of your employees.

What’s been tried before

Several tactics have been used to try and change employee behaviors in the past. The following theories have met with varying success:

  • Fear/Pain: “If we don’t change, global warming will destroy the earth.”

  • Moral: “Save the Whales!”

  • Economic: “The Prius will save you $10k in gas annually.”

The “Herd Mentality”

A recent psychological theory, called the “Herd Mentality,” suggests that humans are more likely to adopt green behaviors because their friends, co-workers, and neighbors already have. We don’t want to be the first or last to do something—we want to be safe in the middle of the herd.

This is great news for businesses that want to encourage green behavior. Rather than trying to change every individual opinion, you only have to motivate enough people to get the attention of the herd. Then everyone will start moving in the same green direction.

5 steps to motivating your employees

Here are five ways to motivate your “herd” and improve the chances that your green initiative will be a success.

1) Benchmark your building

What: Benchmarking means figuring out how much electricity, gas, and water you are using at each of your facilities.

Why: “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Once you start gathering figures on your energy and water usage, you can start identifying trends that can later be used to motivate and engage your employees.

How: Use the free ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager software (www.energystar.gov) to benchmark your electricity, gas, and water use.

2) Tailor your approach

What: Once you figure out how much energy you are using, start to identify the green allies within your workforce. This will help you build momentum for a green initiative.

Why: Don’t waste valuable time and resources by trying to get everyone onboard. Remember, you only need a small, critical mass of people to change their behavior.

How: Use the following descriptions to help you identify your green allies and focus your recruitment at work:

  • Dark Green: The eco-diehards. They have been waiting for this opportunity for years. Engage them first.

  • Light Green: They have started down the path towards living a green life. Some purchases and behaviors are already green. Another good group to engage.

  • Beige: Saving energy and money are their primary motivation. They are beginning to connect some of their lifestyle choices to green.

  • Light Brown: Not yet conscious about living or buying green but are starting to be influenced, even if subconsciously, by the green shift in the culture at large.

  • Brown: Skeptical of environmental movement and its values. Browns will not make any earth-friendly choices no matter what. Don’t waste your time.
3) Create contests

What: Once you’ve benchmarked your building and identified your green allies, create an energy reduction contest.

Why: Contests are the ultimate motivator. People begin to change their behavior as they see others doing it.

How: I highly recommend a pizza party as an incentive. For some reason, the thought of pizza makes people go absolutely bonkers. Reward your employees if they can lower their energy bills from one month to the next.

4) Monthly usage reports

What: Once you have people’s attention from a contest, you can start to give them regular feedback about their electricity, gas, and water use.

Why: Avoid “out of sight, out of mind.” Monthly feedback also helps your employees make a personal connection between their actions and their building’s energy performance.

How: After benchmarking your building, the Portfolio Manager software can create simple, easy to read usage reports and graphs. Email a copy of the graph to your employees. Post the most recent usage report in the break room.

5) Use humor to communicate

What: People are suckers for fun. Be witty, clever, and creative when communicating your green ideas.

Why: People are resistant to change. Humor is one of the best ways to break down resistance.

How: Create a green staff of the month award. Have the winner wear a ridiculous green hat. Send their picture and a brief interview about sustainability to your other employees. Experiment with different ideas. It will make a difference.

Things to avoid

Now that you have a good idea of how to motivate behavioral change, here are some things that definitely should be avoided:

Going all-out on Day One: No one can turn an organization green overnight— true change is incremental and takes time. Break the work down into bite-sized pieces.

Waiting for 100% agreement: Getting agreement from everyone is a perennial challenge. When you are 80 percent ready, move! Otherwise you will be standing still forever. The other 20 percent will be figured out along the way.

Strict compliance policies: Not good. Strict compliance and zero-tolerance policies don’t let people learn from their mistakes. Allow people to experiment with green, give concrete and measurable goals, and give out rewards.

Ceasing innovation: There is no such thing as “green enough.” Keep on the lookout for new green technologies or new best practices in sustainability. It will reinvigorate your green initiative and keep it fresh.

Being obsessed (and judgmental): Just because you had your green epiphany doesn’t mean others have also. Nothing kills enthusiasm quicker than an obsessed and judgmental eco-disciplinarian. Keep things fun, be positive, and be patient while others learn at their own pace.

Final thoughts

Remember, it’s not only about physically greening your building. It’s about successfully motivating and engaging your employees.

That’s the key to green success.


Ryan Honeyman is the founder of Honeyman Sustainability Consulting LLC, a certified Benefit Corporation. Ryan helps businesses save money, improve employee satisfaction, and increase brand value. Ryan is a LEED Accredited Professional in Existing Buildings Operations & Maintenance, a registered PG&E Trade Professional, and a member of both the U.S. Green Building Council and the Rotary Club of Oakland.

Prior to starting his own business, Ryan was the Sustainability Manager for Seneca Center. He created and oversaw the “Seneca Green Initiative”– a sustainability strategy for Seneca’s 38 facilities, 800 employees, and 3,000 emotionally troubled youth in San Francisco, Alameda, Marin, Sonoma, Contra Costa, Napa, and Solano Counties.

[image credit: ilovememphis: Flickr cc]

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