Keeping ourselves effective in turbulent times


The following is a guest post from Penny Walker, author of Working Collaboratively: A Practical Guide to Achieving More.

For people leading sustainability, environment or CSR in their organisations, these are turbulent times.

The political and legal context is shifting and uncertain.  Assumptions that we will see a gradual ratcheting up of environmental and social standards are in doubt: no sooner had some of these ideas become mainstream than along comes a populist backlash which threatens to sweep that new orthodoxy away.  The business case is harder to make.

At the same time, news from the field – of broken temperature records, increasing carbon ppm, ice levels, biodiversity losses – show how dangerously close to edge we are moving.

For people who are also personally committed to this agenda, the direction of travel can feel like a bitter reversal.

And for the most part, those people with words like ‘sustainability’, ‘environment’ and ‘corporate responsibility’ in their job titles are personally committed.  They see themselves as part of a wider change movement.  So this doesn’t just affect their work, it follows them home and into their family and community time.

I have a long-standing interest in supporting the people who are leading the journey towards a more sustainable future.  When I was researching for “supporting the change agents: keeping ourselves effective on the journey of change” [Greener Management International 54, Consulting for Business Sustainability], I delved into the overall optimism and pessimism of people who are working to bring about sustainable development.  Some of us are dealing with extreme feelings!

Asked about how much change is needed, to bring about sustainable development, people working to change organisations towards sustainability generally thought radical, far-reaching change is needed.  They said things like:

“My footprint is not sustainable; I’m a fractal of the wider system, full of paradox…

“We need paradigm shifts, we need to forget about economic growth and start talking about happiness and survival.”

“It will be a miracle if we pull it off. But it is still worth trying.”

Asked about how they feel about this, and how they keep going, people said:

“My role in sustainability is a bit lonely. … Having more contact with others in a similar position would be motivating and invigorating.”

“Personally, I have found the overwhelming sense of impending doom so powerful as to be debilitating in my work. I am trying to find a position that is more positive, whilst not ignoring the data.”

When I researched what these kinds of change makers think about the speed and scale of change a few years later in 2010, the survey showed that

  • They think change isn’t happening fast enough and isn’t ambitious enough;
  • They find it hard to find genuine win-wins which meet organisational needs as well as sustainability goals
  • They recognise that emergent, systemic change is needed but struggle to reconcile this with the need for tangible short-term progress and measurable goals.

The full paper is “What’s it like from the inside? The Challenges of Being an Organisational Change Agent for Sustainability” and it is a chapter in “Change and Sustainability” (GMI 57) edited by Chris Galea and published by Greenleaf in 2012.

So it’s a tough ask.

But we know some of the solutions.

One of the ways that we can support each other is through supportive peer learning.  Small group conversations where people aren’t giving lectures or competing, but where doubts can be shared, ideas nurtured, and creative solutions discovered through thinking aloud.

Dr Alan Knight, Corporate Responsibility General Manager, ArcelorMittal, has said:

“When I think of the times I have made a contribution to sustainability, the best outcomes were a result of conversation, and in most cases that chat has occurred outside formal meeting but on a sofa, in a pub or sharing a trip. In a world of schedules, e-mails and process, we are losing the art of conversation just when we need it the most.”

Those spontaneous, lucky conversations are great: but what if you just don’t have the opportunity?

This spring, I’m facilitating some conversations like that designed especially to support sustainability leaders.  They are ‘still’ conversations: a chance to pull over to the side of the road and take a breather, share travellers’ tales and not rush to conclusions.

If this sounds like the kind of support that would help you be as effective as possible, then find out more here.

Penny walkerwalker is an independent consultant and has been helping people work towards a more sustainable society for over twenty years, collaborating with people to help them learn about change and sustainability. She is the author of our February book of the month, Working Collaboratively: A Practical Guide to Achieving More. Order your copy for £10 here.


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