The massive environmental, social and economic challenges facing the world are well documented and some believe that climate change, population growth and increased consumption will challenge the sustainability of human life on this planet.
In this recently published discussion paper, based on work at the John Madejski Centre for Reputation, Professor Kevin Money, Director of the Centre, along with Stephen Pain, VP Sustainable Business and Communications, and Professor Carola Hillenbrand, suggest that there needs to be an in-depth exploration of the root cause of the sustainability problem: human behaviour.
A psychological approach to sustainability
Much of the current debate focuses on reducing negative symptoms of human behaviour rather than understanding and changing the root causes of it, but we suggest that the world is out of balance because the motivations and, therefore, the behaviours of people are out of balance.
By understanding why and how we are motivated to behave as we do, we can find solutions that can restore balance within ourselves, in our relationships with each other and with the wider world. Put simply, we must achieve a better balance in business and in society more generally.
By drawing on psychological theory, we propose that sustainable behaviours could be encouraged by redressing the following imbalances that can lead to dysfunctional and unsustainable behaviour:
- Imbalances between human drives/motivations
- Imbalances between learning from positive and negative outcomes
- Imbalances between people’s public and private identities
We conclude the paper by presenting a model of sustainability that can redress imbalances and, thus, encourage sustainable behaviours.
Balancing human drives/motivations
We argue that, as human beings, we are driven to:
- Acquire – gain material goods and status
- Bond – be a part of a group that cares for us and gives us identity
- Comprehend – understand the world around us and have a purpose
- Defend – protect things important to us
In line with recent advances in motivation theory, we argue that each of these drives competes with the others for dominance, rather than, in the case of Maslow’s hierarchy, one building upon the achievement of the other.
Our thesis is that these drives/motivations function not only at the level of the individual, but also at the level of societies, cultures and organisations. For example, we argue that the current lack of environmental and social sustainability of our businesses and societies are a direct result of an imbalance that favours the drive to acquire.
Balancing positive and negative outcomes
Renowned psychologist Professor Martin Seligman noted that the prevention of a negative was not the same as the creation of a positive, while the bulk of work in psychology had focused on preventing the negative rather than creating the positive.
In a similar way, we contend that much of the work in the space of sustainability has focused on preventing negative behaviour rather than on encouraging positive behaviour. This work challenges individuals and organisations to focus on what people could do and the benefits that they can receive rather than what they should not do and what they need to sacrifice.
Balancing the internal and external
The alignment – or lack of it – between our internal (private) and external (public) identities has often been associated with functional behaviours.
So over-consumption may be a function of an imbalance, where the purchase of material goods and status compensates for misalignments at deeper personal levels.
We suggest that organisations can help to create a culture of open sharing between individuals regarding sustainable behaviour. Rather than framing sustainability as a “should” or “ideal” state, organisations could allow stakeholders to share their experiences of sustainability, thereby connecting it to a deep sense of self.
A key mechanism for change within this model is achieving consistency between an individual’s personal sense of self, as well as the expectations of family and friends (private life) and society and working life (public life).
Towards a psychology-based model of business sustainability
From these reflections, we argue that the purpose of business should be to grow while balancing the expression of drives within our societies. Ultimately, sustainability can only be achieved by restoring and maintaining a healthy balance among the various drives in our societies.
We have devised a model that redefines the purpose of business using psychological principles and that embraces a wider sense of humanity. It invites organisations to consider their role in society in terms of five key dimensions:
Organisations could also link this thinking to the balancing of internal and external worlds through the use of a process of reflecting on gaps between their values, behaviours and stakeholder expectations. They could then share their stories.
We believe that applying this model can help to move business into what might be called an Age of Good, where we learn to grow sustainably in a world where resources are increasingly scarce and societal needs are ever more demanding.
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© Money, Pain and Hillenbrand, March 2016