Behaviour change: critical to sustainable practice and business performance

Behaviour change is increasingly recognised as a critical success factor to effective sustainable business practice, both internally and externally.

While behaviour change is very much front and centre in the marketing world where it is used to convince people to act for their own (and their community's) good, it's also increasingly recognised as a critical success factor to effective sustainable business practice, both internally and externally.

The concept of sustainability is of growing interest in the business world as companies seek to improve overall performance, resilience and profitability.  Many businesses are now faced with the challenge of achieving the “how” component of sustainability; delivering sustainable practice in an effective, meaningful, and transparent way. Put simply, behaviour needs to model espoused values, goals and aspirations in order to demonstrate integrity and transparency.

Values, behaviour and culture are inter-related, as shown below.

values culture behaviour change

For a business, the alignment of behaviour with values is critical to ensuring that the organisation avoids the rhetoric-reality gap that results from saying one thing, and doing another. If we look at a business’ collective of employees as a stakeholder subset, values are realised through the behaviours that are exhibited and when an employee’s personal values correlate with the business values, employee commitment and engagement are higher. The collection of demonstrated rather than espoused behaviours defines the culture (or personality) of the company to the outside world. This in turn must be aligned to the organisational values to avoid the all too familiar rhetoric-reality gap.

Our individual beliefs guide our actions and our ability to change our behaviour as shown by the cascade below.

Using the employee example again, successful implementation of sustainable practice is reliant on how well you personally connect an employee’s beliefs to company values, aspirations and strategic goals.

It is critical that an organisation builds capability and action competence to manage the inevitability of innovation and change that will be driven by a growing interest in sustainable practice. There are four main steps used to achieve this:

1.     Aligning strategic objectives with sustainable practice aspirations;

2.     Measure to manage;

3.     Supply chain and procurement alignment;

4.     Repositioning, communication and reporting.

The essential behaviour change elements that need to be present are:

·      Early engagement with a commitment of staff and business leaders;

·      Clarifying the purpose of change by aligning sustainable practice  aspirations and strategic goals to guide the Direction, Needs and Actions of the business (the ‘DNA’);

·      Understanding the habits and habitat of the workforce andlinking learning with values for both the individual and for the business;

·      Appreciating how people can influence change and understanding what is affecting change in the business;

·      Addressing values, behaviours and culture cohesively and actively as the joined up elements of behaviour change driven sustainable practice;

·      Galvanising the workforce by providing a balance of challenge and support, while allowing people to be actively involved and to feel valued

·      Creating opportunities to learn, share and teach others and connecting learning and action in a self perpetuating continuous cycle;

·      Using evidence and effective measurement to guide and validate change.

Behaviour change should not be viewed as an imposed process, but rather an opportunity to build the capability and competence required for people to change their practice, willingly and for good.

Assisting a business to understand and commit to the purpose, benefits and desired outcome from change is critical. This requires changes in resource use , social engagement, communication and technologies in a way that is inspiring and aligns company’s values and behaviour.  Unilever has incorporated such thinking in the ‘5 Levers for Change’ programme for their consumers, which focuses on making change understandable , desirable, easy and rewarding so that, overtime it is ultimately becomes entrenched as a habit. The programme seeks to collaborate with consumers to achieve Unilever’s sustainability goals.

A behaviour change model for sustainable practice provides the basis for business of a different kind; one that is adaptive, collaborative, constructive, mitigates risk and seeks opportunity for improved performance. Are you ready for a change?

Dr Sean Barnes is a sustainability advisor at The Sustainability Company (contact him at and Dr Barry Law is managing director

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