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Overcoming Objections to Sustainability: Inspire Action or Inspect for Compliance

This lesson is a part of an audio course Overcoming Objections to Sustainability by Aurora Dawn Benton

In this lesson, I address something you may hear when managers have tried to get new initiatives going in the past. Sometimes they claim that "Employees won't do the work" or "they won't do anything extra." This probably comes from a real legitimate challenge. Staff, especially hourly and part-time workers, can be difficult to motivate.

Based on past experience with these very real situations, managers can be tempted to just give up hope that employees can be trusted, much less motivated, to do the right thing. And sometimes these excuses represent very real organizational challenges. Turnover, unions, contract labor, disciplinary action…these are all daily realities for many businesses.

A similar challenge is a mentality that may not even be consciously spoken. Sometimes I directly hear a staff member or manager say something to the effect of "we've always done it this way." And more often than not, this is an unwritten rule that no one has taken time to question or confront.

Here are a few examples of "we've always done it this way" behavior I have personally witnessed in my work:

Leaving lights, escalators, music, and other electronics on ALL THE TIME. If you have always left everything on, then it's hard to get people to change this habit or develop a new one that requires switching them off. A related practice that is common in commercial kitchens is to come in first thing in the morning and power up every single fryer, oven, and other equipment, regardless of how many hours later in the day it will be before that equipment is actually needed. It doesn't take 5 hours to heat up an oven, but it is the habit of the morning crew to fire up everything as soon as they arrive.

Another one is printing everything! A very common complaint I hear from those who work in hotels is that they are required to print certain reports multiple times per day, and these reports are often hundreds of pages. The primary reason given is the reports are needed in case there is a power failure or other emergency. Wouldn't a charged up mobile device serve this purpose?

The time and energy required to think of and act on alternative plans are where sustainability ideas can stall out.

Managers sometimes believe employees are just in it for the paycheck and will not do anything above and beyond. Green team leaders have told me some staff just show up to meetings for the free food. No doubt, it can be difficult to get employees to do the job they are paid to do, much less get them to volunteer for additional tasks or responsibilities.

The good news is people still have beating hearts, and when they are given the right inspiration, they are often more than willing to care and contribute, or at least comply. We'll come back to the principle of inspect in a moment, but first, let's look a bit more at how to inspire.

The best way to inspire people is to start with why. Make them aware of the problem. Leverage the causes they are already interested in or show them how the initiative is directly tied to making their own community a better place to live. I deliver food waste training in various cities, and in each instance, I show staff the statistics on local food insecurity. They are often familiar with it firsthand. They see hunger in their own neighborhoods. And when they see the data, and I show them how they can directly impact the community through minor adjustments in their work habits, it's amazing to see the change in attitude and participation!

Sustainability should tap into passion and intrinsic motivation. The why gives the what meaning and purpose. So for example, a banquet server might scrape uneaten food into a composting bin because it's a task they were instructed to do. But you'll get far more compliance when that task is preceded with information that connects it directly and personally with social and environmental benefits.

I recommend you a survey or interview staff to learn more about which causes they are most emotional about and aware of. Start there because that is likely where you will discover their energy and creativity and the associated tasks won't feel like work.

At the end of the day, some staff really won't care. Or even if they do care, they just do not see the relationship between the issue and their actions. When this happens, inspiration alone may not be enough. You may have a team that is highly motivated to reduce waste, yet they still keep throwing plastic wrap and hairnets in the compost bin. You may need to inspect for compliance to ensure a successful initiative. You should probably have an inspection element in your sustainability programs anyway, but always keep the inspirational components front and center. You have heard of the concept of carrots and sticks when it comes to motivating people. Inspection is the stick, while inspiration is the carrot.

To keep the inspiration front and center, be sure you are sharing positive stories of impact from employees' efforts. Use newsletters, display monitors, posters, and meetings to share the good news of what employees are involved in. This will further inspire their contribution to positive impact.

In the next lesson, I address the excuse that sustainability, believe it or not, is against policy!

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Written by

Aurora Dawn Benton