Bringing us on board: The challenge of leadership | 3 Pillars Network
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3 Pillars Network, Behaviour Change for Sustainability National Congress, October 2010
Bringing us on board: The challenge of leadership

Achieving behaviour change for sustainability is not just about making messages and rules, although it will of course include such measures. For lasting results, leaders must find more and more innovative ways to enlist support of a broader cohort of stakeholders and reward behaviour that validates change.

Most people prefer to die than change. It's a fact that Quentin Jones, managing director of Human Synergistics, a consulting firm that specialises in the measurement, management and transformation of leadership behaviour and organisational culture, likes to use during client workshops.

It comes from a story in Fast Company magazine. A surgeon named Dr Edward Miller, from the hospital at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, observed that 90 percent of patients who had undergone angioplasties and bypass grafts stuck with unhealthy habits even after their operations.

"I think this is the real human dilemma that we have and, certainly, our experience in organisations is whilst we can get behaviour change, it's a challenge," Jones says.

Anita Dessaix is proud of gains made to reduce smoking in Australia: about 17.2 percent of the adult population still smokes, and about 9 percent of teenagers.

"It just continues to trend downwards. It's one of the public health success stories," says the Cancer Institute NSW program manager.

"If we go back 50 years, we were really just starting to learn about the range of health consequences that are associated with smoking whereas, these days, people are much more well-informed," Dessaix says.

Five pillars to drive change

The UN's Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion lists five ‘pillars' that can help drive behaviour change. One is education.

"The media's philosophy is that their audiences or readers or viewers or listeners can only take in very elementary ideas," says Dr Richard Stanton, a senior lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at Sydney University.

"So they have to be able to distil what you're telling them into a format or a frame that their audiences can understand. Initially, to get that behavioural change you have to make that work for the media first."

Stanton thinks the media has failed to effectively communicate on climate change. The job of championing the issue should be taken away from scientists and economists and given to the people who believe they are the most capable of doing something about it.

"It's not the responsibility of one agency, or one sector," Dessaix says. "If we're going to get real behaviour change it needs to be across agencies and across sectors."

The Ottawa Charter's other ‘pillars' also make a difference in the battle for better health. They are: public policy and legislation, creating supportive environments, advocacy and community action, and services that are health-promoting as opposed to being just about treatment.

Identifying culture

"Saying that the social sciences have a particular perspective on issues like climate change, that's useful but only partially," says Chris Reidy, research director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney.

"The sciences have another particular perspective that's useful and partial. What we need to be trying to do is bringing all those perspectives together.

"And that's going to give us a more complete and comprehensive view of any particular problem. In the case of something like climate change and a lot of the sustainability problems we face, the scientific perspective and the systems perspective are very strong and the social science and cultural and psychological perspectives have been a bit neglected."

"It wasn't until the 80s and early 90s that we actually discovered in organisations a thing called ‘culture'," says Jones. "Now, you might say that's pretty obvious now but back in those days it was not.

"How we define ‘culture' is the invisible force that shapes human behaviour, which is expectations for behaviour," he says.

"What they're basically talking about is, you might be well-intentioned or you might get some feedback to say ‘Oh, I want to behave differently'," continues Jones. "But if the context is such that it does not reward, in fact it punishes you for changing your behaviour, then you're not going to change."

Yarra Valley Water achieves change with Human Synergistics

In 2001, managers at State-owned Yarra Valley Water, one of three water retailers in Melbourne, started using Human Synergistics tools in a bid to create a "constructive" culture.

"And the change that we achieved over a number of years was not just successful as an initial change but it was also sustainable change," says Anne Farquhar, head of human resources.

Staff satisfaction increased from 57 percent to nearly 80 percent. Annual staff turnover fell from over 26 percent to just under seven percent.

"I think that in terms of behaviour change the key thing for me is to clarify upfront the current state and the desired future state," Farquhar says. "Unless you know what the vision is, unless you know what success looks like, where you're heading to and why you're heading there, if you can't articulate that, both on a personal level and on an organisational level, you've got less chance of actually being able to achieve a change."

"The outstanding organisations we work with are ones where leadership and leaders are prepared to set a new direction, a new vision," Jones says. "At a cost."