People who take environmental issues seriously have an unfortunate tendency to get carried away with their mission and come across as a bit of a zealot. This is a fatal mistake – cynics will laugh at you, the undecided will be put off and even fellow greenies may get fed up with constant preaching. So what's the alternative?
As I write, I am contracted to deliver a large number of one-hour sustainability awareness sessions to the employees of a major UK manufacturer. With just an hour to communicate the importance of these issues and get across an understanding of how they impact on individuals' jobs, I can't afford to get bogged down in myth-busting or overcoming cynicism. And, remember, I've just walked into their patch with the aim of getting them to change the way they do their job. It's a tough gig, so what do I do?
The short answer is I don't tell them anything - unless of course they ask. Instead I ask them for their views and ideas. My first question is: "why should the business take sustainability seriously?", the second is: "what impacts does the business have?" and the third is: "what solutions can you think of?".
The result is that no-one dissents or sits back with their arms folded unconvinced. By thinking through the answers to my questions, employees are selling the importance of the topic and the workshop to themselves. Also I am placing myself at their level by asking for their views, rather than acting like the great guru parachuted in to tell them the gospel.
The last of the three questions is undoubtedly the most effective. By asking individuals to think about solutions, I generate enthusiasm for the topic, I empower individuals so they feel they can make a difference, and the client gets automatic buy in if those solutions come to fruition. That last part is very important – we are capturing and assessing all the solutions developed – not just because there are some gems in there, but to demonstrate we are taking employees' views seriously.
You can use this questioning approach at any level. In my latest book, The Green Executive, I talk about 'green jujitsu', where instead of trying to pound ideas into people's heads like a boxer tries to knock his opposition to the floor, you use more subtle techniques to use the other person's strength to your advantage (as in jujitsu).
Asking questions is one of the most powerful tools in the green jujitsu toolbox. "What are the commercial implications of falling behind the competition on sustainability?" will get more people on board than "we must do more to cut our carbon footprint!".
So if you want to get the green message across, the mantra is "ask, don't tell".