"Who do they think they are preaching to?"
A visit to a client's canteen earlier this week brought me face-to-face with one extremely disgruntled staff member. In the queue, my contact pointed out the points-based reward system staff can now choose to join, which incentivises choosing a meat-free or meat-and-dairy-free meal. Like a coffee-shop loyalty card, you accumulate points and get mystery prizes. The explicit motivation is calorie-reduction and carbon-reduction: a vegan meal has, it is explained, a lower carbon footprint and is better for you.
Bottled up discontent
I asked whether there had been any controversy about the scheme, knowing that promoting a lower-impact or reduced-meat diet is considered very hard in this Defra research. Behind us, a member of staff neither of us knew spat out
"Well you're not allowed to disagree around here!"
"Who do they think they're preaching to? What makes them think they're always right? What do they think they're doing interfering with our private lives?"
She was clearly very angry about it.
The organisation in question is one which has a public and explicit commitment to a low-carbon future, and it could be expected that a high proportion of staff are personally committed to reducing their environmental impact. So this reaction was surprising.
Unpacking the outburst
I think it's worth unpacking the points, to see if there's something to be learnt about engaging staff in this kind of impact-reduction activity:
- 'Preaching' is a word often used when the recipient of the message considers themselves to be at least as 'ethical', if not more, than the person transmitting the message. Perhaps this staff member considers herself to already have a strong personal set of ethics and practices, and resents the perceived implication that she needs to be told to do more. Perhaps she is unhappy about the way the organisation approaches its corporate impacts, and resents being asked to make a personal change when she thinks not enough is happening at the bigger level.
- 'What makes them think they are always right?' I wonder if there was an opportunity for knowledgeable people within the organisation to challenge the underlying generalisation that meat-free is healthier or better from a carbon perspective, or to contribute to developing the project. Perhaps this person has specialist knowledge which leads her to be uncomfortable with this simplification?
- 'Interfering with private lives'. This is an interesting one. The setting for this initiative is a staff canteen, possibly (I don't know) subsidised by the employer. People are not obliged to eat there, although it is cheaper and more convenient than going to local cafes. The scheme is voluntary, and around 1/3 of the staff have joined it. the scheme includes small incentives for 'better' choices, but there are no disincentives for 'poor' choices. Previous initiatives include asking people to use the stairs rather than the lift, and switching off equipment when not in use. These have been successful in reducing energy use in the buildings. What is it about eating, which makes it feel part of this person's 'private life'?
- 'You can't disagree around here'. This is a big problem in any organisation. When disagreement is counter-cultural to the point where a member of staff blurts it out to a stranger... There's something unhealthy about a level of top-down orthodoxy which means that it does not feel safe to say no. Every organisation needs mechanisms and culture which enable authentic conversation (this does not mean that every decision needs to be unanimous).
Perhaps it doesn't matter that this one person feels this way. After all, staff take-up of the initiative seems pretty high, and the person I was meeting was an enthusiastic user of the points scheme.
Or this one person could be giving voice to concerns and needs which are shared more widely. If it's really the case that people find it very hard to tell colleagues that they disagree, then it will be hard to know.
Engage with resistance
Peggy Holman maintains that we serve our goals best when we engage with those who disagree and dissent. Seek out difference, listen harder, enquire into the needs and concerns which are being offered as a gift into the conversation, understand the common aims and see where a 'yes, and' response might lead.
Richard Seel similarly champions diversity as a critical condition for emergence of new ways of doing things.
Let's reflect together
What else might have been going on here? What could the scheme designers have done to avoid this? And what can they do now, to respond?
Let me know what you think...