What's it like from the inside?

You're trying to get your organisation to use sustainability thinking (social justice, ethics, environmental limits) to inform its strategy and practice. It can feel lonely. But you are not alone!  There are thousands of sustainability change makers just like you in other organisations.  What do your peers think and feel about this journey you are making apart, together? This survey gives a glimpse of how they see themselves, and the challenges they face. (Or, of how you see yourselves, since I expect some readers of this blog took part in the survey. Thanks!)

(Greener Management International has published the full article and you can read it here.  There are other fascinating pieces in the same edition, including a couple on labeling / certification, and on organisational change strategies.)

Here are some of the headlines.

Just a job, or part of a wider movement?

The people who took part in the survey are working for change towards sustainability either as (part of) their job or through some recognised network of champions.  But they do not see this as 'just a job'.  Over 95% of them agreed with these two statements about why they do this work.

I want to do work which is in line with my values and interests.

It is my contribution to a wider change in society which I think needs to happen.

Are they changing their organisations?

So how are they doing: are their organisations changing? People used the Dunphy scale to show where their organisation was when they joined it and where they think it is now.  They do indeed think that their organisations are changing, and mostly in the right direction!  There has been a clear shift towards the right of Dunphy’s spectrum, and those respondents who have been in their organisation for longer have seen it move further, in line with what you'd hope and expect.

How much change is needed?

What's the perspective of these change agents, on how much change is needed?  I asked:

To respond adequately to the challenge of sustainable development, how much change is needed?

These people think that radical, far-reaching change is needed in society as a whole, and substantial change is needed in their own organisations.

So the priority - where their skills and talents are most needed - is in the wider system.  Are they happy that their own organisations seem to be on track?   Not really.

Around 73% of organisational change agents for SD agreed or strongly agreed that they are dissatisfied with the pace and scale of change in their organisation.  These people agreed strongly that the pace or scale (and sometimes both) were dissatisfying:

I feel and I see that changes are coming in many parts of my organisation but this process is far too slow.

My organisation has a culture which is generally slow to change—it is large, bureaucratic and hierarchical.

They shared some fascinating perspectives on what it feels like to be a change agent in these circumstances.

A lovely dilemma: we know that change needs to be democratic, and based on others understanding the ‘whys’, to avoid trying another oppressive regime. Experience seems to indicate that this requires patience, but patience in the faith that our mere acts now, however small, may lead to an exponential explosion in the ‘right’ activities, just in time . ..  I now try to hold this tension very lightly and not let it distract me from what I’m doing day to day, in the moment. But I can’t pretend to be that successful at it . . .

With a perspective that this is a ‘human community’ not a machine! And that dissatisfaction needs to motivate (not frustration/anger etc.) and shape through positivity (not blind optimism or out-of-touchness) . . . And a personal sense of niche—what’s in my gift, power, influence etc. . . .

On being committed

We already know that our change agents see their work as 'more than just a job'.

How can climate change be just a job! I paraphrase Attenborough whose quote looms over my desk: ‘how could I look my child in the eye and say I knew what was happening to the world and did nothing’?

It is fantastic to feel passionate about my job. Having worked in this area, I now cannot see myself going back to a general management job even if that harms my promotion prospects.

It has to be a passion and something you believe in 100 per cent otherwise you can’t do the job properly, although I’ve had to learn to use the passion in presenting in a way that doesn’t scare the life out of people—in this country we still have a long, long journey.

You need to be really engaged in doing this and believe in it, if you are not the obstacles will be destructive for you personally and will demotivate you.

Does this 'life mission' attitude cause problems for them at work?  Actually, only a minority said that it had (17% with their boss, 25% with colleagues).  People said things like:

My boss is very ‘realistic’. He’s not big on challenging the current system etc. He has described his purpose as to be a ‘wet blanket’ on a lot of my ideas! At first I found this demotivating, but now I’ve tried to take the view that if I can persuade him of something, I can probably convince the rest of my organisation.

There is a danger that some may see some activities as a crusade, and so are not comfortable with this. Fortunately these people don’t fit the corporate vision and we can refer them back to the business case with the support of our top management. We recognise, reward and extol exemplar performance.

 Am I making enough difference?

The responses are fairly evenly matched, with slightly more people satisfied with the difference they are making, but still a large minority disatisfied.

Reflections from some respondents showed a rather grudging or partial sense of satisfaction:

‘Enough of a difference’—well no, but no point in beating myself up and trading on guilt/fear—do that for too long (somewhat disagree).

I would like to make more of a difference, but feel that I’m doing what I can. More support from senior business managers would have much more of a positive impact than they realise. And not just financial support, actually understanding sustainable development and making positive contributions to it (somewhat disagree).

Changing the system

Some respondents expressed a sophisticated appreciation of the emergent and messy nature of system level change.

I think the struggle is needing to be seen to have an answer to a ‘wicked’ question. This need for ‘expertise’ and ‘answers’ may be better served by admitting we don’t know and then working together on potential solutions.

This understanding of change as emergent and systemic is not always easy to explain to colleagues and it may be hard to justify or have a sense of progress when working within this frame.

The change will be continuing, as sustainability is not an end state but a continual journey of improvement against ever increasing public perceptions of what is expected. This is a hard sell within an organisation!

I tend to work with people who have a common view that we are a catalyst for systemic change and our role is to convene and enable others to take innovative action towards that . . . this view is not shared by everyone in the organisation and this is where the tension comes in and the need to translate our work.

We are stuck in a world where mechanistic, linear approaches are foisted onto complex, systemic problems. This is where the tension lies for those involved in bridging this.

Some conclusions

  • Our change agents believe that a very great deal of change is needed, to get on to the path to sustainability.
  •  They see change happening in their own organisations, but most of them do not think this change is rapid enough or seeks to go far enough.
  • Our change agents do experience tensions. The biggest is the concern about the pace and scale of change in their organisation, and the second biggest is the difficulty of finding solutions which have both a business case and a values case.
  • Some change agents find the paradigm of ‘solutions’ unhelpful: they see the change endeavour of which they are a part as systemic and emergent, rather than incremental and linear.
  • This in itself can lead to tensions: how to tell if progressis being made, how to keep up colleagues’ morale and how to sell this approachto colleagues.
  • Deciding the focus of change efforts and being a person who sees sustainability as ‘more than just a job’ are not a source of significant tension for most change agents, although many experience these tensions from time to time.

Fortunately, our change agents are not daunted by these tensions: they accept them as something which goes with the territory.  Keep on keeping on, please!

This blog is based on "What's it like from the inside? The Challenges of Being an Organisational Change Agent for Sustainability" by Penny Walker, published in Greener Management International 57, May 2012.


There's a fascinating account of the results of a much more in-depth piece of research by Christopher Wright, Daniel Nyberg and David Grant of the University of Sydney.  They interviewed thirty six people who were "were either in designated positions in major Australian and global corporations as sustainability managers, or were working as external consultants advising about environmental sustainability", which is a similar set of professionals as in my survey.  They distilled (or discerned) three distinct but related 'identities' : green change agent, rational manager and committed activist. They also found five narrative 'genres': achievement, transformation, epiphany, sacrifice and adversity.  Well worth a close read, especially if you are a 'hippy on the third floor'.