The psychology of sustainable workplaces

Can we grow organisations and work that support a sustainable world? The answer comes from understanding our deepest psychological drivers.

Niki Harre
Niki Harre: sustainability is about acknowledging how our brains are hardwired.
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Let’s play the word association game. Money, status, competition, power and possessions. How do those words make you feel? Family, love, happiness, friendship and connection. Do these words elicit different emotions?

Niki Harré, a psychology professor at the University of Auckland would bet they do. Niki’s PhD student Ties Coomber, ran an experiment on 560 Stage 1 psychology students to test the idea.

In their tutorial groups, the students completed a computer survey that asked them to list what they valued most deeply. They were then shown a word cloud that they were told represented the values offered by 1000 participants in an earlier study. Half were shown the real word cloud that featured words such as those in the second set. The other half were shown a false word cloud that featured words similar to those from the first set.

The group shown the false word cloud featuring money, competition, power prominently were often dismayed. Said one student: “I was shocked that the words ‘love’ or ‘family’ weren’t in large letters.” Another said: “It made me sad and disheartened to see that greater value was put on material goods and money.” When told the truth, the students sighed with relief.

Practical support

The exercise illustrates a key idea in Niki’s research with community groups and organisations. She has built on the work of philosopher James Carse and applied it in practical ways to support people to engage, live and work together in a sustainable way.

Carse’s big idea was that in life we play two types of game, the finite and the infinite. The Finite Game, which features the values, aspirations and goals usually associated with the first set of words, is about winning the game of life as an individual. The Infinite Game, associated with ideals and values from the second set of words, brings about connection, meaning, and a deeper purpose and leads to a kinder society based on shared values and concepts.

Niki Harre
Professor Niki Harre: we are hardwired to play the Infinite Game

If an organisation or workplace’s values and purpose are derived through the lens of the Infinite Game, Niki says people will engage better, be more cooperative, creative, innovative and, last but not least, happier. Workplaces and organisations not thinking in this way are ignoring fundamental psychological drivers we all share.

Niki says we are biologically hardwired to play the Infinite Game, even though the Finite Game often feels paramount in the world of careers, ambition and rising house prices. Niki is also interested in how to motivate people to act for the common good, the ultimate infinite play.

First, it is important for people to find a way to contribute that makes them happy. “By happiness I mean the positive emotions like joy, contentment, novelty and stimulation. Happiness means we want to grow, feel satisfied with ourselves and feel that others approve of us.”

Happiness is not an end in itself, she says, because it fosters important qualities in all of us, creativity, cooperation and openness to change. When we do work that brings us joy we feel we are on the right track and we persist. It is very hard to do the right thing if it makes us fearful or is deadly dull.

Markedly better

Niki cites research that shows teams in workplaces with higher rate of positive comments than negative ones are more productive. When a group of people were shown a humorous short film, they were markedly better at creative problem solving than a similar group shown something boring.

Another study revealed how if women completed a questionnaire asking them to list ways they had been positive to people, they were more willing to accept and act upon potentially threatening information about their health because they felt better about themselves. By being in a more confident space they were open to consider changing their lifestyles.

“This is a paradox of human nature. When we feel good about ourselves, we are more willing to consider how things might be done differently,” she says. 

...in a littered environment, 32 percent of people continued to drop litter. When that environment was cleaned up, the rate of littering dropped by more than half.

Second, she says we are social creatures, an attribute we demonstrate by imitating and mirroring each other. This starts from birth. In a famous study (Albert Bandura, Stanford University, 1961) children watch an adult behaving aggressively to a bobo doll, (the doll-like toy with a low centre of mass that rocks back up when knocked down). When the children were left alone with the doll they mirrored the behaviour. A similar group of children shown an adult playing quietly with the doll, did exactly that when they left on their own.

Adults also imitate each other, consciously and unconsciously, a behaviour known as the chameleon effect. Our drive to be social and the mimicking that results offers clues to how we might encourage people to shift towards more sustainable social practices.

Behavioural trace

For example, Niki refers to a study where in a littered environment, 32 percent of people continued to drop litter. When that environment was cleaned up, the rate of littering dropped by more than half. “People were responding to the behavioural trace of what is normal.” If an organisation actively models sustainable behaviour and practices, it becomes the social norm. The more it is done, the more people do it, and the more engaged they feel.

Finally people want to be good. What good means in this context, she says, is informed by studies of children’s moral development in multiple countries. The common threads are two key principles: we should protect the innocent and we should be fair in our dealings with people.

When there is perceived injustice it is hard to motivate people to act – why should I give up driving my car to work if other people continue? Why should we buy from Fair Trade suppliers and pay a slightly higher cost if the rival business goes for the cheapest option and makes more money as a result? This is why level playing fields are important, Niki says.

People also respond to appeals to protect others – look at the donations that flowed in after the attacks on the Christchurch mosques in 2019 or the Australian bush fires this year. “By framing our actions as a way to protect innocent others, they have a deeper purpose and motivation.”The lessons are clear for any business or organisation. “If they can align with common and universal values, if they can do it authentically, their people will be engaged.”

Story by Gilbert Wong

Research portrait by Billy Wong

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