Behavioral scientist Reint Jan Renes: 'Expect resistance when making organisations more sustainable'

How do you properly involve employees in your sustainable ambitions? How does behavioral change work in theory and practice? Isis Weekenborg and Eva Louwerenburg of OchtendMensen discussed this with Ingelou Sybrandij, Sustainability Coordinator at the police, and Reint Jan Renes, behavioral scientist and lecturer Psychology for a Sustainable City at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam.

What is the role of behavior in making organisations more sustainable?

Reint Jan: ‘Technically, a lot is possible with sustainability. However, the success of the climate transition largely depends on our daily choices, our behaviour. If you do not pay attention to these daily choices in your policy and approach, you only take part of it with you. In our research we often talk about technological readiness and social readiness. In other words, the technology can be ready for it, but society must also be ready for it.'

In sustainability there is often a gap between attitude and behaviour. How do you ensure the step towards sustainable behaviour?

Reint Jan: ‘That is a fair question. It helps to make behavior concrete. What exactly are the behaviors we are talking about? What should employees do differently? As long as you don't state that, behavioral change will remain abstract. Once you've figured out what steps people want to take, look for the factors that influence those steps. There are three components that determine behavior change: internal capacity, motivation and opportunity. These three components must all be sufficiently present for behavioral change. Thus, behavior changes if (i) the person has the right qualities and skills to perform certain behavior (internal capacity); (ii) the person has a goal or interest in displaying certain behavior (motivation); and (iii) there is ample opportunity to make another choice (opportunity).'

How can you best fulfill the ambassador's role in behavioral change? Who would ideally initiate this behavioral change?

Reint Jan: “Sustainable behavioral change cannot take place without the support of authorities within the organisation. The intrinsic motivation to become more sustainable must be felt from above. That's where the action has to come from. An example of this is an internal newsletter in which a board member says something about the assignment and states what he or she will do differently. The organisational culture also plays a major role. There must be an opportunity to discuss the behavioral change that is part of making the organisation more sustainable. I sometimes make the comparison here with wearing mouth caps during the corona crisis. In the beginning people found it uncomfortable to wear masks, but some time later it became uncomfortable not to wear a mask. Social pressure plays a major role in this. The manager initiates this conversation, and there must be an opportunity to have this conversation together.'

Reint Jan Renes, behavioral scientist and lecturer Psychology for a Sustainable City at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam. 

What is the most persistent myth about effective behavioral change that you see in organisations?

Reint Jan: ‘That behavioral change should always be fun. Behavioral change and sustainability are difficult, which means that the process often cannot proceed without resistance. It is a myth that a change process can be done without hassle. An organisation must therefore accept that commotion arises. If it rubs, you know something is changing.”

"The process of behavioral change can't just happen in a fun way. Change comes with resistance and hassle." - Reint Jan Renes - Behavioral scientist and lector Psychology Sustainable City Hogeschool van Amsterdam

How do the police work on behavioral change?

Ingelou: 'At the police we do talk about the need for behavioral change to make it more sustainable, but never about what this means.' According to Reint Jan, it is then important to start problematising. Where is the problem? And can it be made concrete? Ingelou: 'The first step is to find out exactly what we want to change. We have to be specific about where we want to take steps. The police have been using the CO2 Performance Ladder for a while as an award tool in some tenders to encourage other parties to reduce CO2 emissions, and we are now also working on obtaining a certificate on the CO2 Performance Ladder to reduce our own CO2 emissions. As a part of this, we have mapped out the police's CO2 footprint and we now have a list of themes on which we can improve sustainability. We incorporate these results into the plans that are already in place and largely confirm the direction we had chosen.'

Reint Jan indicates that it can work well if possible to offer employees realistic options within these themes from which they can choose. What can colleagues do better and how do they take those steps?

Ingelou: 'Sometimes it's quite exciting to ask for change, because you don't know how employees will respond to it. For example, we do not know how much resistance there is among employees when the meat supply is reduced. That is why we want to see how we can not only take things off, but also improve things!'

Reint Jan: 'It requires customisation for each issue. What you can do with exciting subjects is to proceed in very small steps. In other subjects you can make changes immediately. In order to initiate the change, you actually have to take two routes. First, you make what you want easier, more fun and more attractive. In addition, you make the unwanted more unattractive and less present. If you only choose the first route and allow the unwanted to exist, there is a good chance that people will still show unwanted behavior. You can't get that behavior out without friction.'

“Make what you want easier, more fun and more attractive. Make the unwanted more unattractive and less present.” - Reint Jan Renes – Behavioral scientist and lector Psychology Sustainable City Hogeschool van Amsterdam

What are the sustainability ambitions of the police?

Ingelou: 'At the police, for example, we want to work on making the Police Academy more sustainable. I'm talking about making business operations more sustainable, 'nudging' and the content of education. During the Police Academy, people may be more willing to adapt. That way we can set new standards from the start. Participants in the Police Academy then take these standards with them to other places within the police force, because they work within different units.'

“At the police, for example, we want to work on making the Police Academy more sustainable. I am talking about making business operations more sustainable, 'nudging' and the content of education.” - Ingelou Sybrandij – Sustainability Coordinator at the police

Reint Jan: 'So there is a major educational aspect to behavioral change. This lays a foundation from which change is possible. It is only unknown what happens if someone goes to work outside the Police Academy. Can they translate the sustainable lessons into work? And are they willing to do that? I think it is very nice to continue this plan for the Police Academy on the one hand and to have managers spread the same philosophy on the other. If managers do not propagate this, the chance of change is minimal. The aforementioned triangle of internal capacity, motivation and opportunity indicates that all three elements are needed to effect change. Leaders can provide the element of opportunity and emphasize its importance.”

How do you deal with resistance when making an organisation more sustainable, such as the police?

Reint Jan: ‘You have to take resistance very seriously and map it out well. Behind resistance are often worries. For example, it can be unclear to employees what is expected of them, or they are afraid of losing something. It is important that you take over and monitor those concerns. Let them find out for themselves what a realistic step is and what they do want to change. For example, they own the transition process themselves and you take the concerns seriously.

That doesn't mean it's all very easy. As a sustainability manager, you keep an eye on the change the organisation wants to achieve. You keep an eye on internal capacity, motivation and opportunity. Give yourself the space to dive into that 'crime scene investigation' and let go of the end point for a while. In short; find out exactly what is going on, map it out and check with the employees whether those findings are correct. That way, you keep the conversation open and you acknowledge the concerns that arise.”

The original of this article originally appeared on OchtendMensen ('Morning People') are young university-educated professionals who are committed to challenging projects at organisations, in the role of environment manager, project/program secretary, project leader and advisor. They participate in the organisation of the client to bring about innovation, change or improvement.