The enemy within: how to approach your sustainability-cynic colleagues

It’s another day in the office. Fights over the stapler, ‘elevenses’ gossip, passive-aggressive comments hissed in between the teeth, boiling in silence because your colleague is on Facebook while you are slaving away, talking to the boss instead of having a frank discussion over a disagreement…

Sound familiar?

Twenty years ago, the brilliant British comedy ‘The Office’ brought to people’s attention how vicious, pointless and damaging some relationships within any office can be. It highlighted how much office politics and obscure rules can drain a person’s creativity and willingness to work to their best ability.

We have all experienced it at some point: offices, especially open plan ones, can be a huge anti-climax for a person’s productivity.

A recent Harvard research study carried out on two Fortune 500 multinational companies, demonstrated that open plan working (compared to cubicle working) causes a huge slump in face-to-face interaction time among staff members, as well as a sharp fall in productivity. Use of email increases substantially. It could be that employees resent the ‘goldfish bowl’ effect of always being under scrutiny in an open plan space, and protect themselves and their privacy by hiding behind their screens. Add the thousands of small distractions you have in an open plan space, from people coughing to phones ringing, competing for attention, and you’ll see how office working is damaging the quality of your work.

Shall we add another element which is quite typical for us sustainability consultants?

If you are a sustainability consultant and work in a company offering an array of services (for example an architectural and engineering firm, where sustainability is one of the services on offer), you might experience the additional burden of having to fight your corner as ‘the Tree Hugger’. I have explored in other articles how developer clients are often disengaged from the sustainability argument, and how as a sustainability consultant, you have to develop a set of personal skills to become an influencer if you want to obtain results.

But when your own colleagues struggle to see why the company is investing in sustainability, it’s like having a wolf in the herd. Having to campaign for sustainability outside and inside the office is a huge drain on your brain power and your productivity.

Well, the good news is, you can win this battle, but you will need to put in the work. In a way, office relationships are much more delicate than client relationships. You have to spend eight hours a day with these people for the foreseeable future, so you’ll need to use your best diplomatic skills to get your point across.

Our Green Gorilla associate coach Anna Markovits, of Markovits Consulting, says that ‘difficult conversations’ can be approached in a systematic and logical way, and the style you choose depends on how much time you have, but also, on how much you care about the relationship you have with your colleagues and about the goals you have. The good thing is, there is no right or wrong way, and there are advantages in every style you decide to use.

There is a well-known model, the Thomas Kilmann model, which examines how we can flex our style, depending on the result we want to obtain.

If your productivity in the office is severely diminished by the lack of collaboration of your colleagues on an important and urgent project, and as such, you must resolve this issue now, then you might choose to use all your assertiveness and use the ‘competitor’ style. This implies that you are like a raging bull, forcing the other party to accept your solution; this style can be used when goals are highly important and you are not so concerned about the relationship. The merit of it is that you are advocating your position and its advantages, but you need to make sure you are not shouting them across the table, but rather arguing them in an articulate and logical way. It will be more difficult for your colleagues to argue back if you are using logic and respect, over emotions.

When there are time constraints, and your colleagues seem too big a mountain to climb, you could as well avoid the conflict altogether, but be mindful that you will be giving up your goals. You need to evaluate what you value more at the time, your goals or your relationship with your colleagues.

If you are not pressed for time, and want to maintain peaceful relationships in the office, then you have more choice.

You can try and be a ‘collaborator’, and use your best negotiation skills to enhance the relationship with your colleagues and target your goals: that means showing your colleagues the great value that sustainability is going to bring to the table, how it is going to add richness and meaning to their projects, how it is going to be a legacy of their work, how it is going to de-risk their project, and so on. This style is the preferred style when you want to find innovative, win-win solutions. In sustainability, collaboration is one of the key elements in achieving sustainable buildings. It’s a bit of a buzzword, and in reality, we still see a lot of silo working and big egos around the design table. But a truly collaborative approach has the best chance to obtain more sustainable buildings. Much of the strategic value of sustainability comes from the need to communicate with key stakeholders from the beginning of the project, including expert professionals, the client and your design team (the so called ‘Integrated Design Process’) and continually talk with and learn from them throughout, to anticipate and react to economic, social, environmental, and regulatory changes as they arise. This also has the positive effect of laying down the cards on the table immediately, and getting feedback and buy-in early on, as well as identifying potential issues before they happen, both in your practices and in the building you are constructing.

If your goals and your relationship with your colleagues have moderate importance to you, and you want a solution where both sides gain something, you can also ‘compromise’, reaching the middle ground between two extremes.

Finally, depending on how much you value your relationships in the office, and how little you value your goals, you might want to go all the way and accommodate your colleagues’ point of view. So if you want to avoid conflict in favour of harmony, and you are worried that discussing conflict will damage the relationship, you might want to choose to give up on your own goals. Although this style sounds like you are giving up everything, there will be a time in which you might want to use it, in favour of building goodwill and cohesiveness in the office.

The key in all of this is to prepare ahead if you can and to not let your emotions run the show for you, but rather take a conscious decision each time you find yourself in a difficult conversation with your colleagues. Ask yourself what you value most at the time: the relationship with your colleagues, or your own sustainability goals? Then choose rationally how you are going to approach them.

The next Green Gorilla Masterclass Programme starts in January 2019. Start the new year stronger and #unleashyourgreengorilla.

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