My Top Five Tips for Working With Others to Achieve Sustainability Outcomes

For this first post on the revamped blog I thought I’d dive into something that virtually all sustainability practitioners and change-makers will be and need to be involved with on a frequent basis. 

That is working with others to achieve sustainability-focussed outcomes. Including others who are not so well versed in the concept, theories and practicalities of sustainability, either because they’ve not given it much thought or, for the real fun stuff (!), are skeptical.

I do love a skeptic, by the way. They can teach us a lot about the messages we’re giving in terms of both the what and the how, and outcomes being striven for. They are a gift.  An oft-times spiky and painful gift. But a gift nonetheless. However, I digress and that’s a topic for another blog post. 

Back to the subject in hand!

Working with others. It may be in a workshop-type setting with many participants (as I’ve been working in recently with colleagues) or a smaller grouping, or one-on-one setting. A once off or an on going project. You may be setting out on developing a sustainability strategy, progressing into nutting out initiatives and KPIs, or deciding on actual on-ground implementation and activities. Whatever it is being discussed and regardless of size of setting, the principles of approach are much the same from my experience.

So then, here are my key learnings and “pearls of wisdom”, to coin a phrase, on working with others in working towards sustainability-focussed outcomes.


Understand who you’re working with

Before you step into any discussions do a little bit of homework. Where do they come from in their or your organisation? What are their respective backgrounds? What are their drivers? What are they trying to achieve? What is their level of knowledge and maturity around sustainability? How do they like to work? You adapting to their preferred style, and working with them rather than forcing your style on them will reap far greater rewards and more likely to make for a positive, fruitful experience.

Don’t assume that you know it all

As a sustainability professional or practitioners in a discipline with an interest in or strong sustainability driver, there is a fair chance you’ve a good deal of knowledge and experience in your field. Well, so do those you’re working with in their respective fields.

I can guarantee you there will be some piece of contextual information, some driver that you weren’t aware of. There will be ideas you’ve not thought of. Guaranteed.  Avoid the temptation to be the “know it all” and smother the input and discussion with preconceived ideas. Place trust in the people and the process – they might just pleasantly surprise you!

 Be a good tour guide 

No one likes to be told exactly what’s what and where all the time on a journey. Boring (OK, perhaps some do, and it may become obvious that a little more involved guidance is required).

Provide guidance, give information, educate, mentor and provide direction with possibilities for bifurcations. Encourage exploration of those. It might reveal a new direction or a direction that is most suited to your organisation or the particular ‘thing’ you’re working on.

Shut up and listen

This would have to be one of my favourites. There’s weight in that adage that we’re given two ears and one mouth and how it’s best to use them to match those proportions. Follow that principle. Shut up, listen, absorb, learn, synthesise, reflect, guide and repeat.

There will be ideas, approaches and ways of doing things that, given the chance, will come out into the open. Allow yourself to become aware of personalities (if you’re not familiar with those you’re working with) and aim to give everyone equal opportunity to contribute too.

Use plain English

Avoid the temptation to use jargon and acronyms and use sensible, standard English with familiar terms and phrases. Simplify concepts that are new to people, if necessary (but not too far, no one likes to be treated like an idiot!). And don’t go gung ho and overload with information. Yes, you know what you’re talking about, but see point 2!

Actively welcome inputs and challenge

Welcome challenge, welcome difficult discussions, in fact more than that, encourage it!  It might make you feel uncomfortable or frustrated, but challenges are a golden opportunity. There’s a question, a flaw or a gap in a solution or approach that needs addressing. Plugging that gap and making your ship water-tight makes for a greater chance of an idea sailing.

The challenge, the looking at things in different lights, from different view points, testing things and teasing things out is where genuine strength in a strategy, initiative, solution or approach is built. It’s also where true buy-in is achieved, with people feeling and knowing they’ve been listened to and understood. It’s where genuinely sustainable outcomes are forged.


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