Charming Your Way to Sustainability

The challenge for change agents who want to drive their institution towards greater sustainability often isn’t a lack of ideas, know-how, or even funding, it’s buy-in.  In my experience it’s 10% about what you know, and 90% how people feel about you that determines how successful you are. In that regard, creating change is rather like dating—you get more by exerting charm rather than force. The art of seduction requires the highest social faculties, including the ability to deduce what other people are thinking and using indirect methods to get what you want. So how does one charm one’s way to sustainability?

1. Do your research. Everyone knows that if you are looking to make a good first impression, it pays to do your research. In order to get the job, you probably had to learn a lot about the institution’s mission, goals, and culture. And within that institution, each department’s goals and culture may be quite different. Each person also brings his or her own agenda to the table. You’ll need to find out about all these layers as you approach an individual. What are his goals and priorities? What does she struggle with?  What do you have in common? How does he or she fit within the organization? The critical thing is, it’s not about you. As they say about dating, people enjoy talking about themselves more than listening to others talk about themselves. Be genuinely interested in the other person, ask questions, listen, and you’ll come off as charming and interesting.

2. Look the part. Just as in dating, it’s important to look the part. People trust those whose outward appearance match theirs. As an Asian American female in my early thirties, I look very young for my age. People regularly mistake me for a student or an intern. I have had to make a conscious effort to appear older. In general this means dressing more formally in better quality clothes. This also includes better posture, a deeper tone of voice, and a confident demeanor. We aren’t a guerilla student group anymore, and if you come to the Vice President’s meeting dressed like a hippie activist, you won’t be taken seriously.

3. Be a supremely good listener. Change agents are viewed with suspicion because they are seen as having their own agenda. Therefore it’s important to be a supremely good listener. What does good listening involve? It involves listening to the words said as well as all the other clues the other person gives about how she feels about what is being said. What can you tell about that person’s emotions from their tone of voice, their posture, facial expression? My former boss, Kris Phillips at Towson University, is a true talent in this skill. As he is speaking at a meeting he simultaneously gathers nonverbal cues from everyone in the room and adjusts his message to his audience. To help the other person feel like he is being heard, restate what you heard in your own words and confirm if you heard him correctly. Maintain an open posture and nonjudgmental facial expression to help the other person open up.

4. Choose the setting. Romance needs an appropriate setting. While candlelight and romantic music may be overkill, location matters when it comes to building relationships. Granted, some people you will only meet in their office or conference room, but it really helps to meet for lunch, preferably off campus where they may feel more comfortable talking freely. Happy hour is another option to get to know someone better. Find out about their personal life and get to know someone as a person, not just a coworker.

Remember when young housewives would fret about what to make for dinner when the husband’s boss and his wife came over for dinner? While young wives rarely go through this rite of passage today, there was a reason why it was. Because nothing builds relationships like that kind of hospitality. When I started at Towson, one of the Environmental Studies professors invited me and my husband along with another new faculty member to their house for dinner.  We wined and dined and had extended conversations until midnight. Needless to say it was very easy to work together after that. Perhaps this sort of thing is easier to do among faculty, but probably worth a try with those you really want to build a relationship with.

5. Be the most responsive and approachable person possible. To be a good lover, you need to be responsive. I find that as technology becomes more embedded in our lives, the expectations for response time gets shorter. Whereas it used to be acceptable to take 48 hours to respond to an email, now it’s 24 hours, max. Typically, instantaneous or near instantaneous responses will give the best impression, and is practically required if communicating with one’s boss. Words that sound neutral when spoken can be rather cool in an email, so if I’m initiating a conversation, I try to do it over the phone or in person and use email only to follow up. If I’m using email, it’s better to increase the warmth of one’s communication to compensate for the medium. Give all the information the other person needs to minimize the back and forth. If the other person requests something from you, try to do it as quickly as you can, especially if it’s a small task. If it’s more time consuming, clarify expectations and provide a timeline.

 6. Always ask for things in person. Now comes the part where you want the other person do to something for you. Maybe it’s to provide you with data, get their vote on a committee, or changing a part of their operations. Sending a request in an email not only risks annoying the other person (who is she to tell me what to do?), you also risk having the other person ignore or misunderstand what you want. Best to set up a meeting. After the meeting, summarize what you guys talked about in an email and send any documents or instruction, even if the other person agreed to email you. If meeting in person is not possible, then a phone call is second best to initiate the conversation.

 7. Be prepared. When one proposes a meeting, one should come with all the materials and be able to answer any questions the other party might have. Be able to put the problem into context and help the other person understand the problem before proposing solutions. Have a lot of data ready to make your case. My former boss was a pro at this. Once we had to convince the individuals responsible for recycling in our institution to make a greater effort, including tracking the quantities of waste and recyclables, buying new bins, new signage, and putting recycling bins in all classrooms where before there weren’t any. Before we even scheduled the meeting, I spent weeks  working with the interns compiling historic data on waste and recycables, counting the number of recycling bins in every building, mapping the locations of every outdoor bin, researching alternative bins, and working with a supplier to design and price an alternative bin. I put together a report of historic trash and recycling data, our data compared to peer institutions, the national average, and state mandates. We came to the meeting with data sheets and Powerpoint slides and proposals.  We gave them a comprehensive picture of recycling at the institution and provided knowledge that they didn’t even know about.

 8. Make it relevant to them. Of course, getting buy-in isn’t just about bludgeoning the other party with numbers. Seduction is required. Again, Kris was the master of seduction. He started the meeting by talking about how essential our stakeholders were to recycling at the school, and how they made a lot of positive changes since they’ve been on board. He ran through slides that showed the positive things that had been implemented by our stakeholder and by the university. He also acknowledged their limitations, such as their personnel cutbacks and the lack of a culture of recycling at the institution. He showed them the historic data, being very careful not to imply that it was their fault that performance was poor. Instead he emphasized that that the institution hadn’t really paid much attention to recycling but that that was changing. To make it relevant to our target audience, my boss focused on risk. “Some day we are going to be questioned about our performance,” he said, “and we are going to come up short. So I would like for us to get ahead of the curve before the university President or State auditor comes making inquiries. And instead of hoping that our numbers come out strong during the annual audit, I’d like for us to take steps to actively monitor and improve our numbers on a quarterly basis.” By not preaching about the environment and focusing on compliance, which was what our stakeholders cared about, he convinced them that they needed to care.

9. Make it as easy for them as possible. Getting others to acknowledge that there is a problem is just the first step. Next you have to convince them of the solutions. Of course, the best way is to have your stakeholders come up with the solutions that you had in mind. When you present to them the data, the gaps in performance, and the opportunities, they may very likely suggest the changes without prompting. Or if needed, you can prompt them with a gentle, “What are some ideas you have about what we could do?” Make it feel like it’s their idea, their decision.

Inevitably, at this stage, discomfort and resistance will bubble up: “Well, we don’t have the money to do that,” they might say, or “that’s going to require so much work and we don’t have anyone who could do it.” Remain respectful and sympathetic, but also provide the logical responses that will help solve some of their problems. In the recycling meeting, we told our stakeholders that having recycling bins in the classrooms wouldn’t be any more work for the custodians because we would remove the trash bins at the same time. “The recycling bins will be contaminated,” they responded. “Yes, but most of the waste from the classrooms are bottles, paper, and recyclables.,” we told them, “rarely you’ll get an apple core or a candy wrapper. And we know that a 10% contamination rate is acceptable to the recycling facility.” In the dining halls, we showed them pictures of the proposed recycling stations and their costs. “We could start with Student Union,where the situation is currently the worst.” we said, “we could install these recycling stations there.”

10. Have no expectations. If the object of your affection agrees to go out on a date with you, you wouldn’t expect your date to do the work of planning and making arrangements. So even if you get buy-in to do something, don’t expect that the stakeholders will pitch in. Make it clear that you are committed to doing everything you can to make the process as painless for them as possible. We told our recycling stakeholders, “we will work with the supplier to get the right bin; we will get funding from the department; we will get students to help place them all over campus; we will collect and analyze the data; we will do all the marketing and outreach. All you guys have to do is approve the order when it’s ready, and give us the raw data when we have the program up and running.” They couldn’t say no after that.

In another instance, I once convinced our stakeholder to do an electronic waste recycling drop-off day for the community. She scheduled the pickup with our electronic waste collection vendor and ordered the receptacles that would be put out to collect the e-waste. I booked the location, worked out the parking, created the posters, put them up all over campus and in the community, sent out the emails and put advertisements in the papers, ordered a tent, recruited volunteers. Several days before the event, I asked how long did they need me to be at the event. “We need you for as much time as you can spare,” she wrote back. It turns out they weren’t planning to help out during the event at all. I was annoyed by this, as I had expected that it would be a 50-50 effort, at least in terms of sitting under the tent on the day of. It turns out that they saw this as my event and weren’t expecting to help beyond what I needed them to do. I needed to take full responsibility for the event since I initiated it. The lesson: Have no other expectations.

11. Give credit. After your event or program has been successfully implemented, wholehearted thank your stakeholders and give them credit, and do this in as public a way as possible. In the press releases and blog posts, mention their names and contributions. Thank them in a mass email and at committee meetings. Get their superiors to acknowledge their team spirit. If your institution does this sort of thing, nominate them for an award. In addition, send them the final results of any products that they helped you produce, such as a report or press release about the event.

12. Do favors. Some times, if the object of your affection is oblivious to your charms, you may have to go out of your way to impress them. I say this with a straight face. For example, once my department was expecting a shipment of trash bins to for the new stadium that had just opened on campus. They arrived Friday afternoon before Labor Day, right before an event that was supposed to take place the next Tuesday. It wasn’t clear whose job it was exactly to do that as the building had just opened. It was late in the day and nobody else in the office was willing to take on the job. My boss made the decision to put the bins out there. So I spent the last hour before the holiday weekend unpacking and distributing 20 enormous 50 gallon trash bins in my high heeled shoes. We could have let the other offices deal with it, but our willingness to help earned us good will.

 13. Don’t talk about sustainability sometimes. No one likes a one-dimensional lover, someone who takes an interest in only one thing. Be a person outside of your sustainability promoting role. Talk about your other interests and activities. Take an interest in what’s going on at your institution and in the world. At meetings, don’t be the sustainability spokesperson who tries to inject sustainability into every conversation. Contribute to the discussion in ways other than sustainability. That way people won’t see you as special interest but as someone who has the whole picture in mind.

14. Have a difficult conversation. Just as in a romantic relationship, sooner or later you have to have a difficult conversation. Maybe you need to disagree with your boss, or reprimand a subordinate, or make an apology. In these situations it is essential understand your feelings and e able to express them in a non-defensive and non-accusatory way. Express your concerns but allow the other person to express their point of view, and always give them the benefit of the doubt. Try to frame your message in a way that helps the other person. And always take responsibility for mistakes and apologize when it is due. Easier said than done. But it is better to have that conversation rather than letting it fester. Festering resentments always lead to fall out in any relationship.

I admit that all of this is a lot of work on top of getting work done. It means going above and beyond to be courteous and helpful to other people. In the first year it is important to do these things so that you build a reputation for trustworthiness and open-mindedness. Work life balance will probably be a challenge. Over time, you may be able to allow other stakeholders to assume more responsibility. But investing in relationships and building buy-in from the beginning will make things a lot easier down the line, enabling you to be the effective leader you set out to be.

How do you charm your way to sustainability?


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