Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

12 Apr 2016

How We Create Change: Is what we’re doing working?

Posted by Michael Keating

By Eric Hellman

This is the fifth in a series of articles on how we can create change more effectively by my associate, Eric Hellman, co-founder of the first Blue Box recycling program and co-author of the Canadian bestselling book, “Leadership from Within.”

In my last two articles, I described how “human nature” shapes our thinking and behaviour. In the next few, I’d like to share some examples of how we try to create change, the unexpected outcomes we get as a result, and some ways we might do it differently.


The Past 50 Years

The people I’ve known who work for environmental and social change began with high-minded ideals and a strong motivation to make the world a better place. They did their best to raise awareness of the problems, provide good information, and encourage others to take action across a wide range of issues, including waste generation, energy conservation, nuclear power and nuclear proliferation, politics, poverty, AIDS, smoking and world peace. I’ll include myself in their number. So what happened?

Sometimes, people heard the message and decided to change; and that has been both encouraging and fulfilling. However, when politicians, civil servants, business leaders or the public didn’t act the way we wanted, we felt frustrated and tried even harder. We began telling people how they should change; and if that wasn’t enough, often used fear or guilt to motivate them. Still no action? Then we applied more pressure. We pushed governments through the media, write-in campaigns, protests or demonstrations. We pressured companies through economic measures such as boycotts or through public shaming. Each time, the more people didn’t do what we thought was right, the more strident and outraged we tended to become.

Why? Because that’s how you create change. Everyone knows that. If the positive doesn’t work, you go negative. You may not want to, and people might not like it, but it’s what you have to do to get others to act. Pressure, anger, force. And that’s what we’ve have done for hundreds of years, in politics, social change, management, parenting and relationships. The question is, how well does this approach really work?

Looking back at the last 50 years of environmental change, as Michael Keating did in his first article in this Values and Sustainability series, the results are definitely mixed. Without question, significant progress has been made in many different areas: the creation of environment departments, legislation on environmental issues, advancements in recycling, cuts in acid rain, reforestation and protection of the ozone layer, to name but a few. Yet it doesn’t seem nearly enough. The problems have continued growing faster and larger than the solutions we’ve created. So, too, have our levels of frustration and desperation, as the changes we believe are needed have not happened.

What’s less obvious, but also growing, is the social backlash to change. Many people are increasingly resistant to the changes we are proposing. From carbon taxes (let alone a post-carbon shift) to bike lanes or more revenues for public transit, or going further afield to issues such as increasing affordable housing, refugee/migrant immigration or changes to our voting system, the “conservative” mindset among us is growing as well. People are feeling scared, threatened, and tired of being pushed to change, and they are pushing back. Their anger and frustration is now being brought to bear in ever-growing examples, including “Ford Nation” (a reference to Rob Ford’s support in Toronto), the Tea Party, and the Trump ‘rebellion’ in the U.S. Republican presidential nomination race. We are seeing a widening of political and societal divisions – from polarization of views to increased rancour – and less willingness on both sides to hear, consider and work with opponents.


Reflecting on Our Approach and Results

As a “child of the sixties” and an early advocate of political and environmental action who also used the put-on-the-pressure approach to change I look back on the past five decades and wonder, “What did we miss? Why weren’t we more effective in creating the changes we hoped for?” I’ve only recently begun to understand what may be behind this, so bear with me as I attempt to articulate it.

In wanting to create “positive” change, we often use “negative” means to try and achieve it. While this frequently succeeds in getting people to change their behaviour, it also has unintended and unwanted consequences, such as the resistance I mentioned above. Why is that? When we express high ideals and caring values – and then use fear, guilt or force to bring about change – it sends people conflicted messages. It says: “We want a kinder, gentler world…but if necessary, we will use force to get it.” Or, “I care about you…but if you don’t do what I want, I will get angry and punish you.” As a result, we get conflicted or mixed results. People may act the way we want, but they also begin to mistrust us. Some resent being told what to do; others feel manipulated or controlled. And most begin to suspect our motives. (Think of your own reactions when someone tries to tell or sell you something.)

In spite of good intentions, this approach to change actually triggers the “fearful or separate mindset” in others, which I described in my previous articles. In this state, people don’t feel safe, and react defensively. They see things in terms of “my interests vs. your interests.” They also become less open or willing to change – the exact opposite of what we actually want. To see this process in action, just try using pressure or guilt on your “significant other” or child tonight – and watch the results you get. Less change, not more, right? The same thing happens when we judge them, criticize their behaviour, or continually focus on problems. Instead of motivating them, these approaches tend to shut others down out of resistance, fear or self-protection, or being overwhelmed.


“Not an Accusation…”

Let me say emphatically that this is NOT meant as an attack on those who’ve used these ways to get others to change. I’ve done it a thousand times; we all do, at one time or another. And that’s perfectly logical and understandable, because it’s the culture in which we were raised.

Consider how many ways this happens. For example, in places of worship, where leaders have spoken of love but controlled their flocks through guilt or fear. In the military, where subordinates are ordered how to act and severely reprimanded if they don’t. In political parties, where members must vote the party line. In governments, where departments compete for money and lose it if they don’t spend it. In corporations, where leaders set the agenda and staff have to follow it, regardless of personal values. And in families, where parents tell their children to “do what you’re told, or else!” Command, control and authority, fear of punishment and competition for scarce resources. These are some of the fundamental tenets of conduct in our society.

Not surprisingly, they’re also how we treat ourselves. When we make mistakes, don’t meet our goals or perform as well as we’d like, who is our harshest critic? If we compare ourselves to others and fall short – because we weigh too much, don’t make enough money, or “aren’t good enough” – how do we treat ourselves? The self-abuse that many of us inflict (yes, on ourselves) can be enormous. It may seem necessary to motivate us to do better; yet often it has just the opposite effect.

When seen in this light, it sounds kind of crazy, doesn’t it? “Go negative to create a more positive society.” “Criticize people until they become willing to change.” Or “attack people you oppose, in order to get them to agree with you.” (One of my favourite Herman cartoons expressed it this way: “The punishment will continue until morale improves.”) But to see it even more clearly, think of it this way. If someone wants us to change – and then tries to convince, pressure, guilt or control us into doing it – how are we likely to react? Yet we do this to others, and ourselves, each and every day.

So how might we do it differently? Here are two possibilities:

1) Suppose we start to consider the “consciousness” behind behaviour. That is, look at the impacts of our words and actions on other peoples’ thoughts, feelings and beliefs. If these are what motivate or drive human beings to do what we do, maybe it can help us better understand how to foster future change.

2) What could someone do to help us become more willing to change, or so engage and inspire us that we would want to? If we can discover what that would be for ourselves, perhaps it will also give us insights into how we can work with others. I’ll explore that more in my next article.


Eric Hellman is a communications coach and change consultant, who lives in Vancouver. His newest work is called Conscious Change. For more information, see www.consciouschange.info or contact him at erichellman@rogers.com.

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