Working on the environment: How to motivate people who don’t really care.
On Thursday November 24, at 16.15, Angela will defend her thesis “Working on the environment” at the Academy Building at Broerstraat 5, Groningen.
Many environmental problems, such as global warming, urban air pollution, water shortages and loss of biodiversity are to a large extent caused by human behaviour. Organizations contribute to such environmental problems by using natural resources, raw materials, and energy. Increasingly however, organizations aim to reduce their environmental impact and profile themselves as environmentally responsible. But to increase environmental performance effectively, organizations need not only to change their production and organizational processes, they also need to encourage pro-environmental behaviour among their employees. Promoting pro-environmental behaviour (i.e., behaviour that harms the environment as little as possible or even benefits it) is believed to be crucial to reducing environmental problems. Hence, a key question is: what motivates people to engage in pro-environmental behaviour, such as preventing waste, recycling, traveling by public transportation rather than by car, or reducing energy use?
“To increase environmental performance effectively, organizations need not only to change their production and organizational processes, they also need to encourage pro-environmental behaviour among their employees.”
Until now, most studies focused on factors influencing private pro-environmental behaviour. Yet, people spend a major part of their time at work. In my PhD thesis, I studied people’s motivations to behave pro-environmentally at work. Do similar processes play a role at work as at home? Or does the organizational context make people consider other aspects when deciding whether or not to behave pro-environmentally?
Pro-environmental behaviour at work
In many cases, pro-environmental behaviour is more costly (in terms of comfort, effort or money) than behaviour that is more harmful for the environment. For instance, buying organic coffee is more expensive than regular coffee, or taking public transportation instead of the car is by many people perceived as less comfortable. This means that pro-environmental behaviour (at home or at work) generally implies a conflict between immediate gratification or financial gains and long-term benefits for the environment. Yet, despite this, many people are motivated to act pro-environmentally. My research shows that this is particularly the case when people are focused on benefiting the environment, so that they are less focused and influenced by possible inconvenience and financial costs of pro-environmental behaviours.
“Pro-environmental behaviour generally implies a conflict between immediate gratification or financial gains and long-term benefits for the environment.”
I proposed that the extent to which employees are focused on the environment depends not only on how strongly they value nature and the environment in general but also on the context in which decisions are made. First, the context can affect behaviour directly, by facilitating or inhibiting particular pro-environmental actions. For example, employees are probably less motivated to behave pro-environmentally at work when these options are very costly or very effortful. Simply said: when public transportation options are poor, employees are more likely to take the car. Second, the context can affect employees’ focus on benefiting the environment. This focus can be increased, for instance, when an organisation demonstrates its aim to realise corporate environmental responsibility, or when employees’ tasks make them focus on benefiting the environment.
I did experiments with participants in our lab and conducted research among employees of large organizations in the Netherlands and other European countries. The results of these studies suggest that employees act more pro-environmentally at work when they care about the environment, and when the work context makes them focus on environmental consequences. Importantly, it appears that in the right context, people with relative weak environmental values will act as pro-environmentally as those with relative strong environmental values.
One would expect that especially after a long work day (during which people for example have to overcome their impulses to procrastinate difficult or boring tasks), employees may be less focused on caring for the environment and more on immediate gratification (e.g., turning up the heater, travelling by car). Interestingly however, we found that strong environmental values and contextual factors that make people focus on the environment can even encourage pro-environmental actions after prolonged working on a strenuous task.
“It appears that in the right context, people with relative weak environmental values will act as pro-environmentally as those with relative strong environmental values.”
In sum, pro-environmental behaviour at work is important to reduce environmental problems. I argue that organizations have different possibilities to encourage such pro-environmental behaviour among their employees. First by enabling employees to behave upon their environmental values, for example by communicating, demonstrating and facilitating different types of desired behaviour. Second, organizations can motivate pro-environmental behaviour by strengthening people’s focus on benefiting the environment. In general, I think that potentially any contextual factors that make people focus on the appropriateness of pro-environmental behaviour can encourage pro-environmental behaviour at work. As an organization, implementing pro-environmental practices and showing that you care about the environment may thus not only decrease the organization’s carbon footprint, but also that of the employees working in the organization.
Want to hear Angela talk about her research? Watch this video:
Note: Layout of dissertation (incl. cover) by Saskia Elissen, artwork on cover by Creativeloads.com