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Defined the sustainability ambition for your organisation, but struggling how to bring it to life?

Understanding what drives behaviour and how to inspire to act  

The sustainability transition is perhaps the most urgent and complex issue of our time. Not only legislation and regulations force organisations to make sustainable choices, customers and employees are also increasingly demanding this. But how do you prevent ‘sustainability’ from being nothing more than a set of nice promises in your annual report? Or how could you actually cease the opportunity of becoming one of the front runners in sustainability and stand out in your sector?

The behaviour of your leaders and employees is key to success: they must make courageous choices, dare to take risks, and turn promises into action. However, changing behaviour is no easy task. Despite our goalsetting, good intentions, and the fact that we all recognise that there is no Planet B, people do not always succeed in making sustainable choices. Not even in organisations that have sustainability high on their strategic agenda.

What might be in the way of sustainable behaviour?

In this complex world, we make thousands of decisions every day. To quickly navigate this complexity, we often fall back to mental shortcuts, the so-called biases. These unconscious biases help us in making decisions quickly. On the other hand, they can also have unintended consequences, such as generalising too easily, judging too quickly or misinterpreting information leading to undesired action.

As the sustainability transition is hyper-complex, it comes as no surprise that these biases come into play in an organisational context. Perhaps you recognise one of the following examples when implementing your sustainability strategy:

  1. “Yes, laws and regulations requires us to take action to diminish our footprint, but if we don’t protect our revenue, we will not be able to contribute in the long run at all” Even though the long term is seen as important, in reality, decision making in the boardroom is often focused on fixing shorter term problems or ceasing shorter term opportunities. Strategic decision making on themes as climate change or social inequality which are not materialising just yet, can therefore be overruled by more pressing topics as revenue shortfalls or increasing costs. This is where the present bias comes to the surface: the human inclination to focus on short term rewards and effect instead of focussing on longer term results.
  2. “Contributing to sustainability? Isn’t that why we have a sustainability department?” Another example of biases: at work in organisations is the bystander effect. You can observe this in organisations when people assume that other people or entities are responsible for taking necessary action. Consider the role of the Sustainability department: leaders and employees often don’t feel responsible for implementing the sustainability strategy, because the sustainability officer will do it for them.
  3. “We’ve invested so much time in setting up this product-line, we’re not going to change it now to reduce our emissions” People don’t like to lose things. Therefore, we sometimes maintain our course even in the face of negative outcomes. The more we’ve invested time, energy, or resources into that course, the more likely we are to stick with it – even if it turns out that it has negative effects on the sustainability transition. This is what we call loss aversion. Consider a team that has worked for years on setting up a successful product line. Do you think that this team would be willing to make rigorous changes after it turns out that this product line doesn’t fit the new sustainability ambition of the organisation?

A guide to change behaviour in order to reinforce your sustainability transition

Somehow we need to overcome these biases to be able to change behaviours in order to be successful in our sustainability transition, but where to start?  Let’s take a look at the following three steps.

1. Define desired behaviour and understand why people behave like they do

Start with defining behaviours needed to successfully implement your sustainability strategy. Think of desired behaviours like ‘long-term thinking’ or ‘being open to new ideas’. To make a shift to these desired behaviours in a lasting way, you need to understand what is possibly blocking these behaviours as well as what encourages these behaviours. Only then you can create a context in which desired behaviour will thrive.

Some typical questions that you can ask yourself:

  • How do targets impact daily behaviour and how do sustainability targets relate to the more traditional targets? And when the pressure is on, what targets do prevail in our steering mechanism?
  • How is our decision-making process organised? How do we balance short-term and long-term thinking?
  • Which social norms in our organization hold us back in the sustainability transition?
  • Which exemplary behaviour is our leadership showing? Do they visibly act on the sustainability strategy?
  • To what extent are people intrinsically motivated to contribute to sustainability and do people understand how they can contribute?
  • And of course… what biases possibly prevent people from displaying desired behaviour

This root-cause analysis helps you to decide what topics need attention when developing your behaviour interventions and what behavioural insights are relevant to take into account. You can complement this analysis with a heat map of your organisation: In which departments or teams can you make the biggest impact or do you see the biggest gaps between desired and undesired behaviour?

2. Develop a clear and inspiring change story with concrete quick wins and longer term approach

With the root causes and hotspots in mind, you can draft a targeted behavioural change plan. In this approach you can address more formal changes such as: translating the sustainability strategy into the business strategy, into annual plans. Or, when relevant redesign of governance & target setting to embed sustainability in your core business and structure.

Next to these kind of formal changes, you should address informal changes for example by developing new leadership behaviours that reinforce the transition to a more sustainable organisation and setting new norms via leadership behaviour. Or by inspiring & activating your employees via nudges and gamification.

For formal as well as informal changes, it’s recommended to apply behavioural insights in order to make interventions effective. It’s also important to introduce some quick wins with immediate impact such as: what symbolic moves can we already make to emphasise our intent towards employees? Think of decreasing the amount of animal protein in your canteen or redesign travel and mobility policy on flying or make visible changes in your building that support your sustainability strategy.

To inspire your leaders and employees to act, it’s really helpful to translate this behavioural change plan into a compelling change story in which the why, what and how of the sustainability strategy and the behavioural change needed becomes clear and touches people into their hearts & minds. Bringing close the impact of climate change and loss of biodiversity and making the opportunities you see as a company tangible, can be really impactful in making people ready for change.

3. Use behaviour insights to accelerate and to ‘make it stick’

To effectively design and implement your change plan and change story, behavioural insights can be of great help. Make use of the following behavioural insights to maximise your impact.

  1. Create a group of sustainability ambassadors: we tend to evaluate ourselves by looking at others. It’s because of social comparison that if we’re surrounded by other people in a group who are taking action on climate change, we’re more likely to do the same.
  2. Involve employees actively in idea generation how to achieve the sustainability targets. This reinforces the endowment effect: when we own something (even an idea), we tend to value it more.
  3. Make use of gamification: people are more likely to change behaviour, when the change is easy, attractive and fun to do. In certain environments, adding a competitive element can really boost active participation.

Want to know more or need some help to get started or to design

your behaviour interventions to boost sustainability in your organisation? Please reach out to one of our experts

Marian Stellingwerf ( or

Corriene van Eck (

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