For effective engagement: hitting the reset button
May 1, 2017

Change is hard for all of us, including those working for change. 

Recent events have forced many of us into the painful act of carefully examining our tactics and strategies. Such examination is essential for being effective. However, we need to be asking ourselves: are we going as far as we need to, when it comes to challenging our assumptions about the basics of human behavior? 

Organizations tend to rely on well-worn theories of change, often based on implicit assumptions when it comes to how humans behave. I call this the “theory of change muddle.” This is where various approaches and strategies – from social marketing to values-based messaging to behavioral economics or the latest storytelling trend – merge together into a muddle. This often leads to a generalized approach based on “levers,” “drivers” and the need to “mobilize” or “get” people onboard. 

If we scratch the surface, however, many of these theories, whether it’s storytelling or values-messaging, have either divergent or outright conflicting underlying assumptions about people. These approaches also contain implicit attitudes about the people we seek to reach, usually revealed by our language (such as the “disconnected” or the “hard to reach”).

Despite the fact that we now know more than we ever have about the nature of the human psyche and how we cope (often badly) with change, anxiety, uncertainty and ambiguity, many of us base our work on the notion that people are self-aware, transparent and values-driven. Our research often presumes what you see if what you get: if people rate climate as a concern in a poll or not, it’s taken at face value. 

This is simply not the case. 

The messier reality – quickly revealed when we learn to listen as openly as possible – is that many people are conflicted, contradictory, unconscious and anxious. Many of us are deeply ambivalent about the increasingly urgent news about declining species, the warming climate, what we eat and how we get around. This is not the same as not caring, or holding different values. 

Contrary to the overriding fixation in most energy, climate and environmental efforts, this is not about values. This is about how humans construct a life full of competing needs, desires, aspirations and worries, and how easy it is to allow our limbic system – brain structures that govern fear, anxiety and survival – to drive the bus. 

The limbic system is currently on overdrive in our country. 

A fear-based mode expresses itself with othering, targeting enemies, denial of real threats, and avoiding at all costs any hint of shame, guilt or blame when it comes to our current predicament. In that scenario, it doesn’t matter if people value health, economic viability or nature, because values are higher-functioning entities. 

This is the reason why a focus on values alone is not sufficient. Values belong in the pre-frontal cortex, where we can reflect, strategize, imagine, and yes, clarify our values. And this involves addressing our fear-based, short-term survival neural networks—in the limbic system. Meeting the limbic system with a values-based message is akin to being tone-deaf. Would you ask someone who is fearing for their security, if they “value” something? No. You would ask them what do they need, now, to feel safer and more secure, before you can engage in the conversation you really wish to have. 

If even a fraction of this were to be taken on board, we would immediately be redesigning our research, strategies and tactics differently. This means inviting new and different people to the table, beyond polling, surveying and focus group experts. We would pause to rethink the use of social marketing, such as ambassadors or champions, heavy reliance on celebrity endorsements, and coming up with yet another values-based messaging platform. We would be designing our research methods to really capture the deeper layers of anxiety, ambivalence and aspiration, by using more conversation-based approaches. We would be funding projects that leverage insights already gained from ethnography, marketing, psychosocial research and innovation sectors. We would not be focusing only on what people “view” or how to “mobilize,” but on what people are experiencing – where the anxieties, ambivalence and aspiration live, or what I call “The Three A’s.” And to do this, requires rethinking our deeply held, even cherished ways of doing things. It means being open to new and emerging practices, and collaborating with new kinds of practitioners from different disciplines. It also means recognizing that we are all in this together – that our lessons learned are what are going to help us protect and preserve the vulnerable human and nonhumans amongst us, who are depending on us right now to show up and be effective. 

Perhaps most importantly, if we take this opportunity to truly hit the reset button, we would encourage each other to compassionately yet ruthlessly examine our assumptions about people, why we behave as we do, and what we bring to these interactions. We would be as honest as we can with ourselves about our frustrations, sadness, anger and distress over what appears to be retrograde and harmful trends. We would push ourselves to be ruthlessly open to new ways of thinking and doing things. In so doing, we would be supporting each other to be our best, our most creative, and ultimately most effective. 

Whether it’s the rapid decline in the price of solar and wind power, the continued success of energy efficiency, or the growth of electric cars, clean fuels and public transit, it is clear that we are reaching a tipping point for the clean energy economy. The only question is whether we can collectively accelerate solutions and cut pollution fast enough to stem the worst impacts of climate change.




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Author Bio

Renee Lertzman is an internationally recognized climate strategist and researcher, working closely with organizations to apply psychological insights for effective engagement. She has been teaching and researching in the field of climate change, environment, energy and psychology for over two decades. You can learn more about her work at