• Peter Watts
  • 14 April 2015

Five things I have learnt about making sustainability training work

International Workplace Associate, Peter Watts, MSc. MIEMA, works as a trainer and a consultant, and in his most recent blog, talks about his love for the training aspect of his role.

Of all the satisfying work I undertake working in sustainability, I find training one of the most enjoyable.

You know that people who you are training are almost always going to be using the knowledge gained in the session for making change. In effect, you are helping them to create their own transformations in their own organisations.

Over the years I have developed and delivered professional environmental training for qualifications; lectured at University and led strategy sessions for business leaders, as well as helping organisations with behaviour change campaigns.

Through delivering a wide variety of content, style and learner outcomes, there are some common themes that I would like to share because they could be useful to others.

1. Empower for change

‘Can I make a difference?’ Some of the issues can be overwhelming – for example, issues such as climate change or global biodiversity loss can often make people switch off with a certain sense of ennui due to the feeling that they are not going to be able to have a meaningful influence on an individual or even organisational basis.

I think the best thing a trainer can do is to recognise this, talk about it and then show how individual, organisational or national/international action can be effective – chiefly if we can influence others in the process. I usually say that we should ‘appreciate some things are out of our control, but we can have an impact on them even if we cannot change everything directly ourselves’. For example, how our electricity is generated or international agreements on climate change or deforestation.

Teaching ways in which communicating sustainability issues is vital – because following a training course, people are more often than not expected to have to back and create change in the workplace.

2. Different strokes

….for different folks…. The business, sociological and personal case for acting and working more sustainably is multidimensional, but not everyone is going to be excited by the same things. I went to a lecture a while ago where a Yale Professor talked about the importance of recognising people’s different ‘moral tastebuds’.

Some people may be in your session because they have been ‘strongly encouraged’ to be there. One of the best things in the world for me is seeing someone who goes through a training course converting from cynic to change-making optimist – or at the very least having a broader view of the facts around environmental issues.

Some people are motivated by the ethical and moral case for preserving the environment for its own sake, others by having a habitable environment for future generations. Then there are those who simply see it as totally illogical to damage the environment around us. It is important to appreciate the impact of peers and their influence.

3. Break it up

I cannot believe that you can still go on training courses and sit there for an eight hour day with somebody dictating to you from lengthy wordy PowerPoint presentations. I was on a course myself a few weeks ago as a delegate with a well-known organisation whose delivery method was exactly this.

I personally like to throw it back to the delegates; ask them some questions; test their understanding, bring out their stories to share. It is great to make the use of the range of personalities and life experiences in the room.

Better still; plan your training session with lots of adaptable activities. Get people on their feet, use videos and audio of different viewpoints, group activities, debates and discussions. Remember that people learn differently and adapt your strategy accordingly. For example, some may be kinaesthetic learners (do-ers) where movement can help. In this instance, an activity where they can get off their feet will benefit them more.

Other learners may respond better to listening and seeing different types of materials such as videos and radio. I have found that the best courses are those with a range of types of learning activities.

4. Bigger picture

‘Explaining the reasons behind things’ is one of my mantras!

Describing the why as well as the how. For example, perhaps a client has to reduce their carbon footprint, but what environmental issues is this making a difference to? Perhaps we should have a policy for auditing sustainability risks in our supply chain assessment, but what are the sustainability risks and why are they important? We have to implement ISO 14001, but what are the underlying issues that it is dealing with?

All too often I find people have undergone some training for implementing change, but don’t understand the environmental and social issues underlying the reason for change – issues such as climate change or preservation of natural capital. When people understand the ‘why’, the ‘how’ becomes easier to implement.

5. Relatable

People respond to seeing people like them doing inspirational things – it becomes relatable.

I always try and build in lots of case studies to my sessions and adjust them to the audience (including from their own type of organisation and from other sectors completely).

Some of the theory around sustainability issues can sometimes seem a bit abstract, so it is vital to make it tangible with real-world examples. Using good case studies can be really motivating because it shows that working in a different way can be done. The end game is for your delegates to feel that they can create, implement and influence change.