Measuring Sustainability in Organisational Culture

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The original version of this article appeared in Awake’s ‘Wake-Up Call Nov/Dec 2014 newsletter.

graph mapping SCI results

It’s been a big year of applying psychology to sustainability, and especially for implementing the Sustainability Culture Indicator (SCI).

SCI is a survey tool for measuring sustainability within your organisational culture. It has been developed so that organisations have a standardised measure of employee attitudes and engagement in sustainability, can track their progress over time, and can compare their results to their peers. It is designed to bring some rigour and metrics to the ‘soft science’ of culture and engagement in sustainability.

I’ve recently spent some time reviewing the SCI results for over 2000 employees of a variety of organisations, including local councils, multinational corporations, NGO’s and more. The SCI was even recently adapted to implement in a number of schools in Melbourne. In the future I’ll be writing up the results for peer-reviewed journals, but in the meantime I thought it would be timely to share some of the initial observations.

Firstly, a very brief overview of the SCI. It measures 13 enablers of sustainability within organisational culture. These are divided into individual enablers and organisational enablers.

The individual enablers are the psychological and attitudinal factors which employees need to engage in sustainability, such as relevant beliefs, responsibility, knowledge and control.

The organisational enablers are mechanisms which support employees to engage in sustainability, such as leadership, processes and facilities.

The presence of high levels of these enablers indicates sustainability is well embedded in the culture. The SCI also asks survey respondents to indicate the frequency they undertake a variety of behaviours such as recycling and minimising energy use, both at work and home.

Across the organisations which have completed the SCI, the individual enablers which tend to score highest are Beliefs about Sustainability and Personal Responsibility for it. That means people believe sustainability is important and consider it to be something they should personally play a part in. That forms a great basis for organisations to embed sustainability in their culture, as they don’t need to convince too many people it is important.

The lowest-scoring individual enablers tend to be Sustainability Knowledge and Perceived Support. This indicates that one of the big barriers to embedding sustainability is people knowing how to do their jobs differently in order to be ‘more sustainable’, while they also don’t always feel like sustainability is part of the culture and norm in the organisation. Given the role of social norms in promoting sustainable behaviour, this latter finding demonstrates a need for organisations to ensure people feel sustainability is something valued and reinforced in the culture.

In terms of organisational enablers, those which scored highest across all those surveyed were Strategic Commitment and Innovation. These indicate that the organisations in question are doing a good job of defining and communicating their sustainability goals, and that they effectively support new ideas for sustainability.

The least highly rated organisational enablers are Rewards and Recognition, and Processes. People often feel like they are not explicitly rewarded for engaging in sustainability, while processes are regularly misaligned with sustainability goals (printing policies and processes are the most commonly cited of these in the written comments).

When it comes to on-the-job action, the sustainability-related behaviour which people most commonly report is shutting down their computer at the end of the day, followed by recycling. Respondents are less likely to report choosing low-impact transport options and influencing others for sustainability.

Outside of work, energy and water conservation behaviours are the most commonly undertaken by respondents. Transport again features as an uncommon behaviour, along with making environmentally-friendly food choices.

One common perception is that people are more likely to undertake sustainability-related behaviours at home than they are at work. The story goes something like ‘people are not paying the power bill at work, so they don’t bother saving energy’. The SCI results indicate that this may indeed be an accurate assumption in the case of most behaviours measured. As shown in the graph below, people are more likely to conserve water, energy and other resources at home, as well as influencing other people. The exception is recycling, which people report more frequently at work. This may be due to the likelihood that workplaces are often set up to make recycling simple for people. It may also be something to do with the role of social norms in recycling behaviour.

All the differences below are big enough to be statistically significant, although we should also bear in mind that these are self-reported behaviours (and possibly overstated).

One area of great interest is the correlation between enablers and behaviours. Identifying which enablers have the strongest link to behaviours can help us prioritise our efforts to support and engage employees for sustainability.

For a start, all of the individual and organisational enablers measured by the SCI correlate significantly with behaviours at work and at home. This means that, for instance, the higher we score for Beliefs about Sustainability, the more likely we are to engage in such actions as recycling and conserving water.

The individual enablers with the strongest correlations with behaviour are Responsibility and Perceived Support. This tells us that those who have personal convictions aligned with sustainability, and perceive that those around them are supportive, are most likely to engage in sustainability-related behaviours.

Of the organisational enablers, the analysis shows that Job Responsibilities and Activities to Embed Sustainability are the strongest predictors of behaviour. Those most likely to adopt the relevant behaviours are clear about how sustainability fits into their role, and perceive the organisation’s efforts to educate them to be effective.

In summary, making a deliberate effort to engage people in sustainability on an attitudinal and psychological level, as well as supporting them with education, clarity and supportive processes, is most likely to result in an organisation which has sustainability truly embedded in its culture.

If you’d like to chat about implementing the SCI in your organisation, I’d love to hear from you. Email

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headshot of Tim Cotter

Tim Cotter is an environmental and organisational psychologist with extensive experience in organisational culture change. Tim founded Awake in 2005 to provide resources and leadership in applying psychology to sustainability to support organisations and communities to develop a culture of sustainability.  Visit for more info, or download the Sustainability Culture Indicator brochure.  


Wicked Problems, Wicked Delight

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and change is nature's delight - Marcus Aurelius quote on forest background

I am of the generation of the wicked problem. At twenty-seven, most of my life has been lived amid global complexity, connectivity and uncertainty. I’ve watched the world become rapidly more connected, and I’ve cut my academic teeth on issues such as climate change, global poverty and viral pandemics. Like many, I’ve felt the need to be more than a passive observer, and to work towards a world of human and ecological wellbeing.

In 2007, I was working as an environmental officer at an Australian university. I’d been in this role for years, and was disillusioned about my ability to effect the kind of change that I believed in and that my job required. My task was to encourage social change and thus establish new patterns of resource consumption – a job more complex than the boss liked to believe. I was frustrated by the inaction of such a highly educated population and needed a new approach, something to energise both me and the campus community.

Around this time I attended the Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability (ACTS) conference and there, among papers on the implementation of energy monitors, recycling infrastructure and duel-flush toilets, I attended a presentation on delight that fundamentally changed the way in which I relate to complex problems. Delight. We change by delight. I could feel my ears prick up and my mind begin to whirr.

The woman who gave this presentation disappeared, much like a genie, and my efforts to trace her have been fruitless. I hope my paraphrasing does her words justice. She said: I used to be an activist. An angry activist. I used to yell at people, bang my fist at meetings and use any chance I had to make a point. I would abuse meat-eaters at barbeques and social events, taking any opportunity to rant on about something. Suddenly people stopped inviting me to parities. And I like parties! So I began making cake. Gorgeous, in-season, local, organic, beautiful, ethical cake. And people started inviting me to parties again. To quote St Thomas Aquinas, ‘we change by delight.’

Aesthetically pleasing, ethically sound and absolutely delicious: people were more willing to engage with a person peddling pleasure than with an approach based on anger and guilt. It struck me that although I believed in the devastating consequences of environmental inaction, I didn’t need to be sombre in my approach. And I didn’t need to change the world by laying weight on other shoulders.

A couple of years after attending the ACTS conference, I returned and spoke with some of the environment officers from other universities. Talk turned to previous conferences, and I discovered I had not been the only one significantly moved by the idea of delight as an approach to change. While we may never know whether the presenter has continued to bring about significant change through delight, the significance of her impact on us makes her idea worthy of further exploration.

I believed so strongly in the potential of delight as a tool for change that I began a PhD on the topic, and headed straight to the books for some sort of accepted definition. My favourite was an amalgamation of various definitions and came from Joel Davitz in his book The Language of Emotions(1969): a combination of joy and surprise.

Combining joy and surprise in practice can be found on The Fun Theory website, the introductory blurb claiming that the site is ‘dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.’

A favourite example is an attempt to get more people to take the stairs, rather than the nearby escalator. The stairs are converted to a working keyboard and people’s reactions videotaped. The footage shows people gravitating towards the stairs and tentatively stepping on the keys. Realising they make a noise, serious, suited business people started jumping up and down the stairs, slowly making their way to the top. The experiment saw a two-thirds decrease in people using the escalators, and facial expressions showed that the experience was joyful, surprising and also a bit different. Much like the guerrilla gardening movement, the piano stairs are about subverting a norm in order to bring about change.

Yet it would be perhaps naive to think that joyous surprise is the simple answer to complexity. I’ve come to realise the importance, indeed the unavoidable nature, of the difficult, the sad and the scary, all of which are fundamental components of wicked problems. Delight on its own is far too simple a concept for such complexity and paradox. As John Law states in the opening sentence of After Method: Mess in Social Science Research (Routledge, 2004), ‘if this [indicating a complex and messy picture] is an awful mess…Then would something less messy make a mess of describing it?’ I believe delight has the potential to create a far richer approach to wicked problems than merely a naive belief in joyful surprise.

Einstein is often famously quoted as saying, ‘we cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that created them.’ As I see it, the only hope of taming the slippery and mischievous beast that is a wicked problem is to beat it at its own game. Wickedness and delight are, in themselves, slippery, surprising, unruly, harsh, edgy, mischievous and playful. By using these characteristics as strengths for strategically challenging existing problem-solving habits, and normal behaviour, I believe we might have a chance at understanding and better coping with wicked problems. Wicked delight captures this as an unexpected experience in which old perspectives and norms are suddenly viewed in a new and different light.

Arthur Koestler, famous for his anti-totalitarian novel Dark Noon, also wrote The Act of Creation (1964), setting out what he sees as the three main elements of the creative process. One is the importance of humour in creating new technologies, and also in facilitating new ways of seeing the world. Koestler describes humour as the result of two different planes of understanding clashing. Humour is essentially the experience of paradox exposed: two rational truths are presented in a context in which they both maintain their truth and in which truth cannot actually be possible.

Let’s say I have an uncle, a much-loved uncle, who has long been an authoritative, well-dressed and rather intimidating figure in my life. I am also used to seeing my nieces and nephews in neck-to-knee swimsuits, designed to protect delicate young skin from the sun. Both of those things are normal to me and I accept them. Imagine my surprise, then, at seeing my serious uncle take to the beach in a tight-fitting wrist-to-ankle sunsuit and froglike goggles – the joy and surprise at seeing this normally serious person become, in my eyes, a figure of fun. The humour in this is the combination of two normal things in a way never before experienced by me. This clash of expectation is what generates the humour in the situation, and is thecreation of a new way of seeing – to me, the creation of a small new truth. My old perspective on the possibilities of my uncle is challenged. What else might he be capable of?

To my uncle this would be no laughing matter and there would be an element of wickedness in my laughter. Koestler acknowledges that in all humour there is an element of nastiness and that a laugh is always, in at least some small way, at the expense of another. Yet the truth held within this laughter is potentially of great value. Thus learning about humour helps in the exploration of wicked delight as a valuable tool for addressing wicked problems.

David Engwicht, an artist and social innovator, draws on elements of wicked delight – intrigue and uncertainty – in his work on traffic. In Mental Speed Bumps: The Smarter Way to Tame Traffic (Envirobook, 2005), he argues for the removal of road markings, lines and signs, an approach at odds with traditional traffic-engineering solutions. Engwicht works on the assumption that speed signs, road bumps and other on-road instructions and intrusions leave the motorist feeling secure and certain about the conditions he or she will encounter. By removing these clues, the driver is required to learn to expect the unexpected and to slow down. And to further encourage an appreciation and awareness that something surprising may happen, Engwicht asks people to gather in the streets: on their doorsteps, in the front garden, on the footpath. Participants find themselves engaged in unusual activities such as eating breakfast in the front yard, putting up decorations or creating a temporary living room in a car space.

Motorists begin to slow down in order to try and understand what is going on, as well as to ensure they are able to react to the unexpected, which suddenly seems much more likely. Walking becomes an interesting and social way to travel, and cycling safety improves. Engwicht finds ways of encouraging the unusual and the different.

A shift towards safer and more sustainable transport is one step towards addressing the many small parts that make up wicked problems. Such innovative and counter-intuitive solutions need to be applied in all contexts, as well as at the higher conceptual level. By approaching the need for change through the lens of wicked delight, thinkers may be able to do away with some of the mental lines and signs that shape our thinking and help us avoid the confronting and the unexpected.

One of the most insidious elements of wicked problems is the way in which factors that contribute to them are often imbedded into the everyday. Elizabeth Shove, an English sociologist, uses the history of washing practices to highlight how consumption of resources is determined by social norms. Once, bathing was considered a risky business, something likely to increase your chances of catching illnesses through the skin. Given this, water and energy consumption was considerably less than it is today – and in a lecture on this subject Shove asked who in the audience had not bathed that day. In a full lecture theatre only one or two people sheepishly put up their hands. While only bathing every second day is not going to kill us, it can be social suicide to admit you have not washed in the past twenty-four hours.

The sense of being judged by others, of being constrained in our actions by our need to conform, is one of the greatest barriers to change. Teenagers are taught not to give into peer pressure, yet most of us spend our lives doing just that. A recent study investigated the factors that influence whether or not a hotel guest will reuse their towels. A number of different signs were tested near the towels: one that pleaded with people to reuse the towels for environmental reasons, one that simply said ‘please reuse towels’ and another that said ‘most people in this hotel reuse their towels’. It was the last that had the greatest positive effect on towel reuse. (Of course, when asked, none of the guests put their actions down to the behaviour of others.)

These examples highlight the power of social norms in influencing patterns of consumption and the importance of getting us to reflect on our actions. This is not always comfortable or easy. The street artist Banksy embodies elements of wicked delight in his work, and is world renowned for his confronting and cheeky tactics. His signature art involves rats depicted spilling toxic waste, climbing into forbidden areas or parachuting into unusual places. To some Banksy is an inspiring artist and social change activist, while to others he is a nuisance and a vandal. A masked rioter hurling a bunch of flowers, two policemen locked in passionate embrace, the elderly playing bowls with bombs, beautiful landscapes on the ‘segregation wall’ between the Palestinian Territories and Israel: is this wicked? Is it delightful? Does it make you stop and think? Banksy’s art constitutes a belief in the impossible, craftily exemplified in a quote on the back of one of his books: ‘”There’s no way you’re going to get a quote from us to use on your book cover” – Metropolitan Police Spokesperson.’

What’s more, many of the greatest social revolutions have been a result of breaking rules. The women’s liberation movement put forward a new story for the way in which the world could work – a story in which women were credited with equal intelligence and capability. This was a fundamental challenge to the way in which the majority of people viewed the world at the time. Similarly, additions to scientific understandings of the world have often been the result of accidents, of new ways of framing situations and a challenging of fundamentally embedded ways of knowing the world. What would have happened if the drip from Alexander Fleming’s nose hadn’t accidentally fallen into his petri dish, laying the groundwork for his discovery of penicillin? What if Archimedes had failed to glance at the dirty smudges on the bath’s edge that caused him to realise the water was rising as he lowered himself in?

In confronting wicked problems, notions of normal need to be challenged on a number of fronts. Research shows that simply telling someone about a ‘better’ behaviour is not likely to bring about a change in action. So, how about wicked delight as a tool for rule-breaking, and rule-breaking as a necessary requirement of solving problems. What about viewing rule-breaking as an exercise in practical imagination? Could wicked delight inspire us to think in different ways, across many disciplines, about change?

Inspired by one woman and her talk of luxurious and ethical cakes, I was able to view a tired, and tiring, issue in a new light. I came back from the ACTS conference and decided to fundamentally change the way in which I approached my work. I took pleasure in defying my boss and throwing my work plan out the window – taking a seemingly less serious approach to the issue at hand. Rather than banging my head against a brick wall I was going to work on something delightful, something celebratory and something that would actually bring about change.

As a sustainability officer, it was my job to nudge people out of their existing patterns of behaviour and encourage them to act more sustainably. This is only possible if people are able to envisage and create new ways of being. Celebrate Sustainability Day was the first result of my affair with delight. It was a day to recognise just how far my university had come; to celebrate the research on sustainable technologies, the student groups, the corporate sustainability achievements; and to encourage further engagement from staff and students. On the day approximately thirty stalls were set up, displaying information about sustainability activities on campus. People could test-ride electric buggies, listen to local music, eat local produce, participate in a clothes swap and enjoy fruit smoothies from an erratically functioning pedal-powered blender. Stalls focused on protesting were asked not to attend – it was a day of possibility.

Students began volunteering on the spot, keen to be a part of the event for even just an hour between classes. It was an energising activity for many of them. The day was a huge success and our office gathered a further ten committed and enthusiastic volunteers. To those in power it had perhaps seemed a frivolous use of finance, yet the new perspective – sustainability as fun, lively and exciting – enabled the university community to engage with the idea.

While the event itself may not have fundamentally altered social practices, it was a chink in the armour of disengagement – not to mention a way of maintaining my own enthusiasm. This came from changing the rules of the game and rethinking my work plan, reframing the traditional approach to social change. The value of delight as a tool for coping with wicked problems lies not in its ability to provide an ultimate solution to the complexity of the problems, but in its value as a lens for focusing on change. There are no simple answers to wicked problems; rather, we need to begin to feel comfortable exploring new approaches, trying the unusual and creating opportunities for the unexpected to happen.

As a person who cares deeply about social and ecological sustainability and justice I’ve struggled to work out my contribution to the morass of complex arguments, emotional responses, political blocks – a slowly thinning knife edge on which the fate of the world sits. I’ve wanted to hide in despair, join the sea slugs on the ocean floor, run off to join the circus. Yet by being honest, by acknowledging the slippery nature of wicked problems and embracing their social and ecological complexity, I can throw myself head-first into the ring of a different kind of circus. The challenge of managing, or perhaps more realistically coping with, wicked problems may be the greatest challenge of human existence. It is an exciting and terrifying time to be alive – a time well worthy of our delightfully wicked attention.

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This essay was first published in Griffith REVIEW 32: Wicked Problems, Exquisite Dilemmas as Wicked Problems, Wicked Delight 

millie rooney headshot

Millie Rooney is a human being hoping to make a difference. She is a qualitative social scientist currently employed as a Research Fellow and lecturer at the University of Tasmania.

In 2014 Millie completed her PhD ‘All give and no take? Social norms, suburban life, and the possibility for sharing in Australia’. She is a passionate about combining her nerdy interest in social norms and the unspoken protocols that shape everyday behaviour, with practical on the ground change. This has led to her ask unsuspecting neighbours for cups of sugar, run free community pancake events in the park, help little old ladies cross the road and to challenge herself to sometimes be a leaner and give others the opportunity to be generous.


Strategic Reasons Why Values Matching is a Good Idea

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square box not fitting in round hole

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Different framings for action on climate change and nature/environment gain more or less traction across the UK population depending on whether they mainly just appeal to Pioneers, or also to Prospectors and Settlers. This could be described as uplift for propositions, gained by ‘values matching’.

However some pundits, academics and campaigners argue that matching action-propositions to people’s values is not a good idea. For example writer George Monbiot has recently published two blogs ( and in The Guardian, both based on the work of group ‘Common Cause’, which takes this position.

They (invariably Pioneers) are concerned that it might reinforce ‘the wrong’ (Prospector or Settler) values. They fear that this, in turn, might affect ‘society’s values’. The ‘wrong values’ they identify are typically about a desire for power, acquiring material wealth, and ‘self-interest’. Better then to try and change people’s values so that they are ‘good’: altruistic, global, benevolent, universalist?  From this mind-set, matching offers or asks to people’s values is a bad idea if it includes the ‘bad’ values. They do not accept that, as Saul Alinsky famously said, ‘with very rare exceptions, the right things are done for the wrong reasons’, and that ‘it is futile to demand that men do the right thing for the right reason – this is a fight with a windmill. It then follows that they do not accept that the right outcomes can sometimes only be obtained by getting support of people who do not share your own values.

I do not agree and have written about why in previous newsletters. This can become a tedious and tangled debate. Common Cause and their supporters like to talk about ‘extrinsic’ and ’intrinsic’ values, whereas CDSM divides any population into three Maslow Groups (Settler – Security Drive; Prospector, Outer Directed; Pioneer, Inner Directed, and within them, 12 Values Modes). It is not always clear whether we are talking about the same thing and certainly not in the same terms. Both sides acknowledge the work of Shalom Schwartz but draw different conclusions from it. CDSM’s approach is mainly empirical; Common Cause is more theoretical. We believe the evidence suggests Maslow was right and that if people meet their unmet needs they change (in improving conditions/ good life experiences, from Settler to Prospector to Pioneer). Common Cause seems to think not. 

In addition, Common Cause seems to advocate talking about values to change them, whereas we have found this will tend to lead to disagreements which entrench values differences rather than change them. We have found that people are largely unaware of their motivational values: they feel like ‘common sense’. Common Cause wants to talk about values to change behaviours. We think that you cannot do that very easily, if at all, and it is more effective to change the behaviours. And so on.

Myself, the people at Common Cause and Mr Monbiot are all environmentalists. We probably have a similar idea of how the world really ought to be in terms of environmental quality and impacts. We just have a different view about how to get there.

All that said, I usually try to avoid this debate for two reasons. First, unlike some of the potential antagonists, nobody is paying me to take part in it and I can’t afford the time. Second, the main proponents of the ‘improve the people’ argument are themselves articulating a set of values most clearly expressed in the Concerned Ethical Values Mode, and no amount of analytical evidence is likely to make any difference. Although they might not accept it, what I have seen of the many research projects we have conducted using the CDSM ‘Values Modes’ system convinces me that they are driven by a largely unconscious need to find ‘ethical clarity’ and so will want to reject any route to change which is not ethically the best possible option.

I’d suggest there are a number of practical strategic reasons why values-matching is a fundamentally sensible strategy in the circumstances faced by most campaign groups today.

1. The Maths

Most campaign groups are dominated by Pioneers (Inner Directed) and are operating in societies where the majority of people do not share their values. In China, for example, over 70% of the population measured by the CDSM values segmentation (which includes use of Shalom Schwartz’s internationally verified question-set) is Outer Directed i.e. in CDSM’s parlance, Prospectors, which groups like Common Cause and advocates like George Monbiot would see as having ‘extrinsic values’.

This ‘Maslow Group’ is the largest in every one of ten societies we have surveyed for Greenpeace, except the US.

The ‘Pioneers’ on the other hand are in a minority in every country and in all cases (except the US) make up less than a third of the population. To take a rudimentary example, if there was a need to gain majority support for an idea, just appealing to ‘Pioneer’ values such as self-direction, universalism, benevolence, ethics and a global view of the importance of nature, would be a recipe for failure. There are of course many instances in which a majority of some sort is a desirable objective.

2. Signals of Feasibility

In democracies, and indeed in societies which are not ‘properly’ democratic but where rulers and decision-makers are aware that they need to have or appear to have ‘popular support’, many important policy decisions depend on showing that an idea is broadly supported, whether actively so, or simply accepted without much opposition. Achieving this typically means going beyond the Pioneers.

In contrast, generating a values-divided public debate generally sends the opposite message: that this is an intractable problem. Instead campaigns need to generate signs that the change they advocate is feasible, achievable and so offer decision-makers some sort of popularity reward.

3. The Decision-makers

Not all decision-makers are Pioneers. In the UK, for example, most people working full time for companies or other organisations are Prospectors. Nor are all politicians or officials Pioneers. For an idea to feel right and work for them, it needs to resonate with their values. Being told they are wrong-people and should adopt your demands based on your conflicting values is not likely to work but it will give them confidence that your proposal is wanting.

4.  The Doers

Contrary to what some Pioneers may assume, some of those most likely to act to support the changes they want are not Pioneers but Prospectors. Of these, the Now People Prospectors are the ‘bridge’ for new ideas or behaviours between the Pioneers and the Prospectors: they pick up these ideas from the ‘Transcender’ Pioneers.

This transfer is the point at which ‘mainstreaming’ takes place (as an idea becomes fashionable before becoming ‘normal’).  A good example in the UK is renewable energy. For decades almost the only people actively advocating or adopting it (eg. solar) were Pioneers. Now it is being mainstreamed by Prospectors, in businesses such as Gentoo Group (whose values we have surveyed – it is a mainly Prospector but very ‘green’ company with 27,000 solar panels on 2,000 properties in Sunderland and plans for 3,000 more solar homes). While Pioneers tend to agree with ‘good things’ but are so interested in debate and ideas that they may not do much to implement them, Prospectors are the principal doers and implementers of change. Once change mainstreams, Settlers too take it up. So, for example, you can now find homes sporting both solar pv and UKIP posters (UKIP’s core voters are Settler), like this one.

5. Outcomes

Campaigns should be planned backwards from analysing situations and identifying a strategic objective, and then working out a critical path of changes that will get you there. It’s along this path that the need to engage particular audiences, in ways that work with them, arises. Campaigns should not be projected forwards with rhetoric and polemic to advocate a desired outcome.

Many of the ‘moral hazard’ outcomes posited by critics of values-matching only arise if there is no strategy for change beyond advocacy and proselytizing. In reality, rather few campaigns can be won that way. An instrumental campaign built around a strategic critical path should have an objective which, once achieved, makes a strategic difference: a political decision between countries in the form of a treaty; an increase in the sales of a ‘good’ technology to the point where market forces make it inevitable that it will become dominant; or a change in infrastructure or a system that then determines which behaviours are possible or likely. In such cases, the motivations behind the actions become, at best, secondary.

6. Time and Resources

Even if it were true that people strongly driven to achieve power and material wealth were permanently locked into that values set, and even if you could ‘change’ these people without them meeting those needs (neither of which we think is true), campaigners dealing with urgent problems often do not have the time or resources to adopt a change-through-changing-the-people strategy. We have actually measured the values of the populations noted above. In China there are 26.4% who are ‘Golden Dreamers’, the people who most espouse the material + power values that some campaigners see as very ‘wrong’. In India 29.3% are Golden Dreamers and in the UK 15%. In all three countries they are the largest single Values Mode. This means that there are about 360m Chinese and a similar number of Indians who some see as having very much the ‘wrong values’.

Even if there was a way to ‘change’ these people (and some advocate 1:1 encounters), it seems somewhat unlikely that campaign organisations have the means to do so. Take for example, getting a car, or a ‘better’ car. For Golden Dreamers this is likely to be a priority. Persuading Indian Golden Dreamers to want their ‘next car to be an electric one’ rather than a fossil-fuel driven one is not difficult: we know from asking them that 68% say ‘yes’ (probably because ‘electric’ is now ‘fashionable’, seen as desirable and a sign of success). Persuading them to forgo a car altogether would be a very different matter but, from a climate-change point of view, electric cars are a change that the world needs to see, and quickly.

Finally, it sometimes seems that those opposed to ‘values-matching’ think that it means advocating that people should consume more or be more ‘materialistic’. The examples given in ‘Broadening the Appeal of Environmental Action through Values-Framing Uplift’ show that this need not be the case in practice. 

For example, the proposition ‘It is vital to introduce young children to nature’ out-scores ‘we should all care for nature’ by attracting more agreement from Settlers and Prospectors (ie. better matches their values). But this is because it is ‘about children’ and being a (good/better) parent rather than just promoting ‘nature’ and implying personal action. It is not gaining power or material wealth which is the promise here but social success and reinforcement of self-identity. For these groups, being-a-parent does this whereas global ethical universalist care for nature does not.

Similarly, ‘There’s still time to address climate change if we all make quite small and easy changes’ better matches Prospector and Settler values than just asking them to be ‘bothered’ and ‘concerned’ about the environment because agreement requires less self-agency. That’s another way to better match Prospector and Settler values but also does not require endorsement of ‘materialism’.

The main implication for Pioneers is one of self-restraint. Values matching requires them not to lecture or harangue Prospectors and Settlers to see things as Pioneers do, for example to embrace ‘huge and difficult’ changes with little evidence that they can be achieved, or to put ‘nature’ before their children.

headshot of Chris Rose

Chris Rose is an ecologist and communications and campaigns consultant based in the UK, a former director at Greenpeace, campaigner with WWF International and Friends of the Earth, author and host of Campaign Strategy, a free campaign planning website. This article was originally published in Campaign Strategy’s June 2014 Newsletter and has been republished with the author’s permission.

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Brand Revolution

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Russell Brand facing camera, head down, sunglasses on, hands held up, forefingers extended

The kind of people who can assemble huge crowds into one spot will be the major influences on mass culture in the next decade.

– Jim Morrison

Unless you’ve been on a digital detox, you’d have found it hard to miss Russell Brand’s Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman in your feed. It has gone viral across social media, with the video footage alone attracting an average of a million YouTube views a day since it was published on 23 October (currently 6.5 million and rising).

Prompted by Brand’s appointment as guest editor of this week’s issue of London’s political and cultural magazine, New Statesman, the interview began with the question “Russell Brand, who are you to edit a political magazine?”

Brand’s subsequent disembowelling of the status quo of politics, economics and corporate influence on social and environmental breakdown has set the internet alight with discussion – some of it on the points Brand made, and predictably, much of it ad hominem attacks on the messenger.

It’s one thing to read the transcript or blogs commenting on the interview, another altogether to watch it:

In the following interview excerpt, after Brand admitted he doesn’t vote, Paxman asked him “well how do you have any authority to talk about politics then?”

Brand: “Well I don’t get my authority from this pre-existing paradigm which is quite narrow and only serves a few people. I look elsewhere, for alternatives, that might be of service to humanity. Alternate means alternative political systems?”

Paxman: “They being?”

Brand: “Well I’ve not invented it yet, Jeremy. I had to do a magazine last week. I’ve had a lot on me plate. But I say, but here’s the thing that you shouldn’t do. Shouldn’t destroy the planet, shouldn’t create massive economic disparity, shouldn’t ignore the needs of the people. The burden of proof is on the people with the power…”

Paxman: “…if you can’t be arsed to vote why should we be asked to listen to your political point of view?”

Brand: “You don’t have to listen to my political point of view. But it’s not that I’m not voting out of apathy. I’m not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery, deceit of the political class, that has been going on for generations now. And which has now reached fever pitch where you have a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system so voting for it is tacit, complicity with that system and that’s not something I’m offering up.”

Paxman: “Well why don’t you change it then?”

Brand: “I’m trying to.”

Paxman: “Well why don’t you start by voting.”

Brand: “I don’t think it works. People have voted already and that’s what’s created the current paradigm.”

Paxman: “When did you last vote?”

Brand: “Never.”

Paxman: “You’ve never, ever voted?”

Brand: “No. Do you think that’s really bad?”

Paxman: “So you struck an attitude before, what, the age of 18?”

Brand: “Well I was busy being a drug addict at that point, because I come from the kind of social conditions that are exacerbated by an indifferent system that, really, just administrates for large corporations and ignores the population that it was voted in to serve.”

Paxman: “You’re blaming the political class for the fact that you had a drug problem?”

Brand: “No, no, no. I’m saying I was part of a social and economic class that is underserved by the current political system. And drug addiction is one of the problems it creates when you have huge, underserved, impoverished populations, people get drug problems. And, also, don’t feel like they want to engage with the current political system because they see that it doesn’t work for them. They see that it makes no difference. They see that they’re not served…”

Paxman: “Of course it doesn’t work for them if they didn’t bother to vote.”

Brand: “Jeremy, my darling, I’m not saying…the apathy doesn’t come from us, the people. The apathy comes from the politicians. They are apathetic to our needs, they’re only interested in servicing the needs of the corporations. Look at..ain’t the Tories going to court, taking the EU to court, because they’re trying to curtail bank bonuses? Isn’t that what’s happening at the moment in our country? It is, innit?”

Paxman: “Yeah.”

Brand: “So what am I gonna do, tune in for that?”

Paxman: “You don’t believe in democracy. You want a revolution don’t you?”

Brand: “The planet is being destroyed, we are creating an underclass, we’re exploiting people all over the world and the genuine, legitimate problems of the people are not being addressed by our political class.”

Paxman: “All of those things may be true.”

Brand: “They are true.”

Paxman: “But you took…I wouldn’t argue with you about many of them.”

Brand: “Well how come I feel so cross with you? It can’t just be because of that beard, it’s gorgeous.”

Paxman: “It’s possibly because…”

Brand: “And if the Daily Mail don’t want it, I do. Because I’m against them. Grow it longer. Tangle it into your armpit hair.”

Paxman: “You are a very trivial man.”

Brand: “What you think I am, trivial?”

Paxman: “Yes.”

Brand: “A minute ago you were having a go at me because I wanted a revolution now I’m trivial, I’m bouncing all over the place.”

Paxman: “I’m not having a go at you because you want a revolution, many people want a revolution, but I’m asking you what it would be like?”

Brand: “Well I think what it won’t be like is a huge disparity between rich and poor where 300 Americans have the same amount of wealth as the 85 million poorest Americans, where there is an exploited and underserved underclass that are being continually ignored, where welfare is slashed while Cameron and Osbourne go to court to defend the rights of bankers to continue receiving their bonuses. That’s all I’m saying.”

…within the existing paradigm, the change is not dramatic enough, not radical enough. So you can well understand public disturbances and public dissatisfaction, when there are not genuine changes and genuine alternatives being offered. I say when there is a genuine alternative, a genuine option, then vote for that. But until then, pffft, don’t bother. Why pretend? Why be complicit in this ridiculous illusion?”

Paxman: “Because by the time somebody comes along you might think it worth voting for, it may be too late.”

Brand: “I don’t think so because the time is now, this movement is already occurring, it’s happening everywhere, communication is instantaneous and there are communities all over the world. The Occupy movement made a difference. Even if, only in that, it introduced, to the popular public lexicon, the idea of the 1% versus the 99%. People for the first time in a generation are aware of massive, corporate and economic exploitation. These things are not nonsense. And these subjects are not being addressed. No one is doing anything about tax havens, no one is doing anything about their political affiliations and financial affiliations of the Conservative Party, so until people start addressing things that are actually real, why wouldn’t I be facetious, why would I take it seriously? Why would I encourage a constituency of young people that are absolutely indifferent to vote? Why would you? Aren’t you bored? Aren’t you more bored than anyone? And you’ve been talking to them year after year, listening to their lies, their nonsense. Then it’s this one that gets in, then it’s that one gets in but the problem continues. Why are we going to continue to contribute to this facade?”

Paxman: “I’m surprised you can be facetious when you’re that angry about it.”

Brand: “Yeah, I am angry, I am angry. Because for me it’s real, because for me it’s not just some peripheral thing that I just turn up to once in a while to a church féte for. For me, this is what I come from. This is what I care about.”

At first I thought that Brand was running rings around Paxman (or someone in a G-T state and someone in a D-Q state missing each others’ points).

But on reflection, I don’t think that Jeremy Paxman was in any way taken down or apart by Brand – I suspect it was a well crafted piece of theatre in that Paxman played Devil’s Advocate with Dorothy Dixer questions that enabled Brand to take flight with his responses, which I believe to be completely genuine (not ‘acting’ as some of his detractors have claimed).

In this short clip, Brand has encapsulated and communicated in minutes – MINUTES – what activists, concerned citizens and change agents everywhere, whose work spans a wide array of issues, have been on about for so long, in a way that has both gripped people and resonated with them.

Most importantly of all, it is because this came from Russell Brand that it has ignited. It hasn’t come from an academic, a political figure, an activist. It’s come from popular culture, which by definition has access to a greater diversity of antennae.

The messenger matters, as illustrated by this comment sourced from one of many Facebook threads:

Actually I think Brand has broken something in England. For this to be aired on the BBC is a biggy. The kids on Facebook are posting it and at last the mainstream have heard it. That’s THE most positive thing that’s been done for years. I marched in Manchester against the annihilation of the NHS the other week along with over 50,000 other people and it got two minutes. Nobody in London noticed. This will be noticed.

Like any change agent who sticks their head above the parapet, Brand has copped flak for his outspokenness. Across social media, this seems to have coalesced into several key grievances:

1) he pointed out everything that was wrong, but didn’t offer any solutions

Given the sum total of the greatest thinkers and do-ers in the world have yet to do this, or get their ideas traction, or to tipping point, it’s hardly a fair accusation.

Or as Brand eloquently rebutted it:

Jeremy darling, don’t ask me to sit here in a bloody hotel room and devise a global utopian system.

2) he’s criticising the 1% and profit, yet his net worth is $15 million

This is an ad hominem attack ie. it seeks to discredit the messenger, rather than engaging with the message. Those making this point need to remember that Brand’s message is all the more powerful coming from someone who is in this position – and that he’d already addressed this accusation in his New Statesman editorial:

I should qualify my right to even pontificate on such a topic and in so doing untangle another of revolution’s inherent problems. Hypocrisy. How dare I, from my velvet chaise longue, in my Hollywood home like Kubla Khan, drag my limbs from my harem to moan about the system? A system that has posited me on a lilo made of thighs in an ocean filled with honey and foie gras’d my Essex arse with undue praise and money.

Whether Brand is worth $15 million or $150 million is irrelevant. Not even $15 billion would address the systemic flaws raised in the interview.

3) he’s just playing it for a laugh

Brand himself, in both his interview and editorial for the New Statesman, is quoted as saying:

…first and foremost I want to have a f*cking laugh. As John Cleese said, there is a tendency to confuse seriousness with solemnity. Serious causes can and must be approached with good humour, otherwise they’re boring and can’t compete with the Premier League and Grand Theft Auto. Social movements needn’t lack razzmatazz.

Not only is he spot on in relation to competition for attention, but what many of the critics have failed to grasp is that by styling himself as The Fool, or The Jester, Brand has more scope to play with potentially dangerous material, challenge the status quo and breach taboos.

4) if Brand wants a revolution, he should get down to the ‘real’ work

Perhaps best expressed by this quote from Robert Lustig in The Huffington Post:

…he demonstrated his utter inability to offer any concrete example of what he believes we should do instead of vote. He wants fundamental change but has no idea how to achieve it…by writing thousands of words of political junk in a respected weekly magazine, he sets himself up as someone with something to contribute to an important debate. The truth is that he has nothing to contribute, other than the self-satisfied smirk of a man who knows he’ll never go hungry or be without a home.

See #1, #2 and #3 above.

If he really wanted to encourage the development of a genuinely revolutionary movement, he would start organising one. He would knuckle down to do really, really boring things, like handing out leaflets on street corners, launching petitions, holding meetings, just like the early trades unionists and labour activists he professes to admire so much.

Er no. That’s not the best use of his platform.

Attention is a currency, and like it or not, celebrities in our era have that currency to spend. Instead of criticising him for doing so, or nitpicking about his linguistic style – which I find a fascinating mix of Shakespearian vocabulary meets My Fair Lady grammar and dialect – let him spend it in service of those who, as Brand already noted, are people who have:

…alternative ideas that are far better qualified than I am, and far better qualified, more importantly, than the people that are currently doing that job.

It’s not his job to fix the world. It’s our job. All of us.

In fact I’d be more worried about many of the people offering Brand ‘solutions’ to champion than I would anything Brand had to say.

I personally don’t 100% agree with all the points Brand made, for example, I think the 99% meme was useful for awareness (and it sure feels good to metaphorically sink the boots into banksters now and then), but ultimately we are all – including the 1% – in this together. I think the idea of ‘left’ and ‘right’ in politics is no longer relevant, and those labels bog us down. But it doesn’t matter.


What matters is that people everywhere are talking about this.

Russell Brand wins the internet right now.

Brand is one of the most fascinating characters of the modern era – he’s independently wealthy (which makes him beholden to no-one), he has a massive public profile AND all his skeletons are already out of the closet.

These things put him in an enormously powerful position of influence.

He’s opened a Pandora’s Box for himself, with armies of change-makers now seeking everything from support for their initiatives to a chance to further ‘educate’ him. No doubt he’s going to continue his already impressive learning curve, but those who he referred to as ‘far better qualified’ also need to let him be who he is.

Russell Brand on stage with a megaphone

Let him sing the social consciousness equivalent of ‘Eye of the Tiger’.

Let him be an alarm clock and a megaphone.

Brand has delivered changemakers a signal interruption of epic proportion. How best to use it?

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Spiral Dynamics – A Way of Understanding Human Nature

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spiral dynamic model, showing nested systems of levels

click on image, then click again to enlarge

Creating lasting and effective cultural and behavioural change means recognising and working with values.

But where do values come from? Values spring from worldviews.

To effectively work with values means understanding worldviews – how people think, and why people adopt the values they do.

Insight into worldviews and ways of thinking is profoundly relevant to a range of areas including:

  • leadership
  • conflict management
  • organisational change
  • communication & marketing
  • working with diverse communities
  • cultural transformation

In my quest to learn more about this, I travelled to Melbourne in August to undertake four days’ Spiral Dynamics training with Chris Cowan and Natasha Todorovic.

What is Spiral Dynamics

Spiral Dynamics is a data-based, psychological approach to understanding worldviews or systems of thinking held by individuals, organisations and societies. It is concerned with:

  • how people to respond to the world around them in given circumstances and with their particular coping abilities (rather than categorising people as ‘types’)
  • how people think about things (conceptualisation), rather than what they think about (concepts) – for example, is their thinking binary and absolutist (‘if it’s not black, then it must be white’), or do they acknowledge and seem comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty?
  • complex questions about change including ‘HOW should WHO lead WHOM to do WHAT and WHEN?’

How Did Spiral Dynamics Originate?

There are many variations and references to ‘Spiral Dynamics’ (and a lot of misinformation) swirling around, as Cowan & Todorovic note:

Many people doing a web search have come to see SD as quasi-spiritual mumbo-jumbo rather than a useful program incorporating a theory of human behavior that can apply to many realms of life from personal growth to business and politics, including religion.

Here’s some background on where the theory and model came from.

Spiral Dynamics builds on the research undertaken in the 1950s and 60s by US psychologist Dr Clare W Graves of Union College, New York. Graves was seeking to understand human nature, and questions like:

  • why are people different?
  • why do some people change but others do not?
  • how does the mind respond to a world that becomes increasingly complex?

However he was frustrated with questions from his students who were being taught a range of theories by different professors, and quizzing him as to which was the ‘correct’ version:

In 1952 Clare W. Graves found he could not go back to the classroom and be a referee in the conflict over whose theory was correct on any given issue. He’d ‘had it’ with psychology as it was, and knew that he either had to reframe the problem or abandon the field.

Graves began looking for patterns of human development and how they related to other theories, and spent over 20 years gathering primary data from thousands of sources. He was originally seeking to validate his contemporary and friend Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but Graves’s data revealed that the hierarchy does not work universally. Cowan and Todorovic note that Graves:

…saw Maslow, as he saw most of his peers, as niche players who explored parts eloquently but were still missing the broader view and the engine that drives it.

Maslow eventually acknowledged that Graves’s model was superior to his own.

Graves’s research revealed eight kinds of responses (so far in human experience) or ‘levels’, tinted with variations as people entered and exited the eight levels.

Graves’s health declined and he died in 1986 before he could finish and publish his research, which is perhaps why his work is not as well known as Maslow’s, or as recognised as Myers-Briggs.

Graves’s work, also known as ‘Gravesian Theory’, was taken up and developed by two of his students, Christopher Cowan and Don Beck, who coined the term ‘spiral dynamics’. Beck later went on to work with Ken Wilber, the latter of whom is best known for Integral Theory. Cowan now works with Natasha Todorovic, and their Spiral Dynamics teaching remains closest to Graves’s original work, with the pair documenting Graves’s research in The Neverending Quest.

Graves’s ‘Double Helix’ Theory

After extensive data gathering, Graves’s research resulted in a theory he called the ‘Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory’ (or ECLET), that humans evolve not just physically but also socially and psychologically, which he summarised as follows:

The psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, spiraling process, marked by progressive subordination of older, lower-order behavior systems to newer, higher-order systems as man’s existential problems change.

Graves observed that as certain thresholds of complexity were reached, the mind’s ability to make sense of the world became overburdened, and to cope, the mind must create more complex models of reality to deal with the new problems of existence.

This interplay between the world and the human response to it – which is applicable to people as individuals, at societal level, or humanity as a species – is expressed in Graves’s ‘Double Helix’ system, which describes the relationship between:

Helix 1 (life conditions, reality): what’s the world like for this person or group? What are the times like, the physical place, the problems of existence, where is it necessary to put attention and energy?


Helix 2 (mind capacities, neurobiological response): what’s the toolkit that person or group has for dealing with that world? What is the ‘coping system’ an individual, group or society develops to cope with those life conditions?

The combinations of Helix 1 and Helix 2 represent the eight levels identified by Graves.

Levels of Psychological Existence

These levels represent a conceptual space, or systems in people – they are not a ‘Hogwarts Hat’ means of sorting people into ‘types’ and labelling them, although understanding people’s priorities and what matters to them are clues to what system/s might be in play.

Graves used a two-letter system to represent the eight levels he identified – the first letter (commencing with ‘A’) denotes the Helix 1 ‘life conditions’, the second (commencing with ‘N’), the Helix 2 ‘mind capacities’:

screen shot of double helix model for levels AN to IV

Image from Spiral Dynamics – click image then click again to enlarge

Graves identified what people seek out in life at each level of psychological existence as follows:

Level 1 BEIGE (A-N) existential: survival, biogenic needs satisfaction, reproduction, satisfy instinctive urges

Reactive, biologically driven, living in a state of nature, limited sense of cause and effect; there is very little of this level remaining, although people can regress into it (eg. Alzheimers).

Level 2 PURPLE (B-O) animistic: placate spirit realm; honour ancestors; protection from harm; family bonds

Subsumed in the group, no separate identity of ‘I’ – the focus is on co-operation, sharing, ritual; conflict will endanger the tribe, who have the forces of nature to contend with.

Level 3 RED (C-P) egocentric: power/action, asserting self to dominate others, control, sensory pleasure

Breaking away from the tribe, impulsive, seeking respect, honour and avoiding shame and establishing the self, might is right; the world is adversarial, uncaring, only raw power will let me prevail.

Level 4 BLUE (D-Q) absolutistic: stability/order, obedience to earn reward later, meaning, purpose, certainty

Emerges from the chaos of C-P – obedience to rightful authority, binary thinking, categorising, deny self for ‘the one right way’, stability and security is achieved through sacrifice and submission, doing things by the book/manual; bringing in new norms undermines control/authority.

Level 5 ORANGE (E-R) multiplistic: opportunity/success, competing to achieve results, influence, autonomy

Emerges from the rigidity of D-Q, how to manouver rather than comply, many ways and criteria rather than one right way or set of standards, goal directed, independent, self-sufficient, confident, experiment to find the best among many possible choices, future oriented and competitive; work for the good life and abundance, the winners deserve their rewards.

Level 6 GREEN (F-S) relativistic: harmony/love, joining together for mutual growth, awareness, belonging

Emerges in response to the excesses of E-R, can’t do it on my own and need to collaborate with others, group membership highly valued, tolerates ambiguity through encountering diverse perspectives, requires trust, doesn’t want to hurt others; high empathy and sensitivity to others – everybody counts.

Level 7 YELLOW (G-T) systemic: independence/self-worth, fitting a living system, knowing, good questions

Demands flexibility, autonomy, accepts paradoxes and uncertainties, self interest without harm to others, curiosity, learns from a variety of sources, contextual thinkers, can see things but not always be able to explain them, great awareness of what they do and don’t understand, punished by conventional education and corporate structures; not motivated by fear of survival, God or social approval, guilt and reward motivators don’t work – seeks to do well without compulsive drives and ambitiousness.

Level 8 TURQUOISE (H-U) still developing global community/life force; survival of life on a fragile Earth; consciousness

Existential problems this level will create still not fully known; may be: holistic focus on the well being of all entities, comfortable with many paths to knowing; self is part of a larger non-localised field.

Graves also noted an oscillating ‘locus of control’ – ie. where a person’s instructions on how to behave originate – in the levels. Commencing with the first level, and the odd numbered/warm coloured systems thereafter, the locus is ‘within me’, in service of me. This alternates with the even numbered/cool coloured systems where the focus is ‘outside me’, in service of us. 

The allocation of colours to Graves’s original letter pairs was incorporated later by Beck and Cowan to assist with understanding. It has no particular symbolism except in terms of ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ colours, which respectively signify the primacy of the individual (‘express self’)  in the red, orange and yellow levels, and the primacy of the group (‘sacrifice self’) in the purple, blue and green levels.

The H-U (eighth) level is still not clear, and – if Graves’s theory holds – there will be another level beyond this, where the locus of control cycles back towards the external, expressive. This yet-to-emerge level would be called I-V and has been assigned a ‘warm’ colour of coral.

While the colours help in some ways, using the letter pairs keeps the emphasis on the double-helix approach, or the interaction between people and culture. When I arrived at the training, I was talking colours. By the time I had completed the training, I was referring to letter pairs.

Clarifying Aspects of Spiral Dynamics

One of the key aspects of Spiral Dynamics which is critical to understand is that it differentiates the content from the container, or thinking system(s); it recognises the difference between how people think about things, and the things people think about. Cowan and Todorovic offer the following example:

Each level represents a way of thinking about things…The absolutely certain theist and the equally certain atheist share certitude; they share the absence of ambiguity; they judge their opponents harshly; and they might share a zealous need to promote their views. Thus diametrically opposed contents in very similar containers.

So while the two positions, theist and atheist seem to be diametrically opposed, they share the same absolutist, D-Q (blue) worldview. Concepts like ‘justice’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘sustainability’ can vary greatly in their expression, depending on the ‘container’ they are in. This was the biggest shift in understanding for me – that the words coming out of people’s mouths representing ideas, concepts, symbols, opinions, whatever, are one thing, but it is discerning what kinds of thinking systems are being used that gives insight into deeper worldviews, values and behaviours.

People or groups can be in a ‘closed’, ‘arrested’ or an ‘open’ state at any level.

Those who are ‘closed’ at a particular level can only think in terms of that level, see no alternatives and may simply not comprehend anything else. If someone closed in D-Q (blue) starts to have ‘E’ (orange) level problems thrown at them – such as a bureaucrat who suddenly finds him or herself in a privatised organisation or enterprise environment – their response is likely to be more rigid.

Those who are ‘open’ may be centralised in a particular level, but can accept different thinking and move between levels.

Those who are ‘arrested’ find their movement to another state is blocked by barriers.

These three states represent different kinds of characters within the same level or processing capacity.

Cowan & Todorovic advise caution in relation to people claiming to be certain levels, for example Turquoise (H-U), or D-Q (blue) or E-R (orange) which may be masquerading as F-S (green):

…we see the relationship that has confounded so many bright people – green-sounding ideas slid back into an absolute, authoritarian, dichotomous way of thinking about them, maybe even into an aggressive and rigidly dogmatic form. That’s not FS in operation, but it can certainly look Green at the surface.

Sometimes, people may have developed a broader way of conceptualising (such as R/orange), but be in a situation where they are coping with life of prior levels (such as C/red).

One of Graves’s key areas of research was to ask people what they thought was ‘the mature adult personality in operation’. He collected many of these samples of levels and their associated entering, nodal or peak and exiting stages, some examples of which can be viewed here. Notice the difference in what someone centred in C-P (red) perceives compared to someone who is exiting D-Q (blue).

In Spiral Dynamics, the ‘maturity’ of an adult is based on how they are responding to the world they find themselves in:

Graves recognized many forms of maturity at different levels. An end state, a target of completion like self-actualization, just didn’t exist for Graves. What he came to recognize was that maturity is a function of fit between neuronal systems – part of the conditions for existence – and existential problems in the milieu – part of the conditions of existence. Thus, for Graves, the search for the mature personality in operation was illusory. The quest was to understand how different people conceptualize maturity and how those conceptions are influenced and change, then how to deal with people effectively at their levels.

Levels are not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – all levels have both positive and negative expressions. The container is not the content.

There is also an ethic to Spiral Dynamics – it is not about coercion or manipulation. Graves was adamant that a person had the right to be who he or she was, and that his theory was about how to rework social or organisational goals by approaching people as they are, not as others wish or perceive them to be. As Cowan & Todorovic note:

All too often ‘change’ is a directive rather than a process of opening possibilities, often with a tacit ‘or else’ attached. That is often accompanied by a vertical assumption that ‘up’ is the right and proper direction, thereby ignoring the other perfectly viable forms. Usually, downward change (back into congruence and a restoration of a comfortable state, even constructive downward mobility without disgrace) is dismissed as weakness rather than a possibility for better coping and adaptation. So if there is to be change, then facilitating the right kind of change at the right time with the right means for the appropriate people is essential to making effective use of the principles.

People don’t get smarter or better or more ‘superior’ as they move through the levels – which represent increased complexity, not intelligence, enlightenment or anything else – though they do expand their conceptual space, broadening their perspectives and increasing their options to act appropriately in a given situation.

image of human head with spiral and coloured layers of levels emerging on top of the other

People can be centred in a particular level, and they may settle in one for any range of reasons, but they can develop and flourish within that level. If someone is not coping at their present level, asking them to shift to another level isn’t likely to be successful – first, give them the coping skills they need at their present level.

If you want change in Helix 2 (individual response) to stick, its essential to ensure that you create the Helix 1 (life conditions) to enable that. Disruption needs to be congruent with where people are. Under certain circumstances (such as too much change, too fast), a person may return to a previous level where life is more familiar.

The Value of Spiral Dynamics

What sets Spiral Dynamics apart from other models which focus on personality traits and types is that it is about psychological evolution and the dynamic interaction between people and culture as represented by the double helix not ‘what a person is like’, but ‘how a person thinks, in this context, at this level’.

All around us, we see what it’s like when people at different levels of psychological existence, who hear, learn and communicate things differently, need to live or work together, yet as Graves pointed out:

The error which most people make when they think about human values is that they assume the nature of man is fixed and there is a single set of human values by which he should live. Such an assumption does not fit with my research. My data indicate that man’s nature is an open, constantly evolving system, a system which proceeds by quantum jumps from one steady state system to the next through a hierarchy of ordered systems.

In the workplace, in our government institutions, in our communities and homes, what seems like a clash of personalities or values may actually be a clash of levels.

Consider this example from Graves’s work on How People at Different Levels Form Groups:

Graves has tested some of his theories on his students at Union College in New York. In one experiment, he grouped students according to their levels of existence and then gave them various problems to solve.

Students at the D-Q level split up into a number of groups, each with its own leader. Graves likens this to the feudal craft society with elaborate hierarchies within trade guilds.

E-R students had a huge argument which ended when an overall leader emerged.

F-S students worked well with no leader at all.

G-T students would choose a leader who was well-qualified for the task at hand. Later they would drop him for another leader better-suited for the next task.

The percentage of his students in the different categories has shifted dramatically in the past two decades. In 1952 Graves found 34% of his students at the D-Q level and 10% at the G-T level. Today the figures have approximately reversed, an indication of the U.S. shift away from the D-Q level.

In the school, community or workplace, those operating in C-P (red) level may be motivated by managing immediate survival problems, D-Q (blue) will do best with rules and processes, and G-T (yellow) will buck a system that does not offer them autonomy and freedom to do things the way they see they could best be done. Most people in the (post) industrialised West are at D-Q (blue), E-R (orange) or F-S (green) levels.

As part of the Spiral Dynamics course, I completed some questionnaires to provide an insight into my current state (there is an ethic associated with how this testing is undertaken, and who receives the results):

  • my Change State Indicator, or readiness and acceptance for change (which is not related to Gravesian levels);
  • my Values Profile, to determine which levels I have an acceptance for or rejection of, and to what extent; what ‘blind spots’ do I have;
  • my Discover Profile, to highlight which levels were most and least like me

It is easy to see the results of such questionnaires and be tempted to ‘spin a story’, which is why it requires a reasonable amount of expertise to interpret what the results mean, and to treat them as indicators of something that may be occurring, not a description of ‘what is’. A respondent’s results may reflect a situation that is occurring in a different context (eg. stresses in home life rather than work life).

Spiral Dynamics invites us to ask: what if we could consciously ‘change filters’ rather than unconsciously viewing the world through our own lens(es)? What if we could identify worldview-related areas of stress, strengths, potential?

What bearing would it have on how an organisation functioned in terms of management, sales/marketing and morale if they knew their project team to be F-S/G-T, their executive centred in E-R and their clients mostly D-Q?

How much of a difference would it make to be able to work with people’s worldviews as they relate to organisational culture or purpose, or a community’s goals instead of trying to ‘motivate’ them on the basis of a worldview they may not hold or even comprehend?

The insights and applications Spiral Dynamics offers could help people to better communicate, work together, manage, be managed and resolve conflict more effectively despite their differences.

Graves, whose model inverted Maslow’s pyramid (which implies an end point), believed humanity’s quest to be an open ended journey rather than a pinnacle to be achieved, which he succinctly captured in this narrative:

At each stage of human existence the adult man is off on his quest of his holy grail, the way of life he seeks by which to live.

At his first level he is on a quest for automatic physiological satisfaction. At the second level he seeks a safe mode of living, and this is followed in turn, by a search for heroic status, for power and glory, by a search for ultimate peace; a search for material pleasure, a search for affectionate relations, a search for respect of self, and a search for peace in an incomprehensible world.

And, when he finds he will not find that peace, he will be off on his ninth level quest. As he sets off on each quest, he believes he will find the answer to his existence. Yet, much to his surprise and much to his dismay, he finds at every stage that the solution to existence is not the solution he has come to find.

Every stage he reaches leaves him disconcerted and perplexed. It is simply that as he solves one set of human problems he finds a new set in their place.

The quest, he finds, is never ending.

Further Resources

Spiral Dynamics

Clare W Graves

Summary Statement – The Emergent, Cyclical, Double-Helix Model of the Adult Human Biopsychosocial Systems – Boston May 1981

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