Measuring Sustainability in Organisational Culture

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

If you’d like to get Cruxcatalyst via email, click here to subscribe to this blog.

If you liked this post, please consider sharing it using the buttons below or to the left of this post.
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

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.

If you’d like to get Cruxcatalyst via email, click here to subscribe to this blog.

If you liked this post, please consider sharing it using the buttons below or to the left of this post.

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.


Spiral Dynamics – A Way of Understanding Human Nature

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

If you’d like to get Cruxcatalyst via email, click here to subscribe to this blog.

If you liked this post, please consider sharing it using the buttons below or to the left of this post.


The Art and Science of Persuasion and Motivation

book cover of How To Get People To Do Stuff

This guest post is by behavioural psychologist and author Susan Weinschenk (aka ‘The Brain Lady’). The original version of this article was published on The Brain Lady Blog, and has been republished here with the author’s permission. 

Are you good with people? Do you know how to get them to do stuff? Are you using tips and techniques you picked up from others or experimented with?

If so, I bet that sometimes your strategies work and other times they don’t.

There are seven basic drivers of human motivation. And if you understand what motivates people you’ll be better able to figure out how to get people to do stuff.

That’s the premise of my book ‘How To Get People To Do Stuff’. Here’s a summary of the seven drivers of motivation:

The Need to Belong

Have you ever felt left out? Not part of a group you wanted to be part of? It probably made you feel sad, depressed or angry, or all of the above.

We are ultimately social animals, and our desire to connect with others is a strong, innate drive. We’re not meant to live alone, and we’ll work hard to be socially accepted. We need to feel that we have a place in the world where we belong.

You can use the need to belong, and the longing for connectedness, to get people to do stuff.

For example:

  • If you use nouns when making a request, rather than verbs – for example: ‘Be a donor’ versus ‘Donate now’ –  it results in more people taking action. That’s because nouns invoke group identity.
  • People are more likely to comply with a request if they trust you.
  • The best way to get others to trust you is to first show that you trust them.


It might surprise you to learn how much of everything we do in a typical day we do out of habit without even thinking about it. We don’t even remember how those habits got formed.

We hear so much about how it takes months to create a new habit. How could that be, when we seem to have created hundreds of them easily without even realizing it?

It turns out that it’s actually very easy to create a new habit or even change an existing one, if you understand the science behind habit formation. You can use the science of habits to help other people create or change habits, so you can get them to do stuff. Here’s a little bit of information about the science of habits:

  • The easiest way to create a new habit is to anchor it to an existing habit.
  • If you use anchoring you can get people to create a new habit in less than a week.
  • An important part of getting someone to create a new habit is to break things into really small steps.

The Power of Stories

What kind of person are you? Are you someone who helps those in need? Do you keep up on the latest trends and fashions? Are you a family person who spends time and energy to nurture family relationships?

We all have self-personas. We tell ourselves, and other people, stories about who we are and why we do what we do. Some of our self-personas and our stories are conscious, but others are largely unconscious.

If you understand these self-personas, then you can communicate in a way that matches those self-stories and thereby get people to do stuff. For example:

  • If you can get people to take one small action that is in conflict with one of their self-personas, that one small step can eventually lead to big behavior change.
  • You can prompt someone to change their own story by having other people share their stories. If someone hears the right story you can get people to change their own self-stories in as little as 30 minutes and that one change can alter their behavior for a lifetime.
  • Writing something down (in longhand, not typing) activates certain parts of the brain and makes it more likely that people will commit to what they wrote.

Carrots and Sticks

Have you ever been to a casino? Think about this: You spend a lot of time and energy trying to get people to do stuff; you may even offer rewards or pay people to do stuff. And yet a casino gets people to pay them!

Casinos understand the science of reward and reinforcement. Here are just a few things the science of reward and reinforcement tells us about how to get people to do stuff:

  • If you want consistent behavior don’t reward people every time they do something, just some of the time.
  • People are more motivated to reach a goal the closer they get to it.
  • When you punish someone it only works for a little while. Giving rewards is more effective than punishment.


Imagine you’re driving down the road and there’s an accident ahead. You tell yourself not to slow down and look, and yet you feel the irresistible urge to do exactly that.

Being fascinated by danger is one of our basic instincts. Instincts are strong and largely unconscious. They affect our behavior. Sometimes you can get people to do stuff just by tapping into these instincts. For example:

  • People are more motivated by fear of losing than the possibility of gaining something.
  • We are basically all ‘control freaks’. The desire to control starts as young as 4 months old.
  • When people are sad or scared they will want is familiar. If they’re happy and comfortable they’ll crave something new.

The Desire for Mastery

Even stronger than giving an external reward is the desire for mastery. People are very motivated to learn and master skills and knowledge.

Certain situations encourage a desire for mastery, and others dampen the desire for mastery. You can use what we know from the research on mastery to set up conditions that will encourage and stimulate the desire for mastery, and, by doing so, get people to do stuff. For example:

  • Giving people autonomy over what they are doing will stimulate them to master a skill and will motivate them to work harder.
  • If people feel that something is difficult they will be more motivated to do it.
  • Don’t mix praise with feedback if you want to stimulate the desire for mastery. Just give objective feedback.

Tricks of the Mind

You’ve probably seen visual illusions—where your eye and brain think they’re seeing something different than they really are.

What you may not realize is that there are cognitive illusions, too. There are several biases in how we think. Our brains are wired to jump to quick conclusions.

This is useful in reacting quickly to our environment, but sometimes these fast conclusions and decisions lead to cognitive illusions. You can use these tricks of the mind to get people to do stuff. For example:

  • If you mention money then people become more independent and less willing to help others.
  • People filter out information they don’t agree with, but you can get past those filters by first agreeing with them.
  • People are more likely to do something if you can get them to phrase it as a question to themselves (‘Will I exercise each week?’) than if you get them to say a declarative statement (‘I will exercise each week.’)

If you understand what motivates people, then you can change and modify what you do, what you offer, and how and what you ask of people.

You can change your strategies and tactics to get people to do stuff.

susan headshot

Dr. Susan Weinschenk has a Ph.D. in Psychology and over 30 years of experience as a behavioural psychologist. She applies psychology and brain science research to predict, understand, and explain how people think, work, and how to persuade and motivate people to take action. She is the founder of the Weinschenk Institute, and author of several books including ‘How To Get People To Do Stuff’ and ‘100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People’.

If you’d like to get Cruxcatalyst via email, click here to subscribe to this blog.

If you liked this post, please consider sharing it using the buttons below or to the left of this post.


Second Nature – Becoming Unconsciously Sustainable

human brain - left half grey cubicle farm, right half colourful image of people in nature

The sustainability and environment movement has long wrung its hands, imploring the world that if only we could live sustainably – mindfully and consciously – we could halt and reverse many of the adverse impacts of un-sustainability.

But I wonder whether becoming ‘consciously sustainable’ may not be the ultimate desired state.

This is just a thought I’ve had for a while – and I recognise that there are a lot of nuances to this within and between cultures and over time, yet I think its a fair, broad brush overview of humanity’s journey.

Once upon a time, we were:

Unconsciously Sustainable

For thousands of years, before human beings were ‘big’ in terms of our numbers, technology and population, we could have been considered as ‘living sustainably’, that is, living within the biological limits of nature.

We might not have been trying to be ‘sustainable’, in fact the very notion of ‘sustainability’ wouldn’t have even been a consideration.

But our impacts were limited, our collective footprint was well within nature’s capacity, and nature’s resources were plentiful. Where there was competition for resources, it would have been localised.

By default, we were unconsciously sustainable. There are small populations of human beings around the world who still live this way.

Then we became:

Unconsciously Unsustainable

It’s difficult to pinpoint when human beings first shifted into becoming unconsciously unsustainable – some would say the onset of the Industrial Revolution, some would argue at the time agriculture was invented.

Was it in the post World War II years with the rise of consumer societies in many parts of the world?

Was it only when we moved into overshoot and became ‘too big’ for the Earth, or was it when we adopted social and technological changes that put us on that trajectory?

At some stage, we transitioned from being sustainable to unsustainable, without realising it.

Many people remain in the phase of being unconsciously unsustainable.

Now we are:

Consciously Unsustainable

It’s also hard to pinpoint where we first became conscious of living unsustainably – when the impacts of pollution from the Industrial Revolution began to be evident? At the start of the 20th century when the nature conservation movement arose? In the mid 20th century with the rise of the environment movement?

Clues lie throughout history where ‘pushback’ can be found – such as the protecting of nature in parks, and the passing of key pieces of legislation such as clean air and water acts.

In any case, we are now more aware than ever of impacts associated with how we live, from climate change and biodiversity (species) loss, to water quality and availability, to overconsumption, sprawl and how all of this affects our health and wellbeing.

Many people are now conscious that, as a species, we are living unsustainably.

A colleague has suggested there is a subspecies of people who are in denial about being unsustainable – but I’m not sure if they fit into unconsciously unsustainable or consciously unsustainable!

So now we’re working towards becoming:

Consciously Sustainable

In a world where unsustainable has become the default way of living, some people have found or chosen ways of living more sustainably than others. Where people have a very small footprint through no choice, this may not be sustainable if their quality of life is adversely impacted eg. being unable to access healthy food or education.

As I noted in Time for Sustainability, asking people to ‘live sustainably’ requires them to make a conscious effort to do something different within existing system conditions. Yet the capacity for the human brain to make millions of decisions each day is limited, and so the brain has adapted with heuristics, which are ‘…mental short cuts to ease the cognitive load of making a decision’.

human being looking down into a maze

In short, habit and defaulting to the status quo is easier than the effort required to change behaviour, and habit will generally take precedence over the time and energy needed to blaze new neural pathways.

My concern is – can we expect the vast majority of people to become ‘consciously sustainable’?

What if we could design the world that produces so much ‘unsustainable’ as the default, to instead produce the ‘sustainable’?

Unconsciously Sustainable

Rather than becoming ‘consciously sustainable’, I would argue that the ultimate goal is to come full circle – that we must make choices and design things so that we can’t help but live sustainably, without having to think too much about it.

Living sustainably in a world that has been designed to make it hard to live that way can be a struggle. There’s a lot of extra work and time involved in developing awareness about a plethora of issues, making decisions and pondering the trade offs.

This involves a high level of ecological literacy to begin with, and an understanding of complex systems (how things are connected and impact on each other) rather than a focus on single issues (which can result in adverse, unintended consequences).

Even equipped with this capability, it’s all too likely that you will end up trying to untangle a morass of information, or end up down a technical cul-de-sac wishing someone had written a life cycle analysis where none exists, as I have discovered many times in my work.

How are these things going to translate into people’s everyday lives eg. purchasing decisions in a supermarket, where the buyer is a busy parent trying to pick the most affordable healthy food choices for the family on the whirlwind trip home from work? Labeling systems are one answer in this context, however what happens when labeling systems for different issues clash – should you buy local, or organic? Is an imported product from a water abundant country better or worse than a locally grown product in a water scarce country?

Even for the aware, informed and committed, working out the best choice for every life decision in relation to a range of criteria including but not limited to sustainability, this complexity is exhausting and often overwhelming.

Do we seriously expect people who are less open to, or engaged with sustainability to grapple with it?

We need to make unconsciously sustainable the ‘default’ once more.

This is very much an abstract, philosophical musing, and a clump of thought clay that I have been shaping in my brain – please feel free to critique and reshape.

In researching this piece, I found only one other reference to this idea, Stages in Sustainability Maturity, although the context was that of business and organisational DNA, not humanity as a whole.

What do you think? Is it preferable that we are consciously sustainable, or unconsciously sustainable?

Have you seen other examples of this thinking?

If you’d like to get Cruxcatalyst via email, click here to subscribe to this blog.

If you liked this post, please consider sharing it using the buttons below, or to the left of this post.