Climate Change and Voicing Values in the Workplace

By Mark Edwards
Assistant Professor, School of Business, University of Western Australia
Posted on 31 March 2011
Filed under Assisting & Encouraging, Business & Organisations

There is a fundamental fault line that runs through the heart of the climate change issue in Australia.  Privately, we take it seriously while publicly we do almost nothing. The horrendous floods that we have witnessed in many states in recent months provide a glimpse of the social, environmental and economic impact that climate change is having on the Australian economy and a foretaste of perhaps even worse things to come. And yet organisations, including governments and corporate businesses, seem incapable of developing an adequate response to the problem.  The Gillard government’s extraordinary proposal of reducing climate change funding to pay for flood damage is an example of the fickle nature of government views on this issue.  The lack of any substantive alternative policies concerning climate change issues from the conservative opposition speaks of their completely inadequate understanding of the level of scientific knowledge on the topic. 

Even though the threat of climate change and the potential costs of carbon reduction schemes have been known for well over a decade, the private sector has largely ignored the imperative for proactive action and has shown no concerted leadership for tackling the significant changes that organisations must make now or in the very near future.  To quote a recent editorial in Fairfax’s The National Times, “This country is regarded as a policy laggard”.  And yet, despite the national organisational inaction, privately most Australians clearly want something to be done to address climate change and they would like it done sooner rather than later.

Three quarters of Australians acknowledge that climate change is happening and that it is caused by human activity (Newspoll 2010).  While there has been a slight decline in this figure in recent years, over a significant period of time the public view has been that human induced climate change (HICC) is real and that governments and private organisations should take steps to mitigate carbon pollution and to adapt to the changes that are occurring.  A recent report from the Climate Institute (Climate Institute 2010) reports that, from a random sample of over 2,000 Australians, 85% said they would support a party that had a “detailed plan to change Australia to using cleaner energy sources” and 82% said that “Australia should make “medium” to “very large” changes to address climate change” (Climate Institute 2010, p. 4).  So while there appear to be strong personal views about the need to take decisive action, at the organisational, state and national level prevarication and inaction rules.  Inaction at the collective level is clearly having an impact on individuals’ confidence in political and community leaders.  The Climate Institute’s report states that:

A key finding of the research is the link between climate change inaction and an erosion of belief in political leadership, trust and credibility.

So, why is there such a disparity between private attitudes and public inaction?  Aren’t governments supposed to be sensitive to longstanding and broad-based public opinion?  Aren’t organisations much more responsive now to consumer and community concerns?  The misalignment seems mystifying, even paradoxical.  It could be, as the historian Naomi Oreskes (2010) has recently shown, that the influential efforts of some conservative ideologues and think tanks have bolstered scepticism towards climate science through the deliberate manufacturing of doubt. But this still does not account for the massive gap between private opinion and the lack of organisational response. 

There are, of course, many challenges that accompany an adequate response to the climate change imperative.  Real change requires resources, time and energy.  There’s also the need for new ways of thinking that makes transition difficult.  On the other hand, organisations stand to gain many benefits from addressing the crisis - greater economic efficiencies, the creation of news skills, and the development of values that support innovation.  To give but one example of the economic benefits of addressing climate change, Europe has managed to cut emissions by more than 16 per cent since 1990, while its economy grew over 40 per cent during that same period.

Paradox, conflict and stuckness

Given the level of personal support, risks involved in inaction and the potential benefits of acting decisively and quickly, the difficulties with countering the deniers or implementing climate policy or managing organisational change seem rather minor.  So again, why the ongoing prevarication and inaction?  It seems that, for various reasons, our private concerns about the climate crisis are being compartmentalised into those that we express at home as concerned citizens and those that we express (or not) at work as workers.  Our personal values are separated from the values expressed by the organisations we belong to and the businesses we work for.  The values that we hold at home are not being expressed publicly in the decisions we make and the conversations we have at work.  The paradox and ambiguity of this duality results in a state of inaction and “stuckness” (Browne & Bishop 2011, p. 358).  In their paper on the role of paradox in climate change and sustainability policy in Australia, Browne and Bishop argue that there are numerous paradoxes built into modern societies that cause both internal and interpersonal conflict and which result in a kind of avoidance of action on complex and conflict-ridden issues like climate policy. 

Identifying solutions for climate change involves addressing fundamental paradoxes at multiple scales, and recognising the way in which individual and organisation stuckness is embedded in the contexts of, and intersections between, economy, nature, and democracy. (Browne & Bishop 2011, p. 360)

Browne and Bishop point out that one resolution to this problem of oppositional paradox resulting in inaction is to “reflect on the values”, “worldviews” and “ethical understanding” that led to the stalemate in the first place.  This avenue for extracting ourselves from the “stuckness” that characterises climate policy in Australia requires us to reflect on and critically question how we express our personal values on environmental and climate issues in public spaces and, in particular, in the crucial realm of organisational life and the workplace. 

Voicing Values

We know from research on the relationship between values and climate change that people can be aware of the risks and broader implications of climate change but feel inhibited from, or even incapable of, acting in a manner that is consistent with these views and the values that underlie them (O'Brien & Wolf 2010). In an American study of the relationship between “climate change risk perceptions, affective images, values, and policy preferences” Leiserowitz (2006, p. 45) found that: "… risk perceptions and policy support are strongly influenced by experiential factors, including affect, imagery, and values, and demonstrates that public responses to climate change are influenced by both psychological and socio-cultural factors”

We know from ethics research that, where values and opinions are not expressed, people will rationalise the direction of their response in ways that correspond to, what some researchers have called, “moral muteness” (Drumwright & Murphy 2004).  The result of this is inaction.  On the other hand, employees can also find compelling reasons for expressing their values in ways that actively deal with the difficult moral issues they face in the workplace (Samuelson & Gentile 2005). 

A new approach to business ethics called “Giving Voice to Values” (GVV) (Gentile 2010) offers an interesting way to view the compartmentalisation of values and the inhibiting and enabling factors that accompany conflict and ethical dilemmas.  Looking at these issues can help us to better understand and overcome the barriers to acting on and voicing values as they relate to organisational responses to moral challenges like climate change.  GVV assumes that changes in organisational behaviour require at least one person to express values that support such changes. There are, however, many inhibiting barriers that stymie the expression of values in the workplace.  These can come from many different sources but they generally fall into a small number of categorises of justification and rationalisations (Ashforth & Anand 2003; Heath 2008), for example locus of responsibility (“it’s not my job to address climate change issue at work”), immateriality (“no one is going to be hurt by inaction”) or legality (“we just need to follow the minimum legal requirements on this”).  Organisational climates that reinforce such inhibiting arguments and which do not provide open forums for the expressions of values are difficult to counter and yet, if organisations don’t change, nothing will change (other than the increasing environmental and social costs of escalating climate change).     

We need to start holding these conversations and begin to voice our values and opinions in the workplace and in decision-making forums at all levels.  Climate change is a public, not a private issue.  Above all it is an organisational issue.  If governments and businesses and their employees and stakeholders don’t tackle this issue with the intensity and seriousness it deserves, then the climate crisis will continue to accelerate and the droughts and extreme events like those we have recently experienced will occur with greater frequently and severity.  The cultural climates of organisations will need to change if we are to meet the challenge of global atmospheric pollution. One crucial way that will occur is through ordinary people expressing their concerns about climate change in the conversations they hold, the decisions they contribute to, the feedback they give, the policies and strategies they implement and the views they express in the workplace.

References

Ashforth, BE & Anand, V 2003, 'The normalization of corruption in organizations', Research in Organizational Behavior, vol. 25, pp. 1-52.

Browne, A & Bishop, B 2011, 'Chasing Our Tails: Psychological, Institutional and Societal Paradoxes in Natural Resource Management, Sustainability, and Climate Change in Australia', American Journal of Community Psychology, vol. 47, no. 3, pp. 354-361.

Climate Institute 2010, Climate of the Nation: Australians' Attitudes towards Climate Change and its Solutions, Climate Institute, Sydney.

Editorial March 29, 2011, 'Australia lags as the rest of the world acts', The National Times.

Gentile, M 2010, Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.

Heath, J 2008, ' Business Ethics and Moral Motivation: A Criminological Perspective', Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 83, no. 4, pp. 595-614.

Leiserowitz, A 2006, 'Climate Change Risk Perception and Policy Preferences: The Role of Affect, Imagery, and Values', Climatic Change, vol. 77, no. 1, pp. 45-72.

Newspoll 2010, Public attitudes towards climate change  

O'Brien, KL & Wolf, J 2010, 'A values-based approach to vulnerability and adaptation to climate change', Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 232-242.

Oreskes, NCEM 2010, Merchants of doubt : how a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming, 1st U.S. edn, Bloomsbury Press, New York. Available from: WorldCat.

Samuelson, J & Gentile, M 2005, 'Get Aggressive About Passivity', Harvard Business Review, vol. 83, no. 11, pp. 18-20.

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