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Changes in societal need afford new business opportunities to companies who are embracing sustainability.  To create the shift in leadership towards sustainability, many engineering and construction companies are employing techniques from behavioural safety. Has behaviourism become the only tool in the box, a hammer which is seeing sustainability as a nail?


Shift in Leadership


Societal pressure is contributing to a shift in the of leadership of engineering and construction companies.   In the past, companies have been criticised for failing to deliver little benefit beyond shareholders. The environment has been sacrificed in the pursuit of profit. Increasingly, engineering and construction companies are now seeking to widen how they serve society by delivering environmental, social and economic benefits.  These three pillars of sustainability are often termed the triple bottom line or the 3Ps (Planet, People & Profit). The shift is about leading in a way which benefits the environment and social welfare, whilst maintaining financial performance. It’s called sustainability leadership.


The University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) has defined a sustainability leader as “someone who inspires and supports action towards a better world.” The engineering and construction industry has a huge role to play in creating a more sustainable society. This societal need offers new business opportunities to companies who are embracing sustainability.  To create the shift in leadership towards sustainability, many engineering and construction companies are employing techniques from behavioural safety.




Behaviourism is a highly influential school of psychology which became dominant in the 1920s as a reaction to Freuds theories of the unconscious. Behaviourists thought these theories were too subjective and untestable. Instead, behaviorism seeks to identify observable, measurable laws that explain human behaviour. Using these laws, behaviourists seek to modify people’s behaviour through the right conditioning which include the stimulus and consequence such as rewards and punishments.


In the engineering and construction industry, behaviourism has been applied very successfully as a method to improve safety.  It works on the central premise that injuries and illnesses are the result of the unsafe behaviours of workers.  To change these behaviours leaders seek to encourage safe behaviour through stimulus and reinforcement (rewards) and seek to extinguish unsafe behaviour through punishment.  A simple acronym ABC is often used to guide leaders, which refers to Antecedent (stimulus), Behaviour, and Consequence (reinforcement).


Due to its success with safety, behavioural approaches are increasingly being applied more widely to leadership and management across the industry.  With an increased focus on sustainability, many engineering and construction companies are now using behavioural leadership as a way of encouraging their workers to behave in ways which are more sustainable.  It’s easy to see why.  Behaviourism can be very effective in encouraging people to use less resources and recycle more. 


But has behaviourism become the only tool in the box?  As the saying goes, when you only have a hammer everything looks like a nail.  Are engineering and construction companies seeing sustainability as a nail to be hit with the behavioural hammer?


Other Schools of Psychology


If the industry is to become more sustainable it needs to go beyond changing the behaviour of workers.  Sustainability will require engineering and construction companies to be transformed.  To become more sustainable the industry will need to change its products, process, strategies and purpose.  This will require leaders who have the capability to be able to deal with high levels of complexity, innovation and collaboration. 


Behaviourism is just one school of psychology.  By focusing on behavioural leadership the engineering and construction industry is missing out on the benefits to be derived from the other major schools such as cognitive, psychodynamic, humanistic, and social. In fact, research is indicating that stage models of adult psychological development, derived from the humanistic school, are proving effective in developing sustainability leaders. 


Stage Models of Adult Psychological Development


Abraham Maslow, the father of humanistic psychology, was the first psychologist to develop a stage model of development which has been termed ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’. Since these early days, other psychologist such as Clare Graves, Robert Kegan, Elliot Jaques, Jane Loevinger, Bill Torbert, Lawrence Kohlberg and Susan Cook-Greuter have built upon Maslow’s work. Each of these psychologists has mapped a different aspect of a person’s development such as values, cognition, morals, personality or personality, etc. 


Whilst they map different aspects of our psychology, they all share one thing in common.  They all see human development progressing in pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional stages.  A survey carried out by PWC in 2015 found that most leaders in industry have developed to the highest conventional stage.  Whilst academic research, into sustainability leadership, is indicating that it is post-conventional leaders who are equipped with the capabilities required to navigate the complexity of sustainability issues, mobilise individuals for environmental causes and transform organisations to enable high levels of collaboration and innovation. Unfortunately, conventional leaders are unable to perceive the full complexity of sustainability.  Instead, they see the world in much simpler ways. A conventional leader may well see sustainability only as a nail which can be hit with the behavioural hammer.


Using the Complete Toolbox


Clearly, behavioural leadership does still have a role to play in enabling engineering and construction companies to become more sustainable.  However, it is not enough.  Engineering and construction companies will need to be transformed through to their core. To give leaders the capability to transform their organisations they also need to be transformed. We need to develop the source of each leader's performance by transforming their cognition and emotional intelligence as well as their behaviour.  This will require employing the learning from all the schools of psychology.  We need to have the complete toolbox.



Terry Sexton

Business Psychologist

19th February 2020


Contact us if you would like to chat with Terry about Developing Sustainability Leadership. Take a look at Terry's profile to find out about his work and capabilities.