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Why emotions matter: 3 enablers for…
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Why emotions matter: 3 enablers for sustainability intelligence

Sustainability intelligence is becoming increasingly important in our rapidly changing world that challenges us more and more and in which sustainability as a concept is very much under pressure. How can we better pursue sustainability intelligence, and why do emotions matter? Read more about the three key enablers of sustainability intelligence in this blogpost.
Jan beyne
by Jan Beyne, PhD | March 31, 2023
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Great progress in for example advancing new technologies and making knowledge more accessible is often accompanied by increasing inequality, biodiversity loss, climate change or other system pressures. To address all these challenges and to uphold the credibility of the concept of sustainability itself, we need to pursue ‘sustainability intelligence’. It is the only way to make large-scale sustainable transformations and gain new insights about sustainable practices.

Sustainability intelligence: the interplay between emotion and cognition

As human beings, we make countless decisions every day, mostly about daily activities that don’t require too much thought. They have become routines. In this decision-making, people consider themselves to be highly rational, but scientific research shows that emotions also play an important role in this process - often without realizing it ourselves. Emotions give important meaning to our actions and are an important inspiration for cognition.

A broader mind shift

For sustainability intelligence, there is no difference either: Many scholars argue that global sustainability challenges, such as climate change, cannot be solved by revolutionary technologies or governance alone. They believe that the challenges we face today require a broader mind shift towards sustainability that goes far beyond a purely rational approach. It is the interaction between emotion and cognition that leads to effective integration of sustainability.

3 enablers to pursue sustainability intelligence

People believe that responsible decision-making still requires sensible and emotionless thinking (Damasio et al., 2000), yet we need to embrace the idea that we often choose from emotional tendencies. Scientific studies show that the exploration of emotions and other inner dimensions of the human condition, such as worldviews, beliefs, values, is gaining a bigger stage. Moreover, emotions are also a sign of intelligence. This understanding allows us to identify three enablers, crucial to better pursue sustainability intelligence:
Enabler 1: self-awareness

Sustainability intelligence involves developing the dimension of 'being' through self-awareness. Being aware of who you are is the first step towards personal development and successful functioning (within an organisation). Moreover, self-awareness helps us to see how we relate to others, how to benefit from diversity within teams and how a team can build on the strengths of all involved. Self-awareness is therefore a crucial foundation of leadership, which involves understanding others and using this information to motivate and achieve results.

Enabler 2: global perspective

An individual simply cannot grow as a person without acknowledging the global context. Collaborating with and learning from others is necessary to develop cultural intelligence and to work across standard lines (De Vos et al., 2019). Exploring the ‘doing’ dimension by learning from others and from previous research, people open up their world, bring in a broader perspective to foster sustainability intelligence and come up with better, more creative solutions together.

Experiental learning Collaborating with and learning from others does require a broad perspective, with respect for the other's culture, norms and point of view. But leaders who most effectively integrate sustainability into their organisational strategy are usually those who derive knowledge and insight from a rich set of interactions with their peers, within a diverse network of stakeholders, and from new sustainable learning experiences that extend beyond formal processes on sustainable development (Courtice, 2012). Experiential learning is a useful approach to obtaining that broad, global perspective. It is a more explicitly recognised form of leadership development, where learning is seen as a process of self-discovery, rather than knowledge transfer. It enables individuals to integrate abstract and practical knowledge through actions and interactions (Kolb, 1984).

Enabler 3: Societal consciousness

The challenge of societal consciousness, which relies on systems thinking, lies in seeing the interconnectedness of our economic, technological, human, social and environmental systems and act accordingly. Leaders and managers need to look beyond immediate events and emergency solutions, or the familiar 'fire-fighting' and uncover the underlying root causes. A good understanding of the invisible web of connections between challenges, risks and assumptions helps to gain insights into our complex challenges, including sustainability.

Climate change, the war in Syria, the global spread of the coronavirus… Crises like these are often borderless and invisibly interconnected. Uncovering these connections is exactly what societal consciousness and systems thinking aims to do, by exploring the relationships between components and their interaction with each other. That principle of systems thinking opens doors to transform our consciousness - collectively and individually - to better cope with current and future challenges and to better collaborate and communicate with each other.

These enablers have the power to inspire sustainable change and maximize an organization’s chances of success by being prepared. Curious for more? In our three-part blog series, we provide answers on how to integrate sustainability into your journey towards a better and more sustainable business future.

Sustainability Integration, a blog series

In recent years, academics, scientists, international organizations and other experts have warned that organizations should focus on sustainable development and corporate social responsibility (CSR). Continuing with 'business as usual' will spell the end for many organizations and, by extension, the world. While many organizations, governments and people already do their utmost to implement sustainability principles, to truly make a sustainable change, we all need to act together - now.

This three-part blog series delves deeper into the meaning of 'sustainability' and how organizations can look for answers on how to integrate sustainability into their journey towards a better and more sustainable future.

Learn more about Sustainable Strategy in the following white paper: Value Creation: A Dialogue on Models and Methods.

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