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Behavior Change
A Powerful Lever for Mainstreaming Sustainability:
Moving from 'Should' to 'Ought'

In driving engagement and behavior change, the power is often in the subtleties. So here’s a little thought that just might be a big thought: As we work toward mainstreaming sustainability, we should stop talking in terms of should, and instead we ought to start speaking in terms of ought.

Here’s what I mean. “Should” makes a demand on us that comes from outside us, and often from above us. Authority figures tell us we “should” clean our room, do our homework, be home by eleven, eat less, move more, live with less, choose wisely and recycle. We feel it pressing upon us as one more thing to add to our list of things to do, or to refrain from doing, to win favor and avoid guilt.

“Ought,” on the other hand, is not imposed from without or from on high. Rather it emerges from inside us, or among us. It isn’t imposed — it’s discovered, internalized, shared, agreed upon. When we say, “I ought to” do something, there is no pressure and no guilt because we buy into it already. In this regard, my favorite definition of ought is found among those offered by Merriam-Webster: natural expectation.

Should is a burden, but ought is a joy. Should is what we will do if forced, but ought is what we will do unless prevented from doing so. Should is about rules, but ought is what makes rules possible and exceptions rare. At best, should appeals to our self-interest, but ought reflects our individual and shared identity, what we’re really about. Should come from others, but ought comes from us, singular and plural. Should comes from without, while ought comes from within. Should is you-me language, but ought is I-we language. Should is the story others would have us live, while ought is the story we write, and often together.

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If someone says, “You should take out the trash now and make sure you stop what you’re doing by 10:00 so you won’t stay up too late,” I may do it, and I may even agree. But I don’t want to do it. I’d rather take out the trash later and stay up late, continuing to do what I’m doing until I’m good and ready to stop. But if considered in in the language of ought, then yes, obviously I ought to. Of course I ought to, because later I’ll be tired and tomorrow morning too. And I understand that rest is important in order to do the things I want to do, need to do, and mean to do. Also, the trash might start to smell. So instead of grumbling about the should-ing, I’m thankful for the ought-ing. Because taking the trash out and hitting the hay at a reasonable hour are just how we roll around here (In this regard, my favorite line from the late Gregor Barnum, formerly of Seventh Generation, was over lunch one day when we were discussing this topic, and he said, “I shoulded when I should’ve oughted. No, wait, I meant when I ought to have oughted!”).

To take a more serious example, if someone argues that we should be faithful to our significant other, or to our planet, there are likely to be many good reasons to agree, both practical and ethical. But it doesn’t mean we truly want to be faithful, which then suggests a possibly ongoing battle, which in turn introduces costly inefficiencies and even risks to our lives. But if we say we ought to be faithful, then it is self-making and self-fulfilling — in this case faithful is more than what we do, rather it is simply yet profoundly what we are.

In our world in working for sustainability, CSR, shared value and good, we quite often speak in terms of should. How often do we hear they (meaning executives, citizens, stakeholders) should care more, listen to us, get the facts. They should change their behavior, their minds, their hearts, their routines, their priorities, their lifestyles, their expectations, their landscape of concern, their habits, their purchases, their pre-purchase research, even change their politics, and maybe even change their religion. Wow. That’s a lot of change! All served up on a big cold plate of “should.” I certainly don’t envy the change agent trying to move that mountain.

But we have a very powerful lever we can pull, and it’s staring us in the face. It is one simple syllable: “ought.” If we can understand what our peers, audiences, stakeholder, cohorts, customers and colleagues believe they ought to do, emerging from their own experience, perceptions, and frames, then we have the foothold to build solid bridges and foundations that drive meaningful and lasting change. Our job is not to convince others, rather it is to see what others evince, to bring out and give form to what is already there or leaning in the direction of whatever it is we wish to make real — in this case, sustainability. Whether we are professionals or volunteers, if we don’t do this well our efforts and investments are inefficient and ineffective at best — or at worst, wasted. In the end, should is the story we tell, but ought is the story we discover and make together when we listen.

We need tools that help discover and leverage these passions and beliefs and frames, turning them into strategy and action that drives change. And the most effective and efficient of these will have “ought” at their core.

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