February 22, 2022

Sustainability Series 7: Intrapersonal Competency

This week in Sustainability we are looking at the Intrapersonal Competency component of sustainability (and Interpersonal Competency as a bonus!). In our experience this is the pillar of sustainability that deserves far more attention than it gets. In a field populated by highly driven and analytical people, sustainability advocates and professionals often neglect simple inter- and intra-personal skills.

What is Interpersonal Competency?

In the context of sustainability work, interpersonal competency focuses on caring for your community by communicating in a way that is accessible. When scientists discuss sustainability issues in public forums, they can often unintentionally make some groups of people feel unwelcome or unheard.

Why Interpersonal Competency for Sustainability?

Science communication, intended to share important work and results, can often push away the very people that researchers are aiming to help.  Overuse of jargon and unwillingness of science communicators to meet their audience where they are can create a lack of trust or interest in scientific results.  Additionally, there is often inherent positionality in science communication where peer-reviewed studies may be valued at the expense of community lived experience and multi-generational knowledge. This can not only alienate target audiences but also cause researchers to miss valuable data points that might influence their conclusions. Watch this video lecture to learn more about creating inclusive and equitable science communication.

In the field of sustainability, communication efforts can also get mired in heavy emotions that make action unappealing to people. Sustainability work tackles todays’ biggest and most wicked problems, which can often seem insurmountable. Research has shown that when people believe that the future is bleak, they are less likely to take actions in their lives that would benefit themselves or their communities in the long run.

A great example of approachable and uplifting sustainability communication comes from UGA Housing, who made a series of videos about sustainable living in residence halls. This one included links to an early version of the CIRT platform that students could use to recycle right on campus. While college housing videos may seem “corny” and insignificant, productions like these are often the most effective interpersonal communication tools for sustainability advocates. This video doesn’t blame the audience for not having the best sustainability knowledge, it meets viewers where they are (literally- in the residence hall!) and gives them hopeful, actionable information. Some other great examples of effective sustainability communication from UGA Housing include an initiative where students can get their dorm rooms “Green Room” Certified, and the Green Cup Challenge where residence halls compete to see who can reduce their water and electricity use the most. These programs give college students accessible, approachable, uplifting opportunities to contribute to a larger mission around sustainable living.

What is Intrapersonal Competency?

Interpersonal Competency is the internal work in which sustainability professionals and students must engage in order to remain powerful advocates for their cause. It is the ability "as a whole person and as a change agent, to effectively be able to function in a challenging world whilst protecting core wellbeing, integrity and commitment"--MDPI

Why Intrapersonal Competency for Sustainability?

We really can’t say this better than Wiek in Beyond Interpersonal Competence: Teaching and Learning Professional Skills in Sustainability. People “choose sustainability [programs/work] because they want to make a positive difference [but] they often find themselves overwhelmed when working on sustainability issues. They experience mental and emotional distress because of the urgency, complexity, and intractability inherent in sustainability issues. Similar to other fields in the caring professions sustainability [advocates] often feel they are not fast or good enough to make a positive difference, and also experience compassion fatigue.”

Preventative self-care is therefore absolutely essential for sustainability professionals. Sustaining hope and drive in the face of wicked problems and a “one step forward two steps back” political environment can be exhausting. Universities and employers must therefore actively work to support their sustainability advocates’ mental and emotional resources.

At CIRT, we are very aware of the dangers of burnout and emotional erosion. Working at a tech startup isn’t a 9-5 job, it’s a lifestyle. And it’s an exhausting lifestyle at that. At CIRT we are all united by an authentic passion for our product and mission- fighting waste and pollution by improving circularity. But what happens when burnout comes knocking at the door? Here are some of our favorite tricks for prioritizing the intrapersonal competency at CIRT:

  • Keep plants at your workstation- something growing and fresh. It may seem silly but this can be a very effective stress-reduction tool for some people.
  • Because startups don’t really have weekends, it’s important for employees to take small breaks throughout the week. When employees are feeling particularly overwhelmed during the day they are encouraged to press pause. This could be going to get your nails done, walking around the block, heading to the studio for an exercise class, you name it. We find that when employees take small hour to hour and a half breaks overall productivity and morale are higher.
CIRT CEO/CIO Katherine Shayne and Chief People Person Christian Foster at a company-wide roadside cleanup event.
  • Engage in company-wide community service. This one is SUPER important for keeping motivation high. When you work in the sustainability space the problems are big and solutions can move slowly. Company-wide community service helps us to stay engaged with actionable solutions in our community, and remain connected to the drive and passion that lead us to CIRT in the first place! It feels good to accomplish something as a company like cleaning a section of roadside or river, while we also work on the long-view issue of circularity.
  • Don’t be afraid to take a personal day once in a while. CIRT has a flexible scheduling model where we have worked to normalize taking a day off to recover from work. An important part of CIRT’s Personal Days philosophy is that they don’t take away from employees’ hard-earned vacation days.
  • De-stigmatize mental health. This should go without saying, but we always listen seriously to those who are struggling with mental and emotional health. It is important to treat mental health the same as any other illness that would cause an employee to miss work- have procedures in place that allow folks to take sick days, and support them in looking for medical attention. (If you or someone that you know is struggling with thoughts of self harm or suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255).