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Six building blocks to raise your sustainability game

Blog posted by: Mohammad Rickaby, 29 July 2020.


Dr Mohammad Rickaby and Professor Jacqueline Glass explain how you can create an enduring culture and a collective commitment to sustainability.

Have you ever considered why, despite all the measures to improve sustainability, such as assessment tools, standards, strict legislation and guidelines, some projects seem to simply outperform others?

In the construction and infrastructure sector, multiple sustainability issues play out within projects, which are inherently complex and often associated with significant environmental, social and economic impacts.

These projects constitute a diverse set of people, organisations, disciplines, objectives, interests and – of particular interest to us here – values.

Values are the fundamental drivers and predictors of attitudes and behaviours – for people and organisations. And while many firms are now paying increasing attention to corporate values, we are still a long way from taking a values-based approach to the management of performance, particularly around sustainability. 

We’ve been investigating the role and relationship of values with sustainability performance, using a large infrastructure project in the UK as a case study. The research identified six important building blocks that can guide individuals and organisations towards more sustainable projects. 

You can forget the iron triangle – it’s time to think about:

1. A sense of belonging

Have you ever wondered how people feel about being part of your project? Individuals’ perceived sense of belonging can make all the difference. Their emotional connection, sense of comfort and loyalty influences how well your employees associate with the project and its goals. The stronger the sense of belonging people experience or perceive, the stronger the team spirit, and this in turn encourages and supports a collective approach to delivering outcomes. Achieving sustainability requires a unified and collective approach; individuals need to be open and transparent – collaborating, cooperating and communicating effectively.

2. Moral obligation

How comfortable and willing do you feel speaking up when something is not right? Moral obligation arises from our ethical motives, or felt responsibility, and so influences behaviours with ethical or moral dimensions – with sustainability being a prime example. Ask for ethical sourcing and pay more, or turn a blind eye and pay less? Such obligation is essential for reciprocal, complimentary and collective actions. It helps develop commitment and foster relationships. Creating the right environment will encourage employees to not only act responsibly, but also serve loyally and faithfully support others in collectively achieving project goals – including sustainability.

3. Creativity

How creative is your project environment? What does creativity mean to you and your team? The development of novel ideas for products, practices, services or procedures can underpin sustainability innovation and better performance. Project managers can actively encourage and support creativity by normalising and hardwiring this into project environments. Developing such an environment will in turn empower individuals to innovate, express and constructively challenge ideas, and make suggestions. It’s time to get those creative juices flowing to devise new ways to tackle sustainability issues.

4. Challenge

How passionate and thrilled do you feel doing your job? Do you and your colleagues get a sense of fulfilment at work? Sustainability encompasses both technical and people issues – and that’s both the solution and the problem. The sheer scope of the challenge faced in addressing sustainability can be overwhelming, but project professionals thrive on complexity and are motivationally driven to work on, and deal with, challenging endeavours. Perceived challenge stimulates problem-solving, creativity and proactive behaviour, and develops strength and resilience. It develops a positive emotional experience that may in turn influence project performance, through favourable attitudes and behaviours. Challenge-related stressors can encourage the attitudes and behaviours needed to meet sustainability targets on even the largest projects.

5. Change

How is change perceived in your workplace? How valued are suggestions and ideas in your workplace? The construction industry is known to be accustomed to a traditional way of working, so change can be perceived negatively. Change can also be a driver for transformation, and an opportunity to make a difference. It entails taking the initiative, being proactive and participating in suggestion-making, to change and challenge the status quo. The road to sustainability requires the active pursuit of ideas and suggestions, so change should be part and parcel of everything we do in projects. Let’s have project managers encouraging individuals to be change agents to improve sustainability performance.

6. Going beyond compliance

Let’s be honest – how many times do you just settle for what’s in the contract? How high have you ever set the bar? Corporate citizenship transcends mere compliance – it improves and advances the sustainability agenda beyond the basics. Achieving sustainability should not be constrained by processes and procedures. Rather, sustainability embraces ethical rules and social criteria to ensure we can collectively pursue economic, environmental and social concerns. This means going that extra mile, and striving for exemplary and ethical behaviour to collectively make a difference.

So, what now?

These six building blocks could be the start of an interesting and exciting journey for you and your team to create an enduring culture and a collective commitment towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

We’d encourage you to think and reflect on your project environments. Realistically, how would you rate your projects against these six building blocks? What have you done, or are you going to do, differently to facilitate and harness collective concern for sustainability and better project delivery?

Dr Mohammad Rickaby’s EngD thesisDefining the relationship between personal values and sustainability performance in a TMO setting, on which the content of this blog is based, is now available.

Also, take a look at APM’s Projecting the Future paper on climate change and the role of the project profession in meeting net zero targets by 2050.


Dr Mohammad Rickaby is a project manager for the Lower Thames Crossing Project at Highways England.

Professor Jacqueline Glass is Professor in Construction Management at The Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management, and Vice Dean, Research, at The Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, University College London.

About the Author

Dr Mohammad Rickaby is a project manager for the Lower Thames Crossing Project at Highways England.


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