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Confirmed: It's Not Easy Being Green

4/9/2014 --

New research by Michigan Ross Professor Jane Dutton explains how social issues supporters see themselves and why they face a tall psychological task.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Supporting an issue such as climate change can be a daunting task, with challenges both at work and in one's social life.

New research from Michigan Ross Professor Jane Dutton sheds light on just how daunting by revealing how social issue supporters see themselves in multiple parts of life. Her work looks at what keeps social issue advocates going and what can lead to burnout — findings that could help them and their allies continue to act in issue-supportive ways.

It's one of the first studies to examine a social issue supporter in multiple contexts to paint a full picture of the obstacles they face.

"Commitment to supporting social issues like climate change is often a long-term deal with few clear indicators of success and progress," says Dutton, Robert L. Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Business Administration and Psychology and professor of management and organizations. "We were interested in the bigger story of what keeps social issue supporters psychologically in the game."

Dutton's paper, "It's not Easy Being Green: The Role of Self-Evaluations in Explaining Support of Environmental Issues," was co-authored by Scott Sonenshein of Rice University and Katherine A. DeCelles of the University of Toronto and was published in the Academy of Management Journal.

Their research showed that even the most fervent supporters of an issue — in this case, climate change — face self-doubts. So they examined how everyday experiences shaped the self-evaluations of the people they studied.

"People don't leave their environmental selves at the door when they move across the domains in their lives," Dutton says. "Only by considering the fuller life of social issue supporters could we understand both the obstacles and challenges they faced, and how they created the psychological fuel to keep going and believe in themselves."

The results led to a "theory of situated self-work" that suggests social issue supporters go through an ongoing process of self-appraisal. They ask themselves if they have the knowledge, experience, and values required of an advocate and whether they are doing enough and doing it well.

To keep going, these supporters need to see themselves as having the knowledge and experience that are helpful to the cause. The rub is that these self-assessments are subjective and depend heavily on how they see themselves.

The research shows that social issue supporters, and those who live and work with them, need to realize a number of factors:

  • Self-doubt is an inevitable, and possibly necessary, part of being a social issue supporter.
  • Be ready to deal with it.
  • Be prepared to face skeptics and people who don't share your zeal.
  • Appreciate the assets you bring to the table — knowledge, experience and values — and focus on those.
  • Understand that it's often difficult to tell if you are making a true difference.

"Social issue advocates who were acting in consistently supportive ways saw themselves in more self-affirming ways," Dutton says. "I think our research reminds social issue supporters to broaden the lens for how they see and evaluate themselves and consider a full range of assets they bring to the table."

For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502,