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Inner work for outer change

The programme helping individuals to effect change in their work, political and personal lives
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Liane Stephan, co-founder of Inner Green Deal

This article first appeared in our COP27 special issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published on 11 November 2022. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

People are at the centre of any organisation’s sustainability strategy, but they don’t always feel like it.

The human element can get lost, making it hard for people to feel empowered or to demonstrate leadership that effects tangible positive change.

‘I think it is very natural that the human element has until now been missing from sustainability discourse’, says Liane Stephan, co-founder and co-managing director of the non-profit organisation Inner Green Deal. ‘Only now, when we see many new technologies and sustainability initiatives have brought no improvements, has it become clear that the human being is in the centre of all developments.’

In order to develop the technologies and behaviours we will need in the long run, Liane believes we need to change the way we think, feel and act – and this requires a level of self-reflection that isn’t easy in today’s society.

‘Our brain wants to survive in the present moment and change is exhausting’, Liane explains. ‘When we are stressed, we cannot change because we do not have the mental capacity at that moment. Since almost all organisations are stressed organisations – seeking quick solutions to mounting complex problems – it is very challenging, almost impossible to bring about systemic change.’

Change requires mental resources that many people lack in this unpredictable and fragmented, complex world. We are often tempted to look outside for the solution, and shy away from the knowledge that everything comes from us.

‘Deep down we know about the solutions that would lead to a better world’, Liane explains. ‘We also know as individuals, we should get rid of our car and consume less meat – yet we don’t.’ This cognitive dissonance – the gap between what we know and what we do – is the space where real transformation could occur.

Transforming hearts and minds

Liane and Jeroen Janss co-founded Inner Green Deal as parents concerned about the future of the next generations, and observers unconvinced by the apparent belief among company leaders and policymakers that technological innovations will get the climate crisis under control.

‘The last ICP mentioned, for the first time, that too little attention is paid to the inner dimension of sustainability, meaning the mindset’, Liane tells us. ‘We realised that, with evidence-based and holistic approaches, we could bring about exactly that: a change in behaviour and a systemic and long-term view of the world that would result in a paradigm shift – especially among decision makers.’

The Inner Green Deal offers evidence-based, holistic and mindfulness-based programmes for decision-makers, social entrepreneurs and facilitators.

Based in Cologne and Brussels but with a growing global community, it cultivates collaboration, systems thinking and a widening sense of care; it is about transforming hearts and minds for a more sustainable world.

The name was inspired by the European Union’s Green Deal; the goal of the programme is to balance the EU’s focus on outer transformation – of technology, infrastructure and policymaking – with the human transformation that Liane believes will shift mindsets and culture.

‘The Inner Green Deal means to make an inner deal with oneself, a group or an organisation to actively create a paradigm shift towards a world of compassion, care, clarity and courage’, she summarises.

Discover your calling

The Inner Green Deal programme is run by trainers around the world; each is an expert in their respective field, but all share expertise in facilitating inner change through evidence-based as well as holistic methods.

‘All our international trainers have a long history and field experience working in corporations or for governments’, Liane tells us, ‘and all have a practise of their own that they use to stay
connected to themselves.’

By hosting the majority of its climate leadership programmes online, the Inner Green Deal is able to bring an organisation’s managers or employees together, wherever the individuals and teams are based.

There is also a programme of retreats, such as the Nature or Fellowship programmes, plus training courses for facilitators or community leaders.

’We have everything from three-hour workshops to eight-module programmes and longer journeys – plus everything in between’, Liane reveals. ‘The five- to eight-module programmes stretch over about three months; each module is roughly two hours long and ends with an Action Lab and reflection on how to integrate learnings into attendants’ personal and professional lives.’

Each Inner Green Deal programme always includes a combination of inner and outer transformation, because both are understood to be equally important.

‘Research shows the links between higher levels of compassion for others and increased pro environmental behaviour’, Liane tells us, ‘so we seek to cultivate compassion in our programmes – but we don’t stop there. We also invite people to deeply reflect on how they can contribute, and consider how their talents and their experiences and resources could help to meet needs in the world.’

A lot of space is created to help people get a clearer understanding of their calling, as this is seen as crucial to motivating action. People are then encouraged to explore links between various themes and callings; when there are clusters of interests, people are guided through a process of collaboration in an Action Lab where they identify a sustainability problem and develop a working prototype to address it.

Importantly, this Action Lab is followed by a process of deep reflection where people seek how to continue and integrate their learnings and new initiatives at work and at home.

‘Participants should be motivated to change and have an impact on their organisation and its strategic sustainability goals’, Liane concludes. ‘They do not need any previous experience; our social learning platform and the accompanying app will give participants the necessary knowledge in the field of climate change and a sustainable economy.’

‘The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world — we’ve actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and to each other.’

Author, activist and scholar of general systems theory and deep ecology

Inspiring change

The Inner Green Deal’s short- and long-term programmes have been devised to support organisations and communities that want to become more sustainable and resilient – whether they are private businesses, NGOs or government organisations.

Qualifications are also offered for facilitators with specific backgrounds, who are then able to scale their impact by offering the programmes to their own communities.

‘We very often experience managers who actually want to change something but don’t know how’, Liane explains. ‘They are often tempted to look for solutions in the external world, which is normal because they are part of our performance-driven culture.’

This culture can be the very thing that holds people back; Liane notes that leaders can be so tied to their results-oriented identity that they need to be trained to distance themselves from their own thoughts and world views.

‘When leaders gain the ability to observe their own thoughts and feelings, they become empowered to see how higher consciousness can bring about change’, Liane says. ‘They begin to collaborate more and gain the confidence that they can bring about systemic change. This empowerment makes them act differently because they realise they have people around them who support their sustainable path.’

Potential from partnerships

All evidence suggests that the Inner Green Deal is an effective way to bring about tangible change; the programme’s offerings are evaluated both qualitatively and quantitatively as part of a four-year research partnership with Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, and the results are impressive.

Of 100 leaders from a study of five Inner Green Deal pilot groups, 83% intended to integrate sustainability more at work over the following 12 months and 90% of the participants said they would recommend the programmes.

The Inner Green Deal is currently developing a programme for 100 leaders and policymakers from the Global South, in partnership with the Inner Development Goals and sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation.

It is also partnering with UNDP and will be developing a leadership and capacity-building programme in the context of its Conscious Food System Alliance (CoFSA).

‘The EU has been a key partner for us and we were given the opportunity to pilot our first Climate Leadership programmes for leaders and policymakers at the EU’, Liane tells us. ‘Based on a very positive evaluation, we were invited to offer further programmes to EU leaders and policymakers.’

With strong partnerships in place, Liane is now looking to scale the Inner Green Deal to deliver an even greater impact. Programmes will be shared with a range of outreach partners such as the UNDP, Ashoka, the Inner Development Goals, Greenhouse Group, the Mindfulness Initiative and Awaris.

The Inner Green Deal is also developing a new programme to empower young leaders to support their peers and play an active role in guiding and reverse-mentoring seasoned leaders – an exciting development with huge potential.

‘Through our partners, thousands of facilitators will get access to our programmes, allowing a multiplication of our efforts’, Liane explains. ‘We will train these facilitators and offer them the digital tools to be successful in their community, in their language. All this will require significant investment, for which we are raising funds.’

Finding connection

Liane studied contemplative methods and Buddhism for around 45 years, and the Inner Green Deal hinges on the understanding that everything springs from our minds: as humans we can create either a collaborative and caring, connected world or a world of exploitation and disconnectedness.

Human history is one of separation; over the course of our evolution we have become disconnected from ourselves, others and the natural world, which is how we have been able to exploit our resources.

The new digital world of work amplifies this mindset; we are in increasingly distant contact with nature and have less mental space to see reality as it is – namely that we are part of a greater whole.

‘By cultivating inner qualities, such as agency, compassion, awareness and courage, we can move from helplessness or frustration to a compassionate way of living that looks beyond one’s own ego’, Liane says. ‘This can unlock our collective responsibility and power to make positive changes happen. The crises can no longer be solved individually; we need collective intelligence to develop new ways to cooperate and effect change.’

Choosing to change – on a global scale

For Liane it’s clear – from science, increasingly extreme weather patterns and an ever-growing contingency of voters – that we cannot continue as we do: we have to change.

‘That we will change is a given’, she says; ‘the nature of change is not a given. Essentially we, as humans, either transform because we have learned what needs to be learned or nature, disruption, societal collapse and war will make that change for us. Marginal change will not be enough; we want to do what we can, through our programmes and activities, to facilitate positive change on a global scale.’

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