With the global climate change discussions and the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC), we are constantly told that we need to accelerate real decisions on reducing emissions across all countries.

This year will see two key events that are said to either make or break the global climate regime: the UN Secretary General’s Climate Change Summit in New York in September and the 25th UNFCCC Convention of Parties (CoP 25) meeting in Santiago, Chile in December.

Having attended this week some of the United Nations’ meetings in Bonn for the 50th Subsidiary Body of Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA), I have been increasingly thinking about timing of these decisions.

Many of the current discussions come back to the issue of timing indeed, and I was very pleased to read Daniel Pink’s book “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” that looks at the latest scientific evidence of when we should make particular decisions.


Achieving mid-point “uh-oh”

The science behind when groups make decisions, how they achieve joint outcomes, and when this agreement exactly happens in the negotiation and decision-making processes has been of interest for a long time.

Pink cites the work of Connie Gersick who has studied group dynamics and the factors that seem to influence the most when decisions get made.

She observed a curious trend in her research on how teams work: when people were working in groups to make a decision, often very little happened in the beginning.

But when they reached the mid-point (they had only very limited time left to come up with the idea), there was a rather quick and sudden transition that re-energised the group to come up with the idea and agreement:

“In a concentrated burst of changes, groups dropped old patterns, reengaged with outside supervisions, adopted new perspectives of their work, and made dramatic progress”(p. 126).

This sudden change could be seen across multiple different teams that were part of the study and it reinforces the idea that recognition of time limitation spurs action:

“No matter how much time the various teams were allotted, “each group experienced its transition at the same time in its calendar – precisely halfway between its first official meeting and its official deadline” (p. 126).

This phenomenon was consistent in all the teams studied ranging from bankers to hospital workers, with each team initially making very little progress on the big questions and decisions, but then leaping into a major solution.

Pink notes that the mid-term realisation results in an “uh-oh” moment when the team realises it is running out of time and that it needs to really deliver a key decision or strategy:

“When we reach a midpoint, sometimes we slump, but other times we jump. A mental siren alerts us that we’ve squandered half of our time. That injects a healthy dose of stress- Uh-oh, we are running out of time!- that revives our motivation and reshapes our strategy”(p. 127). 

Clearly for some this finding does not necessarily resonate as a good way to make decisions but for those of us working in the climate change space, perhaps we can see more ambition but more also real decisions to tackle in each country what this means.


The boss that  all groups need 

But we cannot naively assume that people just come together to work in a team or a group or a convention, and that decisions are reached by consensus (by now we are seeing already signs that 100% consensus IS one of the main reasons why UNFCCC moves slowly).

Looking at the research on group and team behaviour, and how these processes can be made effective, Pink notes that you really need a boss.

Organisations work because there is hierarchy and coordination, and getting people to work together requires still in this day and age a healthy dose of leadership:

“The first principle of syncing fast and slow is that group timing requires a boss- someone or something above and apart from the group itself to set the pace, maintain the standards, and focus the collective mind” (p. 183).

Pink uses the case of dabbawalas in India (who deliver people’s lunches in Mumbai) and how these people do not have one person as a boss but their boss is the railway schedule: each person needs to be on that train on time so that all the lunches are in the train and so are all the people who deliver these.

But the importance of a “boss” is not enough for effective coordination and action.

Another key ingredient is belonging:

“After the individuals synch with the boss, the external standard that sets the pace of their work, they must synch with the tribe- to one another. This requires a deep sense of belonging” (p. 189).

If your staff or your colleagues are not able to feel they belong, the likelihood that they would make good decisions, contribute to the organisational goals and vision, lowers significantly.

They start and continue watching for their own interests and goals, and some even make great efforts in derailing the collective progress so that they can ensure for their own companies and countries the outcomes they, not the collective, hold important.

Research has found that in fact feelings of not belonging can result in adverse health outcomes, lower ambition and reduce the willingness to collaborate and work hard.


Humanising processes to increase belonging  

So how do we change this and increase the sense of belonging and reduce the us vs. them attitude that so easily prevails?

To understand this, I think we need to get to the core of why people and organisations feel like they do not belong, the underlying factors that drive our behaviour towards one way or the other.

Belonging is essentially about connecting with a higher vision and feeling part of the community and the decision-making processes.

This is a broad challenge that many leaders will face increasingly as the work force continues to diversify, new kinds of jobs emerge, and the external conditions change rapidly where these companies and organisations operate within.

In the climate change policy arena, these conditions are already changing rapidly.

We are also constantly told that we need to accelerate real decisions on reducing emissions across all countries given that we only have 11 years left to make truly significant decisions to keep the global temperature under 2 degrees.

Groups like the Extinction Rebellion and individuals like Greta Thunberg are challenging the current structures for decision-making and in particular the speed by which action is taken and decisions are  made.

The question that many people are starting to ask whether processes like the UNFCCC are robust enough to get things done (real change that reduces emissions and enables robust climate adaptation) or whether the true ambition and action actually resides outside of the Convention.

There are also discussions whether it makes sense to come together every year for a big Convention meeting to negotiate especially once the countries have agreed how to implement the Paris Agreement.

With the urgency that has been set by the IPCC 1.5 Report, the question is whether we recognise the mid-point we are in, and whether that enables us to also accept the leadership we need that can also helps us to belong.

Perhaps a switch towards pursuing #SantiagoSolutions for the upcoming COP25 could  signal that Time for Action is now and that we are on the right track in bringing in real meaningful change in how we live as a global community.