Business Psychology and Energy Management – An Interview With Dr. Phillipa Coan

Dr Phillipa Coan - 2EA

Dr Phillipa Coan

Phillipa Coan is an expert in workplace environmental behaviour change and a leading figure in applying business psychology to the area. Her PhD broadly looked at different strategies for changing employee behaviour to be more environmentally sustainable and she won both university and national awards. Her consultancy work has spanned a variety of sectors and industries including oil and gas, manufacturing, engineering, healthcare, academia and financial services. Phillipa is also a Visiting Research Fellow at Leeds University Business School and a chartered member of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology.


Following our interview with Andrew Geens, Head of CIBSE Certification on the Building Services Industry and its future, we interviewed Dr Phillipa Coan on how organisations can look beyond the balance sheet when it comes to energy saving strategies, and where this field of study is heading.

Q) What is business psychology and behavioural change?

Business psychologists (BPs) improve the performance of organisations by exploring human behaviour within the workplace – the type of work is extremely varied and can include selecting in people who demonstrate certain knowledge, skills and behaviours: up-skilling employees; improving employee motivation; stress management; and helping facilitate any organisational change. Within almost all of these areas employees will need to change and/or sustain various behaviours for optimum performance.

Q) How did you come to be in this field? Why specialise in business and environmental sustainability?

In 2009 I came across an article written by researchers from Leeds University Business School calling for more BPs to apply their knowledge and skills to the issue of climate change mitigation. The article suggested that improving the environmental performance of organisations was similar to any other traditional organisational change challenge. I knew immediately this would be a fascinating and important area I could contribute towards. I decided to do a PhD on the subject so I could learn as much as possible whilst still working as a broader BP.

Q) What is the relationship between business psychology and energy management? Are there benefits to this relationship?

Energy management can often be dominated with technical solutions including: installing new technologies and business management systems; carrying out audits and data analysis; and improving building design. People-based solutions are comparatively underused or introduced rather haphazardly in the form of an isolated awareness campaign. There is often limited integration between technical and people-based solutions, for example when new technologies are introduced that fail to meet projected energy savings because employees are not using or accepting them in the way they were intended. Business psychologists lend themselves to the area by having the knowledge and skills to be able to motivate, empower, engage, up-skill and facilitate change as well as embed change across the organisation.

However, whilst psychology is integral, it’s important to recognise that no one discipline holds all the answers for a given problem. To this end, last year I set up a company called STRIDE which specialises in bringing together the technical expertise of energy management consultants and the people expertise of BPs to provide multidisciplinary, integrated approaches to energy management.

Q) In all the years you have worked in this field, what trends have you found?

I think there are some common mistakes organisations make which prevent behaviour change initiatives being as successful as they could be…

  • Mistake number 1: Running an awareness campaign which consists of presenting employees with information leaflets and posters. This approach will rarely lead to the behaviour changes expected. Firstly, the information needs to be tailored to the target audience so it is relevant and meaningful, it needs to be appropriately framed (often by describing what employees stand to lose rather than gain), and importantly it needs to be combined with feedback, goal setting and commitments. Second, employees need to be involved in the process – they need to be asked about the problem. It’s most likely they will know where most energy is wasted and have ideas for how this could be improved. Without involving and empowering those people whose behaviour you are trying to change, the process is unlikely to be successful.
  • Mistake number 2: Providing financial incentives. Whilst these are good in the short term, once the money is removed behaviour will immediately stop because you’ve removed any intrinsic motivation that could be influencing behaviour. Recent research (and my own experience) suggests recognition and praise tend to lead to more energy saving behaviours than financial rewards.
  • Mistake number 3: Failing to take into account what individuals are doing at home. If employees are changing their behaviour at work but still carrying out poor environmental habits at home then this new behaviour at work becomes harder to habitualise and therefore sustain over time. Work-based initiatives need to draw upon what employees are doing outside the workplace so employees start considering their environmental behaviour no matter what social context they are in.

Q) Have you had any case studies or publications around this field?

Yes, I’ll pull out three:

  • My PhD investigated if we could accelerate environmental behaviour change by causing behavioural chain reactions across work and home. The research was carried out in an oil and gas company and a manufacturing company. In a nutshell, behaviours tended to spill over from home to work if the organisation provided the right context. This included having top management support for environmental behaviour, a supportive organisational culture and a corporate environmental strategy.
  • I’ve co-authored a publication with Dr Matt Davis investigating how to improve the environmental sustainability of organisations. We discussed four key factors: setting up the right organisational culture; providing strong leadership and change agents; building employee engagement and empowerment; and recognising the differing forms that change may take.
  • Alongside my colleague Dr Lara Zibarras, we presented the results of a survey investigating current Human Resource Management (HRM) practices used to promote pro-environmental behavior in a sample of 214 UK organisations (representing different sizes and industry sectors). HRM practices included: recruitment; appraisal; training; rewards; employee empowerment; and manager involvement. Overall, findings indicated that HRM practices are not yet used to a great extent to encourage employees to become more pro-environmental. The most prevalent practices used within organisations incorporated elements of management involvement supporting the idea that managers are the gatekeepers to environmental performance. However, I would add to this that senior management commitment is not enough: there needs to be strong commitment at all levels particularly middle management who can make or break an initiative.

Q) When introducing business psychology in the business environment for energy management, what’s the biggest challenge?

I think the challenge is the same for any profession working in this industry – recognising when collaboration with others is necessary. I strongly believe that any energy saving intervention that does not adopt a multidisciplinary approach will not be successful in the long term.

Q) Where do you see the field of energy management and business psychology heading?

There is increasing interest in linking the two fields together. I sit on a working group within the Energy Institute that serves this very purpose. We have an event in the New Year that aims to link up psychologists with energy management consultants to work on joint projects with end users. I, for example, am teaming up with a chartered energy management consultant called John Mulholland who has 40 years experience in energy management and behaviour change, is an ESOS Lead Assessor and has experience in auditing and ISO 50001. This collaboration therefore combines best practice psychology with technical, data-driven energy management expertise. The future looks very exciting.

Q) And finally for our readers, what would be the first small step you would recommend in making these changes?

Quite simply talk to those people whose behaviour you are trying to change. Find out what they think the barriers and opportunities are – listen and work together to build a strategy moving forward. It’s important to recognise that whilst some behaviour change opportunities are readily apparent, others are not so easily recognised and require meaningful interaction with end-users. Often this will involve establishing what the co-benefits are for end-users beyond just saving energy. By doing this you can generate multiple levers for change. For example, saving energy may also lead to improved: health and safety; working conditions; productivity; innovation; less wear and tear on equipment; improved company reputation; links to broader corporate objectives and strategy as well as links to ISO 50001 (this energy management standard provides an ideal platform for people-based solutions ensuring continuity when staff change and an agenda for continual improvement).

If you would like to know more about the type of work Phillipa does please contact her on

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