Since launching Breaking The Brand in 2013 and highlighting the Spiral Dynamics, behaviour change, Model we use to create our rhino horn demand reduction campaigns in Viet Nam, we have constantly been asked for more information on the model and how it works.  I wrote an introductory blog about the model in January 2014: providing examples on how it could be used in conservation.

When a recent article profiling socially conscious billionaires talking up Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) – ‘Zillionaires’ warned: wake up, it won’t last: ) – caught my attention I decided to revisit Spiral Dynamics for a new blog. It can be used to explain why CSR didn’t have the impact we had hoped for and why we don’t hear so much about it anymore.


The article discusses a small, but growing, number of the world’s billionaires talking about how a tiny percentage, 0.1 per cent of the 0.1 per cent, of the world’s wealthy are raiding the world’s spoils, saying it is unfair and not sustainable. It caught my eye for a couple of reasons. One of the people quoted is Paul Tudor-Jones – a private owner of a significant number of rhinos. He is quoted in the article as saying that “such divides have historically been resolved in one of three ways: taxes, wars or revolution”. Though the article quotes the French Revolution, Tudor-Jones has seen a ‘revolution’ not so far back in history given he has a base in Zimbabwe.

The other reason for my interest was the article’s references to Corporate Social Responsibility. I remember being both relieved and excited to see the evolution of CSR in the 1990s as we emerged from the Thatcher/Reagan/Gekko –“Greed is good” 1980s. Already working in the area of leadership development, this was the first time I used the Spiral Dynamics Model. Then, I used the it to explain to business leaders and managers why their employee’s and customer’s expectations of them were changing.

I am going to give you a brief recap of Spiral Dynamics and then provide a number of quite different examples on how the model can be used to explain values/behaviour evolution in a range of situations.

Quick Spiral Dynamics Model Recap

As individuals we are not fixed in our nature, we evolve and adapt due to different life circumstances; Spiral Dynamics is one of the models used to describe this evolution or regression. The research undertaken over many years has uncovered that this model works on the individual level and also on the level of a group or even whole societies; it also established that this model is independent of culture, which led the developers to believe that it is associated with the ‘deep structure’ of our consciousness. Progression along the levels is based on ‘transcend and include’, meaning you don’t lose access to the previous values level when you move to the next one.

 slide-sd  sd2

Spiral Dynamics Model Examples

Two scenarios to illustrate the model:

  1. Corporate Social Responsibility, Leadership and Increasing Personal Debt and
  2. Long-Term Unemployment

Example 1: Corporate Social Responsibility, Leadership and Personal Debt

csr1During the 1980s and early 90s senior managers who had grown up in business cultures where it was OK to simply tell people what to do and expect them to do it (BLUE: Directive Leadership) started to realise that their leadership style had to evolve to include visionary behaviours; they had to inspire/influence people to follow them (ORANGE: Visionary Leadership). With the emergence of CSR in the 90s, they now also had to demonstrate that the business was not solely about profit generation, but also cared about people, society and the environment (GREEN: Affiliative Leadership).

This was imperative because a growing group of affluent people were starting to reject the corporate world (ORANGE). At the time it was estimated that about 20% of Australians had evolved to GREEN values. Many, the so called Sea/Tree changers, were leaving big business. Developing a business model that embraced CSR also reflected the response to concerns from GREEN groups, and a subset of the customer base with GREEN values, to the externalisation of operating costs onto the environment and society.

csr2But something happened from about 2000 onwards that reversed this trend – increasing personal debt. In Australia and elsewhere, as house prices increased rapidly, people took on more debt. More personal debt means higher interest payments and less disposable income.  Hence peoples’ focus returned to financial security, the (higher, GREEN) egalitarian community values became less of a priority. This reversal was accelerated after the global financial crisis in 2008. During this time period two things happened – many people previously operating from GREEN went back to ORANGE based behaviour because their livelihood was under threat AND corporations, in the main, dropped CSR. If it still existed at all, the CSR process that emerged in the 1990s deteriorated in to a ‘bolt on’ PR exercise (‘greenwash’) or a ‘tick box reporting’ sustainability exercise. Neo-conservative business values and behaviours re-emerged in full force, despite causing the crisis in the first place, greatly puzzling the GREEN crowd.

Yet from a Spiral Dynamics perspective there is no great puzzle at all – people who had evolved to GREEN level values/behaviours and as a result challenged their employers to be better corporate citizens and their leaders to care more regressed back to ORANGE when feeling insecure due to an uncertain economy and higher levels of debt.

Example 2: Long-Term Unemployment

sd3Another issue that can be described by the Spiral Dynamics Model, are the implications of long-term unemployment.

When someone who has reached GREEN or ORANGE values/behaviours becomes unemployed, they usually regress to RED within 6-12 months of unemployment. The lack of routine and the isolation means that an egocentric values system (RED) is re-activated as there is no longer any use for the higher values.

When such a person re-enters the workplace after long-term unemployment, they usually cannot go back to ORANGE or GREEN behaviours instantaneously. This is often the reason they cannot get through a probationary period and fall out of employment again.

In the first instance they are looking for security after the extended insecurity of RED and unemployment – that means they are looking for BLUE. Pre-employment programs or transition to work programs designed to help the long-term unemployed need to offer a BLUE environment (safe with clear structure and rules) to help employment outcomes become sustainable.

Back to the Spiral Dynamics Model and Behaviour Change in Conservation

In recent times CSR/GREEN values have started to evolve to some degree in China and SE Asia. There is increasing evidence that Asian business and business leaders have understood that with increasing wealth comes a greater expectation that they aspire to higher conservation and social values.

Yet the same dangers that reversed the CSR trend in the West is now lurking in SE Asia – economic uncertainty. This was alluded to in other article that caught my eye in recent days:

rmb1Jitters in the Chinese stock market and 50 million empty, new-built apartments are clear examples of investment uncertainty in China. We already know that people who can get their money out of China are investing internationally. Property prices around the world are being driven up by Chinese investors. In this month’s Virgin Australia Magazine an article on Detroit states “Land and buildings are cheap – so cheap that Asian investors have started buying up land parcels and simply holding them, willing to bet that there value will rise one day”.  But these are the people who CAN get their money out of the country; more concerning are the bulk of the people who cannot.

As the value of investments and property falls in China and South East Asia people who have accumulated wealth (ORANGE) will not risk losing it; they will look for alternative ways to store and maintain it. Scarily some of the commodities that have the potential to be used as a store for this newly acquired wealth are wildlife ‘commodities’ – rhino horn, ivory etc. As with all stores of value, the value is simply a result of social convention. The world needs to ensure that political and business leaders in these countries know we expect them to assure us that this will not be tolerated and social conventions need to be changed.

In Conclusion

What is interesting about the ‘Zillionaires’ article that prompted this blog is its talks about how “a tiny percentage, 0.1 per cent of the 0.1 per cent, of the world’s wealthy are raiding the world’s spoils, saying it is unfair and not sustainable” and that “such divides have historically been resolved in one of three ways: taxes, wars or revolution”. When these divides occur the people who ‘lose’ regress to RED. At this point they can withdraw, and become invisible, turning their negative emotions in on themselves. As social safety nets and supports are chipped away they become a forgotten underclass. But if the negative emotion is turned outwards and they perceive their society has stopped caring for them there is a potential that they fight back. In the 1980’s, some of Thatcher’s unemployed became the ‘Fuck Em’ generation whose anthems were performed by the likes of The Clash, The Sex Pistols and UB40. Today, we see this in the protest movements in Greece and Spain, and in the proliferation of ‘dystopia movies’ – Hunger Games etc.

I hope that these billionaires do genuinely care enough. If they did, then there may be a possibility to reverse the trend to increasing inequality before it is too late. I hope this isn’t another ‘bolt on’ PR exercise or, as the article puts it, “are they simply paying lip service to a shift in the political winds? Or perhaps it’s just a statistical blip, given that most of the world’s 1800 billionaires are not exactly out at the barricades lifting pitchforks for economic change”.

I similarly hope that this expanded foray into Spiral Dynamics gives you an indication how a model like this can be used to explain a number of social phenomena and behaviours related to values and behaviour evolution. It certainly is a model that can be considered by all conservation organisations in their desire to influence their donors, their opponents, users of wildlife ‘products’ and traditional societies in range states.

These are the views of writer: Dr. Lynn Johnson, Founder, Breaking the Brand