This article series is about how to find the community to collaborate in order to bring the Circular Economy to life in your organisation. We are exploring how to build the momentum and how to keep the energy high until your circular initiative is completed successfully.

In previous articles we have seen that having the “right” business case is crucial in order to succeed with a circular initiative. We have seen that the question of “what is in there for me” is central when it comes to employees and managers. In this article we want to go deeper into the question of what motivates employees and management to transition towards a circular economy.

Introducing the circular economy is about people and their motivation to contribute to another way of doing business.

What is intrinsic motivation about?

Intrinsic motivations come from within a person rather than from external factors. When you are intrinsically motivated, you engage in an activity because you enjoy it and get personal satisfaction from doing it. For example, when we ask people why they are committed to the sustainability agenda, some speak about their grandchildren, others refer to a personal, moral obligation. In contrast, if someone is extrinsically motivated, they do something in order to gain an external reward. The typical example is the financial bonus for business performance.

So let’s have a look at why it is important to be aware of the motivation that originates from within a person in the context of the circular economy.

Why is it essential to build on intrinsic motivation in the transition towards a circular economy?

The Circular Economy concept is not an easy one. Designing out waste and closing the resource loop can be perceived as complex and ambitious. Research has shown that some see the concept as “too radical to be fully adopted”(1).

Sustainability professionals often feel overwhelmed in their task to initiate and to lead change in the way of working. They perceive the need to continuously motivate colleagues and external stakeholders to engage. It is worth looking into what helps in this task. Making use of the intrinsic motivation of people is one big enabler to be aware of in the context of the Circular Economy.

The advantage of intrinsically motivated people is that they do not need to be convinced first. They engage in an activity because they get personal satisfaction from doing it.

Let motivation work for your initiative.

Intrinsically motivated colleagues are great allies in the early stage of the transition towards the Circular Economy. They are willing to engage and they can contribute in convincing others in joining in. Intrinsically motivated people are more likely to go the full way. They do not stop as soon as the first obstacles come along.

Intrinsically motivated people are very good early adopters. They are great ambassadors and can play a key role in rolling out a circular agenda in an organisation or within a team.

Intrinsic motivation and the circular economy are interdependent

Applying the Circular Economy is hardly possible without people being motivated and engaged. The following list of key features of the Circular Economy shows the role people and their personal contributions play in the transition:

  1. Your teams need to innovate. Fresh ideas, collective intelligence and experimentation are needed in order to create new solutions and products in the circular way.
  2. Your colleagues should have a circular mindset, think outside the box and look at resources and resource flows in a new way.
  3. People need to work across sections: You need people who are willing to collaborate across departments and with external stakeholders in order to make this happen. For example, in order to build up the infrastructure for taking back products, you need people who build up the internal and external infrastructure.
  4. You need to work in ecosystems: Circularity often requires you to make complex changes, like replacing product elements with regenerative components. In order to find these new solutions you need networks and you need to engage with external stakeholders.

People and their motivation to contribute to the change are key. In order to build on this motivation it is good to know what exactly motivates them. It is worth understanding what exactly satisfies people personally and how this can be integrated into initiatives contributing to a more circular way in an organisation.

What motivates people that benefits the transition to the Circular Economy?

  1. Contribution to something meaningful: In general people want to contribute to something meaningful. Also in their work. Research has shown that the majority of employees support the CSR initiatives of their employer. People are usually open to address environmental issues at work – if given the opportunity.
  2. Security and future perspective: The Circular Economy is an attractive concept creating “a lot of energy, enthusiasm and unleashes a positive attitude because it aligns sustainable business concepts with fundamental business interests.” (2). The Circular Economy is a future-proof concept and people see its potential for growth and for new jobs.
  3. Creativity: Some circular challenges require out of the box thinking and creativity. This becomes obvious in the design of new (circular) products. People with creative minds will happily take up these challenges and are grateful for any opportunity to bring in their ideas.
  4. Personal achievement and progress: The challenges to find circular solutions, new technologies (e.g. recycling technologies) and processes (e.g. product design) are attractive for researchers, engineers and explorers. Intrinsically motivated people enjoy the satisfaction from personal achievement and progress. Changing from a linear to a circular business model requires your employees to develop their skills and experience further. A new way of thinking and doing is needed. Those who achieve to successfully apply circular solutions at their workplace will be satisfied.

How to build on the intrinsic motivation of your colleagues

Here is what you can do in order to use the intrinsic motivation of your colleagues for the benefit of your circular initiative:

  1. Align vision and objective with your colleagues yearning for a purpose

Your role is to create opportunities for colleagues to understand what is in there for them and to find their own interests connected to the circular initiative. Make sure that your colleagues see the link between your initiative and a higher purpose that they are motivated to contribute to. People easily see the link between circular action and the protection of the environment. However, this is not sufficient. Your people need to see the direct contribution and how it works in practice. Ideally they can also judge how significant their contribution will be, e.g. by giving an estimated impact of your initiative on the environment in numbers.

But do not only speak in dry numbers. People want to work in the service of something larger than one’s self. This desire is often not rational reasoning but influenced by emotions. Formulate your vision in an inspiring way, as Jan Mühlfelt the former Chairman of Microsoft Europe suggests: “(…) you can motivate people’s hands or their brains but you can’t motivate their hearts – it takes real inspiration.”

2. Give space for colleagues to act according to their motivation

Daniel Pink, an expert for human behaviour in the business context, states that we will never completely be motivated to complete a task if we do not have the ability to control what, when, and how we work. Innovation, creativity and new ways of working will only happen if there is room for initiative and experimentation. Creating spaces outside the common working routine helps in this regard. In upcoming articles of this series we will go deeper into how you can create and support the space for colleagues to work autonomously.

3. Challenge for mastery

In order to solve the wicked problems in the transition to a Circular Economy, you need the best from your colleagues. You can initiate team challenges in the early stages of your initiative. Working with challenges and friendly competition are great ways to satisfy people’s need for personal achievement and progress.


Building on intrinsic motivation for the transition towards a Circular Economy is helpful. Let motivation work for your initiative. The Circular Economy is an attractive agenda that can be linked to your colleagues personal interests. Help them to understand what is in there for them and tap into an enormous potential of engagement, creativity and problem-solving.

?Read the next article on March 31st on enabling cross-functional collaboration

  1. Be in the Loop: Circular Economy & Strategic Sustainable Development, 2013, page 49
  2. Be in the Loop: Circular Economy & Strategic Sustainable Development, 2013, page 38

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