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How Leaders Can Drive a Culture of Sustainability Through the Base Framework

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Most of us have heard the saying that the only constant in life is change. Yet most of us probably find it hard to affect change in the various areas of our lives, be it changing our habits to eat healthier and work out more or make the improvements we want to see in our relationships or our careers. When it comes to driving the significant changes required to shift towards a more sustainable way of doing things, both on an individual level and as an organization, most would say they have the desire to become more sustainable. But finding the will to change can be particularly hard.

Why is it so challenging to drive lasting change? And why do some organizations do it better than others? How can organizations drive change more effectively, instead of the typical approaches that are short-lived?

Read on to discover how the scientifically-backed B.A.S.E. framework, taught by Dr. Thun Thamrongnawasawat, Professor of Practice at Asia School of Business and International Faculty Fellow at MIT, can help organizations answer these questions and chart a sustainable path forward. Dr. Thun has taught this framework to many organizations in executive education courses to help them increase their leadership effectiveness in driving change.

Introducing the B.A.S.E. framework

According to Dr. Thun, the B.A.S.E. framework is a model based on the work of Dr. Karl J. Friston and Klass E. Stephan, in a paper titled Free Energy and the Brain. The key idea is about the brain striving to be as energy efficient as possible. As Dr. Thun puts it, “BASE is an acronym for [the authors’] derived model on how the human brain works, and specifically on how change happens.”

B.A.S.E. essentially stands for the various ‘blocks’ or ‘levers’ of change:

    • Beliefs one holds about the world
    • Actions one needs to take to achieve the desired outcomes
    • Social communities and networks one connects with and cultivates, or
    • Environment that one is surrounded by

Breaking B.A.S.E. down

Let’s look a bit more at each block in more detail:

Beliefs
Your beliefs about the world shapes how you perceive the world, and what your goals and aspirations in life are. Your beliefs determine the clear, compelling vision you have for the future.

Actions
Actions are all the decisions, activities, and events that you choose to pursue and spend your time on. It is literally what your body acts out.

Social
This block is all about the input you receive from those around you, from friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, and even connections on social media.

Environment
The environment includes your physical (and digital) surroundings, the strictly enforced rules and policies you have to adhere to, the ambient equipment, resources, and infrastructure that are built into the environment.

B.A.S.E., the brain, and change

Imagine a pyramid of stacked rectangular blocks, with the largest block placed at the bottom and the smallest on top. Each of the four elements is one of the blocks in the B.A.S.E. model. Understanding how these blocks interact will help you as a leader understand how to better drive change.

Alignment
Our brains are wired for consistency and are predisposed to seek out alignment whenever the four blocks are not in alignment. If any block shifts, the rest of the blocks might move to achieve alignment. If the other blocks are too heavy to move, then the block that shifted tends to return to its original alignment. This is consistent with Dr. Friston’s Free Energy dogma.

As Dr. Thun emphasizes, “The brain is in a ‘happy’ state with all four blocks aligned. In the context of professionals in organizations, the flip side to this state is the danger of becoming complacent and falling into your comfort zone – the 2Cs that resist change.”

For instance, Dr. Thun cites an example of how a few local fishermen in Thailand came together in 2007 to replenish the dwindling crab population (a key source of their income) by releasing female crabs into the ocean. The Belief and Action blocks moved and they saw success initially and the crab population started to rebound.

However, these efforts lost momentum, since it required the fishermen additional boat trips that cost more time, money, and effort, making it unsustainable. In less than three years, the Action and Belief blocks moved back to square one where they felt helpless to do anything to stop the decrease in the crab population.

Placement
The placement or order of the blocks helps us understand the connection they have to one another. Belief is the smallest block placed at the top, followed in ascending order of size by Action, Social, and Environment. The larger the block, the bigger its influence when changed. For instance, changing an environment will impact everyone in that environment. Changing your beliefs as an individual might only impact yourself.

The smaller the block, the easier it is to move. For example, our Beliefs are easily changed since they exist in our heads. However, being the smallest block, it is also easy for those Beliefs to shift back to where it was before. People change their mind all the time. On the other hand, changing one’s Environment requires the most effort to move. But once that biggest block shifts, it is also much more difficult to shift back to complacency. Thus, this last lever is extremely effective in changing our brain, and subsequently our behaviors.

Let’s look at a few tangible examples of how this model translates to the real world. For example, one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) is addressing climate change. The UN secretary-general recently stressed, “We are still addicted to fossil fuels. For the health of our societies and planet, we need to quit now.”

However, imagine how hard it is for most countries to move this largest block (Environment) that is fossil fuel-dependent, with 84% of the world’s main energy consumption in 2019 still sourced from fossil fuel! In the rare instances where moving the Environment has been successful, the resulting impact is far-reaching, such as when the European Parliament recently voted for a complete ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars from 2035 onwards within the European Union.

Examples of sustainable change using B.A.S.E.

Top-down (Belief>Action>Social>Environment)
Two well-recognized successful movements of change began with the strong beliefs of two individuals. Both Dr. Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi believed strongly in non-violent resistance and aligned their Actions with their Beliefs.

Over time, the change gradually moved the larger Social and Environment blocks throughout their respective nations, sparked by defining events including Gandhi’s assassination and Mandela’s Springbok rugby World Championship. Eventually, both nations changed to become free sovereign countries recognized by the rest of the world.

Bottom-up (Environment>Social>Action>Belief)
The COVID-19 pandemic forced digital transformation on the world in a short period of mere months. No CEO, CTO, or CIO could have achieved this even over decades. The shift triggered by the pandemic environment forced everyone into their homes for social distancing reasons.

People had to rapidly adapt to remote working from home. Even frontliners who could not avoid physically going to work completely adapted to more hybrid, tech-enabled ways of working to ensure maximum safety levels while still carrying out their jobs.

According to a recent 2022 report by Microsoft, the majority of employees (87%) report that they are productive at work (even with hybrid work norms in place), and productivity signals across Microsoft 365 continue to climb.

As the Environment drastically changed, people’s Beliefs about what was possible or how work should be conducted changed. As a result, more companies than ever before started to become more open to more flexible, hybrid ways of working even beyond the pandemic, to provide for greater work-life balance.

Transforming your organization for a sustainable future

Traditionally, most leaders default to a top-down approach:

    • We train people in classroom settings to shift their Beliefs.
    • We hope they will then change their Actions accordingly.
    • Hopefully, enough of them will propagate Social change.
    • Eventually, with enough Social change, we will also see the Environment change in ways that are desirable.

Dr. Thun advocates for taking a different approach when it comes to sustainability. “We cannot develop a culture for sustainability using the same approach that developed the unsustainable one. Perhaps we may have to toy with the idea of doing this in reverse,” he argues.

He cites an example of a successful sustainable crab farming initiative in Thailand, where the top-down approach fizzled in ten years between 2000 and 2010. On the contrary, the bottom-up approach for the same context showed results in just two years between 2013 and 2015. It continues to be sustained today, and has grown significantly since its inception.

Dr. Thun’s ideas are also supported by the work of his mentor Prof. Deborah Ancona, Founder of the MIT Leadership Center at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Says Prof. Ancona:

“Changing beliefs might be one of the least effective modes of change, and yet that is one of the most-used strategies of change. B.A.S.E. suggests many other modes of change and strategies for leaders.”

Immersing in a different environment to drive mindset change

Closer to home, Dr. Thun has a personal experience of how the bottom-up (Environment-driven) approach can be used to shift Beliefs and mindsets. Before the pandemic, he was part of a team at Asia School of Business who were running a leadership program at a fully sustainable resort in Phuket.

When the program started, the team intentionally kept participants unaware of the sustainable features and operations of the resort. Many participants, used to the traditional five-star facilities with high carbon footprints, complained about the lack of quality service, such as the lack of an elevator to get to their rooms!

In a later session, the team then briefed them about all the ways the resort was being run as a sustainable facility with a low carbon footprint. Being made aware of the differences in their environment opened the participants’ eyes and minds, and completely changed their attitudes towards sustainability.

From this experience, Dr. Thun suggests a novel idea for leaders to consider, when trying to cultivate a more sustainable organization:

“Develop your leaders by having them embrace the Environment first. Be in it amidst stars or trees, in nature. Have them walk amidst the mountains of waste we have accumulated. Maybe that will bring together the people of similar (Social) mindsets, and those people would collectively drive Action. Then we might be able to shift the Beliefs of individual people in their teams. Environment>Social>Action>Belief.”

Equip your organization for the future

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