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Engage Employees for a Sustainable Enterprise

kent-fairfield2Developing a sustainable enterprise depends on leaders who demonstrate commitment, inspiring vision, and operating savvy for sustainability. At the heart of managing such change, however, is the engagement of employees at all levels to unleash their energies to co-create the organization’s future.

Considerable evidence exists that employees welcome the chance to exercise autonomy and creativity when given the opportunity. Managers need to lay out the direction, provide resources and guidance, and then move to a supportive role.

Studies also have shown that employees want to be involved with sustainability initiatives. The participants in one survey reported overwhelmingly that they would rather be employed by a company that practices sustainability; 96 percent said they would like to work at “a successful company that also aspires to be good.” In another survey, managers asserted that enlisting employee support for sustainability initiatives is critical and failing to do so represents one of the most formidable barriers (American Management Association, 2007).

What employee engagement looks like

In their well-known book “The Leadership Challenge,” it is asserted that employee engagement has to build on a foundation of creating a climate of trust, listening in depth, and sharing information and resources. The authors urge leaders to build a sense of interdependence, which, they say, stems from cooperative goals and roles, norms of reciprocity, and face-to-face interactions. They stress the importance of employees’ feeling powerful and in control of their lives.

Skillful leaders engender this sense of self-determination, which breeds ownership and motivation. One young manager was thrilled when his boss asked his opinion and gave him the leeway to make an important decision about how to carry out a demanding task.

This manager exemplifies the natural dynamic in which more power and authority lead to a greater sense of accountability and ownership. which increases the chance for success. In addition, more competence and confidence promote what psychologists call “self-efficacy,” which contributes greatly to taking initiative, persisting under duress, and even enjoying better heath.

Employee engagement in sustainability management

What is distinctive about employee engagement in service of sustainability management?

I think an organization’s commitment to sustainability makes employee engagement even easier – and more powerful. Such organizations articulate the vision of an enterprise that is prospering economically, contributing to social values in-house and in the world, and encouraging environmental stewardship – the triple bottom line. Employees tend to relate these goals to their own values. Many organizations dedicated to sustainability management have found that they enjoy an advantage in attracting and retaining top talent and engendering much greater commitment to organizational goals.

Recent psychological research helps explain how people working for what they regard as a good cause feel better physically and are galvanized to exert exceptional effort toward related goals. To the extent that employees feel deeply about the aims of sustainability-and they can see the connection between their job and those aims-they can regard their work as holding special meaning.

People perform at a higher level when they regard their work as a calling, a way to make the world a better place. In fact, studies of future workers in their teens and 20s indicate that they will be even more motivated by jobs with meaning than their parents’ generation.

Some companies have taken concrete steps to engage their employees in highly personal ways in the cause of sustainability. For example, Alcoa has invited employees’ children to do drawings of what a sustainable world would be like. This naturally prompts family discussions that can help employees see the subject through youthful eyes-and through a lens of their legacy for future generations.

One far-reaching program of employee engagement at Wal-Mart arranges for thousands of employees to attend workshops about sustainability. They return to their stores and offices and invite their co-workers to design a “personal sustainability project.” These projects may be as simple as installing low-energy light bulbs at home or riding a bike more. Discussions about the projects take place at work, and headquarters tracks their progress. Such a program clearly attempts to encourage employees to feel a new affinity for the environment and to begin to align their own values with those of the company – deriving meaning from being a part of something bigger.

Setting an organization’s compass toward genuine sustainability can ignite a sense of excitement and dedication among employees. It not only can attract and retain the best talent but also is crucial to achieving their sustainability goals.

Kent D. Fairfield is a Ph.D. at Fairleigh Dickinson University. This column is excerpted and adapted from chapter five of “The Sustainable Enterprise Fieldbook: When It All Comes Together.”

Kent D. Fairfield
Kent D. Fairfield is a Ph.D. at Fairleigh Dickinson University. This column is excerpted and adapted from chapter five of "The Sustainable Enterprise Fieldbook: When It All Comes Together."
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