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How to Engage in Sustainability with Higher Purpose

Most of us who lead companies want to establish organizations and businesses that are sustainable for the long-run.  We understand that our ability to achieve this goal is dependent on our stakeholders – especially our employees.  Apparently many business leaders believe that employee engagement efforts are at least partially the answer, so we continue to look for ways to create organizations that honor and engage our employees and create value for our shareholders and the broader community.  As I mentioned in last month’s article , in 2012 companies plan to dedicate more resources to employee engagement, even though research indicates that over half of those surveyed perceive employee engagement to fall short of expectations. When I wrote the article I had no idea how much conversation it would generate.    Many readers shared their opinions not only about why employee engagement fails, but also offered thoughts on what to do about it.  The themes are as follows:

Engagement Is Not a Program

According to those who weighed in, to effectively engage people, leaders must provide mechanisms for involvement and ownership that are integrated into the culture and the work systems.  When engagement is positioned as a “program,” people will rightfully see it as too superficial, says Lawrence Miller, president of L.M. Miller Associates located in Baltimore, Maryland. “Many engagement programs are a way of letting management off the hook from doing the real work of redesigning work systems and social systems to enable and empower employees to make real decisions about work processes.”  David Bovis, from Performance and Culture Change located in Cambridge, United Kingdom, goes so far as to claim that effective engagement comes from a change in mindset.  “Leaders must stop thinking of employees as a separate group that can be dealt with through a program.  Engagement must be part of a system.”    Similarly,  David Potter, the Head of Commercial Strategy for Cordia Services, a facilities management company located in Glasgow, United Kingdom, sends the following quote regarding  real engagement:  “Long-term staff engagement involves moving towards a state of organizational dialogue that some have defined as the art of thinking together.”

Leaders Must Follow Through

While leaders of companies are often willing to initiate moves towards employee engagement, their follow-through is not always stellar, claim several of those who commented.  When leaders are either unable or unwilling to commit to the constant and consistent effort required to engage employees, they are viewed as lacking credibility and sincerity, says Dan Boos, an executive consultant located in Perryville Ohio.  Effective engagement results from dedication and commitment.  It cannot be viewed as merely a way to cut costs, or as a public relations initiative to impress the public.

Engagement Is Not a Tool

Several of those who responded objected (politely) to my reference to engagement as a tool.  They argued persuasively that engagement should not be viewed as transactional and impersonal. Robert Moore, a communications and organizational excellence consultant from Columbus Ohio, says that our work places are too mechanical, transactional, operational, financial and impersonal.  Business seems to be about all kinds of things other than people, according to Moore.  Yet people connect emotionally with companies that honor them.  Companies like Southwest Airlines, The Container Store, and Whole Foods understand that their stakeholders deserve to be honored.  Moore states that “Indeed, employee engagement is integrally linked to emotional intelligence that begins with this unassailable standard of placing people and their well-being as the ‘raison de etre’ of our organizations and our work. We build near-unbreakable bonds of trust and loyalty with our stakeholders, as well as a passion for excellence and advocacy.  This is the stuff of true fiduciary accountability.   This level of engagement leads sustainable strategic, operational and financial success.”

Emotional Connections Come with a Higher Purpose

True engagement, claims Crispin Garden-Webster, vice president at Asia Pacific Federation of Human Resources Management in New Zealand, comes from connecting with a vision or a higher purpose.   When a company communicates a vision of how it will contribute value not only to its shareholders but also to the world, employees can connect emotionally and get engaged.  Some examples of inspirational vision and mission statements include General Electric’s “We bring good things to life,” Vancity’s “Redefining wealth,” IBM’s “Solutions for a small planet,”  Dupont’s  “to be the world’s most dynamic science company, creating sustainable solutions essential to a better, safer and healthier life for people everywhere.”

The themes are clear.  Employee engagement resembles other aspects of the complex topic of sustainability.  Our businesses will not become sustainable through simple and superficial programs that attain only our short-term attention and commitment.  We must commit for the long haul and take systemic approaches to engaging our stakeholders.  The commitment to sustainable strategies is not for the feint hearted!

Dr. Kathleen Miller Perkins is a psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management  founded in 1980.  In addition to managing the company, she continues to remain active in assisting client organizations in assessing and addressing the organizational culture and leadership requirements for executing sustainability strategy.  She has delivered services to over 100 public and private sector companies. Dr. Miller’s client list includes organizations such as IBM, Toyota, BC Hydro, Brown -Forman, General Electric, Ashland Chemical, Ernst and Young, Bristol Myers Squibb and Kindred Health Care.

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3 thoughts on “How to Engage in Sustainability with Higher Purpose

  1. A very fine piece written by Kathleen Miller. What stood out for me was the line: “Leaders must stop thinking of employees as a separate group that can be dealt with through a program. Engagement must be part of a system.”

  2. Great blog post Dr. Miller. I particularly resonate with the link to higher purpose. Sustainable success and employee engagement must be driven by a true commitment to a higher good.

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