by Peter A. Soyka, Soyka & Company
During the past several years, a growing number of companies and other organizations have made commitments to sustainability and greater consideration of environmental, social, and governance factors in their operations. Making this happen on the ground is challenging, and requires several elements. These include senior management commitment; comprehensive strategies, policies, systems, and work practices; improvement goals and performance measures; and effective communication and stakeholder interaction, among others. But one vital element is deep and ongoing employee commitment and involvement—without the support and actions of the workforce across the organization, sustainability will remain a desired future state and not a reality.
Corporate executives and human resources professionals have important roles to play in creating the conditions that will secure employee buy-in of a sustainability program or initiative. Without focused attention on the all-important important human term in the equation, progress toward more sustainable practices will be limited and sporadic. In formulating and implementing such a program, it is important to recognize and address several barriers that experience has shown can impede the most well-intentioned program. Many of these have to do with fundamental factors that accompany all human activity.
- Inertia. Just as in the physical world, overcoming organizational inertia requires the application of force, or energy. We are all “wired” in a way that can accommodate change, but our natural, equilibrium state is to carry out many of our daily activities in the same way at regular intervals. More generally, if a person, or organization, has developed a certain way of thinking about an issue or carrying out a particular task that is established and accepted, “energy” is required to bring about a change that will be durable. In other words, to have real effect, this change will need to alter the existing state and establish and maintain a new equilibrium rather than allow the person or organization to quickly revert to the prior state.
- The “principal-agent problem.” This refers to a situation in which the employee’s personal incentives are not fully in alignment with those of his or her employer. For example, a company may have established goals for recycling paper and other wastes that apply to all employees. Suppose, however, that the responsibility for actually collecting, segregating/sorting, and separately managing this paper and other materials falls to the janitorial staff (as it often does). Suppose further that these staff members receive no benefits (overtime pay, recognition, a share of the cost savings) from carrying out these extra steps. All they get is extra work. In that case, no one should be surprised that such an arrangement tends to produce very little in the way of results (recycled materials or otherwise)—other than, perhaps, disgruntled employees.
- Culture. Beyond the inertia that exists in all human endeavors, in some organizations the culture poses a significant barrier to more sustainable behavior. Many companies and other entities have a well-established way of doing things and may not welcome change or promote individual initiative. Those who would suggest a new or better way may have a large burden of proof to surmount. If they are relatively early in their careers (they didn’t grow up professionally in the culture/work practices of their employer), they may be accepting significant risk by challenging the existing order, even if at the margins. Quite simply, questioning the wisdom of the existing hierarchy could be considered a career-limiting move.
- Personal empowerment. Finally, the notions of decentralization and “empowerment” have received great emphasis in recent years. Many organizational leaders and management “experts” have extolled the virtues of placing decision-making authority in the hands of those closest to the production of the organization’s goods or delivery of services. Such approaches often have been well received by the non-managerial staff to which they were directed. To be sure, nothing is wrong with giving each employee a voice or opening a communication channel that operates in both directions. Moreover, senior managers can often benefit from receiving occasional unfiltered perspectives from “where the rubber meets the road.” The problem arises when an organization attempts to institute change, or even to accurately represent itself to the outside world. If divisions, regions, facilities/sites, and even employees are empowered to interpret corporate-level directives as they see fit, and to implement new programs using a “tailored” approach in accordance with local conditions, serious problems can arise. It quickly becomes unclear whether or to what extent the organization speaks with one voice, has a defined approach to a particular business practice or issue (e.g., sustainability), or is performing as expected (if this can even be determined).
To overcome these important limitations and prevent their pernicious outcomes, corporate managers, assisted by Human Resources, should consider taking a number of actions.
One is being candid about the fact that embracing sustainability will means instituting at least some degree of organizational change, pose some challenges for people at all levels of the organization, require sustained commitment, and impose some degree of shared sacrifice. Although a feeling of personal empowerment infused throughout the workforce can lend significant impetus to a corporate sustainability effort, it is important for individual efforts to be guided (and even circumscribed) by clear guidance from senior and, in due course, middle management concerning where the organization is going, what the priorities and goals are, what is expected, and how individuals can and should be involved. What most organizations do not need is dozens or hundreds of self-appointed “champions” guided by their own individual conceptions of what sustainability is about or how it should be pursued.
As discussed at length in my recent book, incentives play a key role in influencing human behavior. It is essential in developing a sustainability program or initiative that senior managers, with the active involvement of Human Resources professionals, examine existing incentives, identify any that conflict with the new or modified behaviors desired, and make any appropriate adjustments. The key to preventing apathy or even active resistance from employees is to ensure that the incentives for the employee and employer are in alignment.
Accordingly, if the employees get some type of reward for participating in the new program, particularly if they are expected to do extra work, they are more likely to actually perform it. In my experience and that of many organizations, the reward does not need to be large. Most people simply like to feel that they are valued. Recognition, small prizes, workplace amenities, and bonuses can go a long way toward stimulating the type of behavioral change that may be desired. And certainly, any sanctions that they might face for embracing the new program, unintentional or otherwise, should be identified and removed.
Every organization has its own unique culture, which guides the thinking and behavior of those within it. Although many organizations are open to new ideas, and welcome suggestions from people up and down the management chain, many others are not and do not. Corporate leaders interested in promoting sustainable business behavior can do much to ensure that they are projecting and, as appropriate, enforcing an attitude of openness to productive change, questioning the status quo, and, in general, promoting suggestions and feedback from their people. After all, those working on the front lines often have the best vantage point for seeing what works and what could be improved.
This becomes particularly important when addressing an issue as complex and multifaceted as sustainability. Human Resources people can and should be on the front lines of sending the internal message that the approach being taken is inclusive, and that senior management welcomes and in fact wants input and contributions from people across the organization. If and as necessary, the senior manager(s) responsible for human resources management also should remind those in senior leadership positions that they must both communicate and model the desired behaviors. Nothing will cause a promising initiative, whether it involves sustainability or anything else, to wither more quickly than hypocrisy from those theoretically leading it.
Assuming that company senior management has addressed the structural and cultural issues and developed a general blueprint for how to pursue a sustainability agenda, it must be prepared to invest “energy” to overcome existing inertia in the organization and its members (and yes, it is present in all organizations).
Note that the amount of energy needed to overcome the existing tendencies to think and do things in particular ways is directly proportional to the magnitude and difficulty of the change being sought. Those pursuing or considering corporate sustainability initiatives should carefully evaluate the amount of change this will entail and be prepared to expend an adequate amount of corporate “energy” to overcome the inertia that these initiatives will inevitably encounter.
Human resources professionals can play a key role in assessing the current state, evaluating the mix of skill development, behavioral change, and organizational development required to make employees successful in their new roles, monitor employee reactions, experiences, and successes/failures, and collect and report feedback from those involved. They also will be at the focal point of any necessary efforts to determine whether additional labor/employees are needed, and if so, in what quantities.
In terms of where to start, assuming senior management commitment to take on the sustainability issue, I recommend that the organization form a cross-functional, multi-disciplinary team. This team will map out the sustainability strategy and should include representatives of strategic planning, environmental management/compliance, health and safety, energy, facilities, operations/manufacturing, finance, marketing, sales, investor and/or public relations, and human resources, which often can play a valuable coordinating role.
In many cases, the deliberations of this team will produce findings and indicated actions that require intensive human resources involvement. These might include, for example, developing and deploying new training curricula; reviewing/revising existing performance evaluation criteria and compensation schemes; developing and implementing new procedures, work instructions, and the like; and soliciting, collecting, and analyzing employee input and feedback at regular intervals.
From a substantive point of view, it also may be desirable to focus early efforts on an area that reliably produces “low hanging fruit” that can be harvested, is conceptually easy to understand, that people can participate in and see the results of, and involves very low investment risk: energy efficiency. Replacing inefficient lighting and other building components can reap big financial dividends (providing capital for other sustainability projects), reduce energy consumption and pollution, create more pleasant and healthful work spaces (which have been shown to improve productivity and reduce absenteeism), and show tangible results that can help a sustainability program get off on the right foot and establish credibility early on.
Regardless of the specific approach taken, sustainability is a journey that all organizations should undertake. Human resources professionals have a key role to play in explaining the concept, actively supporting its implementation, driving some of the process and cultural improvements that may be needed along the way, and maintaining multi-lateral communication among the members of the organization.
Peter A. Soyka is the founder and president of Soyka & Company, LLC, an environmental and sustainability management consulting firm. He is the author of the recently published, critically acclaimed book, “Creating a Sustainable Organization: Approaches for Enhancing Corporate Value Through Sustainability.” Visit his website at www.soykaandcompany.com.