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Employee Engagement in Sustainability: “The Big How”

Engaging employees in sustainability is a growing trend with significant business benefits. Many companies are pursuing a variety of different initiatives but have yet to reach a tipping point where sustainability has become embedded in corporate culture.

Employee engagement is one of those wonderfully amorphous concepts; we believe it can inspire employees, drive productivity and increase profitability, making companies a better place to work and better corporate citizens. The question becomes: How do organizations achieve repeatability and scale so sustainability builds its own momentum, helping companies continuously improve and innovate? This article draws from principles in change management and corporate maturity models (CMM) to advance a set of best practices companies can use to greatly expand employee engagement in sustainability. Thus, “the big how.”

The Big Why – Already Established

The importance of employee engagement in sustainability is clear; several useful references were published in articles by Hunter Lovins and others throughout July. Simply put, sustainability provides a context that integrates lifestyle values with business opportunity and job satisfaction. Given that over 70% of annual corporate spending is on people, improving employee engagement metrics can have a major economic impact on the corporate bottom line.

Have We Established – The What?

Current employee engagement programs run the gamut – increasing volunteerism; adopting personal sustainability plans (PSPs); setting up green teams; planning a company Earth Day event; developing competitions and rewards around sustainable practices; and so on.

Wikipedia defines "engaged employees" as ones who are fully involved in and enthusiastic about their work, and thus will act in a way that furthers their organization's interests. An important nuance in this definition is that the organization’s interests are served – alignment with corporate strategy and operating functions makes people mobilization a true momentum-builder for profitability and culture change.

Unfortunately, companies often implement sustainability projects without a strategy. Larger organizations can lack a common framework around which to plan and execute coordinated programs, let alone engage hundreds, even thousands of employees. This frequently results in one-off efforts that have fleeting impacts on employee satisfaction or company profits.  

We too easily gloss over the fact that putting sustainability into practice requires many people working across a vast array of initiatives. We need to get beyond a project-based approach to employee engagement in sustainability if we want to achieve the repeatability and scale needed to truly unleash its transformative potential. 

The Big How – Are We There Yet?  

How do we mobilize people on a broad scale? There’s an old saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going … any road will get you there.” 

The current state of play is to be expected. Fragmented activities and ad hoc efforts are typical as companies try to adopt new capabilities. But over time, a set of guidelines, best practices and change-management disciplines emerges that helps institutionalize efforts. This is the essence behind the Capability Maturity Model (CMM) from Carnegie Mellon – to systematically guide process improvements that help organizations improve performance.

The CMM Model – Unplugged

CMM provides a road map, with levels and indicators that characterize organizational behaviors at different stages of capability building. Traversing this ladder is what change management is all about.

Capability Maturity Model

The Initial stage (level 1) would characterize organizations with ad hoc actions and processes, where success is dependent on the heroic efforts of a few key people – it’s where most companies are today with regard to internal sustainability engagement.

The tipping point is level 3, where programs and processes become institutionalized and can survive as people come and go. Once companies traverse levels 1 and 2, progress starts to take on a momentum of its own. 

The promised land is level 5, where continuous improvement and innovation lead to greater performance and adaptability to new processes over time. This is what business thought leaders describe as the nimble, flexible and competitively adaptable company that has greater success tomorrow.

The Big How – Link Learning to Behavior Change and Rewards

Establishing scalable employee engagement programs is where the art of change management comes in. Most change-management methodologies operate on a model involving cognitive, behavioral and reinforcing components. Cognitive steps involve training and awareness building; behavioral components seek to engage and involve; and reinforcing mechanisms integrate into corporate culture, building ongoing commitments and rewards. It’s useful to understand these different components as we develop a methodology to scale employee engagement in large organizations.

Continued ...


Grant Ricketts is CEO and Co-founder of Tripos Software, Inc. The company provides content, software tools, and services to educate and engage people in sustainability initiatives, deepening their awareness about sustainable business practices, and provide visibility into sustainability performance. Prior… [Read more about Grant Ricketts]


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