When I talk to people about their challenges with sustainability, a recurring theme emerges: how do you engage employees?
It’s a valid concern. Employee engagement – or lack thereof – has implications for everything from productivity and retention to the success of your sustainability initiatives.
Since I’m not an expert in employee engagement, I reached out to a few people who are to find out what they recommend for getting employees engaged, especially with sustainability.
In particular, I reached out to consultants whose companies are B Corps, companies that are committed to using the power of business as a force for good. I asked them all just one question:
“What is one strategy that you would recommend for engaging employees in sustainability?”
The results, which are shared below, reveal a common thread – to get employees engaged, you need to give them opportunities to participate. However, as important as this is, it’s not always put into practice; this explains why it remains an ongoing challenge for so many companies!
As you review the employee engagement strategies below, think about what this would look like at your company. Every company is different and has its own unique culture – how can you apply these strategies to your own particular situation?
Foster Creative Conflict to Come up with Creative Outcomes
In order to allow for all employees to contribute and to get the best ideas in the room, you’ll need to be intentional about creating the right environment. Employees might be hesitant to share their ideas, especially if they’ve seen other ideas ignored or they’re not sure how management will react. Creating an environment where people can come together and freely share their ideas may take time, but it will pay off in the long run.
In order to foster full, inclusive, and productive conversations on sustainability, an organization needs to actively create and maintain an atmosphere of “creative conflict.” Too often, staff members default into avoidance or complaining because of their concerns about how those in positions of authority may react. Creative conflict allows for differing, even divergent thoughts, feelings, and possibilities to “cook” without people closing down, being judged, or taking sides. At the same time, groups must not be lulled into the perceived warm-and-fuzzy safety of artificial or inconclusive consensus. Sometimes we have to hang out in uncomfortable to get to comfortable. When everyone knows that they can bring their best energies to the conversation, regardless of position, title, or length of service, then unimagined positive outcomes can happen.” ~Flip Brown, Business Culture Consultants, LLC
Help Employees Understand the Broader Impacts of Their Work
Sustainability can be a broad and sometimes abstract concept. The connections between the work that employees do and its impacts in the world may not be readily apparent. Helping employees to understand what these impacts are and getting their input on how to responsibly manage those will help them to tap into their own intrinsic motivation.
The strategy I’ve found that proves out time and time again is inclusion in the problem solving process – inviting versus telling. By connecting individuals and teams to the issue and inviting them to participate in the solution, intrinsic motivation is captured, a much more effective approach than external motivators. Start by communicating the opportunities that exist – whether resource reduction for a manufacturing company or community wellness education for a team involved with healthcare – and then let them problem solve using their specific area of expertise. Once they are able to connect the dots to how their work impacts the community at large and the long-term implications, the topic becomes personal and enables real opportunities to participate in solutions. Providing ongoing impact updates (scorecards) coupled with hands-on opportunities such as brainstorming sessions, an innovation contest and creating a cross functional team of internal champions who already have energy for sustainability are all specific ways to cross-pollinate the culture. This approach often has a ripple effect, translating to sustainable action outside the organization too!” ~Kym Cadle, Pure Ambition Consulting (B Corp Certification pending)
Create Alignment Between Company and Personal Values
I believe the key to engaging employees in sustainability is to tap into their personal values. As a Certified Benefit Corporation, we attract candidates who care about taking care of people and the planet. The fact that we elevate the triple bottom line social enterprise structure to the forefront sets an expectation that we value sustainability. We engage our employees by allowing them to contribute ideas that would increase our sustainability effectiveness. Even as a small service oriented business, we incentivize bike riding, use of public transport, provide showers, recycle everything we can, and support organizations that value sustainability.” ~Tiffany Jana, TMI Consulting
Have Fun and Celebrate Success
Create opportunities to get employee input in everything from defining sustainability to actively participating in your sustainability initiatives. A fun and engaging process, where employees can both compete and track how they’re doing, can go a long way towards bringing sustainability to life for your company.
Make the process fun and inclusive. Get folks involved in co-creating the definition of sustainability for the organization, and they will own it. Whether that be at a staff retreat, a company event, or through internal message boards and chatter groups and informal polls, make sure you know what matters most to your employees in the area of sustainability. Encourage visualization and even gamification of core metrics and messages. Use posters with pie charts and graphs that show how your organization is doing at moving the needle for your key metrics, such as improving your score on the B Corp Impact Assessment, reducing waste, increasing employee diversity, community impact through volunteer hours, corporate giving, etc. Consider having teams compete, and showing the standings to drive a little internal rivalry. Lastly, celebrate success! Create a “Sustainability” champion model and publicly reward those change agents in your organization that live and exhibit the values embedded in your sustainability goals.” ~Shannon Adkins, Future State
As you can see, there are quite a few employee engagement strategies here that you can use! I suggest that you begin by taking one of the ideas listed above and putting it into practice at your company. Also, if you found this useful, please share it with others so that we can help other companies to tackle this challenge; after all, the more engaged employees are, the more that we can drive sustainability through our companies and our society.
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