How to inspire employees to take action towards sustainability, regardless of their job titles
With July breaking records for extreme temperatures, the urgency for collective action towards systemic change is undeniable. Becoming more ambitious and serious about net-zero targets is no longer a nice-to-have but a must.
Companies will play a key role in the transition towards a carbon-neutral world, as they drive innovation and implementation of new ideas. From products to services, we all rely on companies to provide everything we need in our lives, and we cannot leave them out of the equation.
From policies to people
It is important to clarify that companies are, in my view, just a group of people working towards aligned goals. Merely having sustainability policies, commitments, and documents in place won’t cut it. Real change requires active engagement in sustainability by employees at all levels.
We can no longer rely on a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) to be the sole driver of sustainable initiatives and actions. Instead, we need to inspire all employees to take action towards sustainability, regardless of their job titles. As Alex Budak, author of “Becoming a Changemaker”, says, “Leaders may be scarce, but leadership is abundant.”
Traditional leader positions like CSOs and CEOs may be limited in number, but the abundant leadership within any company can be harnessed to create countless sustainability champions and changemakers. And this process must start from the top down, to ensure employees are given the necessary support to flourish.
If senior leaders within a company fail to create, identify, encourage and support sustainability champions, these valuable changemakers will soon lose interest and go somewhere else or, even worse, give up trying to create positive change.
A solid foundation of environmental education
Setting a vision, mission, and values embedded in sustainability can help, but alone, they will not drive action. Companies must foster a real culture of sustainability to avoid being seen as merely performing tick-box exercises.
The first key step towards creating a culture of sustainability is to train senior leaders on environmental impact, as they are unlikely to identify and support initiatives if they don’t have a good understanding and knowledge themselves.
One important aspect of education and training that’s often overlooked is the fact that not everyone learns the same way. Because of this, there should be a variety of training options and materials to suit everyone’s learning styles. From in-person workshops to self-paced reading materials, video or audio courses.
This also applies to employee training, aiming to make education as accessible and inclusive as possible, which is particularly crucial in the context of sustainability, where not everyone has the same opinion or willingness to accept the data. Creating more sustainability leaders and champions starts with knowledge sharing.
Identifying and encouraging sustainability champions
With everyone empowered with basic knowledge, senior leaders should make a proactive effort to identify sustainability champions and changemakers. This may happen informally, through conversations with colleagues, but it should also be encouraged formally at a company level.
One way to do this is through the creation of Sustainability Committees and an official network of Sustainability Champions, made up of volunteer employees. Senior leaders should give the time, resources and tools necessary for these committees to flourish and succeed.
Source: Ron Lach
The goal of these committees and champions is to lead by example, inspiring and creating more changemakers, at the same time that ideas and initiatives are being created and implemented.
Another way to identify sustainability champions is through internal contests and competitions. A good idea is to run monthly competitions where all employees put forward sustainability ideas, with the best ones being selected for implementation.
Collaboration is key to systemic change
When brainstorming ideas, one success factor is to ensure that a systems and design thinking process is in place. Everyone in the company should have an understanding of systemic change, and put forward ideas that could create such change. Not everyone will be willing to share ideas publicly, so a variety of formats should be implemented, from in-person brainstorming sessions to anonymous surveys and forms.
Equally important is to ensure that initiatives are created with the employees and any other stakeholders involved in the process. Sustainability initiatives should be designed with employees, not for them. This will make them more likely to be truly engaged with such initiatives.
It is also crucial that senior leadership follows through on commitments and takes real action towards implementing those ideas. Otherwise, sustainability champions can quickly feel discouraged and demotivated.
One of the biggest challenges in large organisations is working in silos. In order for sustainability initiatives to be truly successful, there have to be plans and processes in place for collaboration and cross-departmental initiatives.
Breaking down silos will help the overall company meet its net zero targets faster, and avoid reinventing the wheel over and over again. It will also help inspire more employees to take part in sustainability initiatives, as they feel part of something bigger where more and more people are involved throughout the company, all the way from cleaners to CEOs.
Keeping up employee motivation
To keep employees motivated through weeks, months and years, there should be constant recognition and celebration of achievements, regardless of how big or small they are. And this recognition should come as a surprise.
Research done by best-selling author Daniel Pink shows how intrinsic motivation works better than extrinsic motivation. In that sense, rather than setting fixed prizes or awards that employees compete towards, it is best to give them as a surprise. This helps employees carry on their intrinsic motivation to create positive change towards sustainability, rather than just doing it for a prize.
Another way to inspire more employees to take part in sustainability initiatives is to create a habit of sharing lessons, with open feedback loops and acknowledging mistakes as opportunities for improvement, with no blame involved.
Creating a place of psychological safety where people can openly share their experiences and learnings is key. Employee feedback should then be used to refine sustainability strategies and initiatives.
In summary, fostering a culture of collaboration and education is key to driving real change. By identifying and supporting sustainability champions, encouraging cross-departmental initiatives, and recognising achievements, organisations can create a collective force of leaders committed to systemic change.
The path to a carbon-neutral world requires the active involvement of everyone, from senior leaders to employees at every level. Together, we can inspire a transformative journey towards a greener world for generations to come.