How do you engage your colleagues in sustainability?

06.03.2018 education
collaborating colleagues fist-bumping, illustrating potential of engaging employees in sustainability

Recently, we have been discussing with our collaborators how to engage colleagues in the sustainability efforts of a company. As this has been a recurring conversation, and one that has recently warranted a lot of attention internationally, I wanted to share some thoughts about how to achieve this goal.

Before I get into how to create said engagement, I want to linger for a moment on why it is important to get the whole organization involved. As I see it, there are two main reasons. The first is that, in practice, it is impossible to truly shift an organization towards sustainability unless all employees are onboard. In the end it is them, after all, who provide the thinking and actions that are the lifeblood of the organization. Only with everyone’s support can sustainability really become part of the organization’s DNA.

Humor is a powerful tool that can be used to entice one’s colleagues into sustainability work. The picture of Darth Vader was used in an internal poster campaign at the Stockholm Resilience Center where, among others, Indiana Jones, Marilyn Monroe, Aretha Franklin and Spock encourage people to recycle more.

 

The second reason is that there are huge commercial possibilities to be found in addressing and talking about sustainability issues. In the last five years we’ve seen report after report about how people around the world are putting ever greater importance on whether or not their employers actively take responsibility for the challenges society faces. Younger generations express regularly that the most important thing for them is that their values are reflected by their workplace. Other reports discuss how employees’ feelings of purpose, loyalty, motivation and productivity increase through including them in sustainability work. As such, engaging everyone in sustainability is economically wise.

So how can one succeed in engaging their colleagues in sustainability? Here are some tips that we think are useful.

1. Be clear about the purpose – “taking action for sustainability”.

In order to help the organization make the shift towards sustainability, it is important that the motivation behind any sustainability initiative, as well as the plan for implementation and the long-term direction of that plan, are clear. That means that one must generate awareness, knowledge, motivation, self-confidence and competence that will simultaneously deliver business and sustainability value while being meaningful and motivating to the individual. The goal should be that such engagement helps to create a long-term drive towards sustainability, which is a process that often doesn’t result from one individual activity.

Pssst! Our partner Ramon Arratia (previously at Interface) expressed this point so well in Interface’s publication “Embedding Sustainability: One mind at a time” that I had to include it here. Read the report and watch this clip, in which Interface’s founder Ray Anderson explains just how engaged their employees are.

2. Make top management the foremost advocates.

In order for everyone to understand that sustainability is both highly relevant and critical to the success of the business, it is crucial that the members of the C-suite demonstrate that this is the case through their words and actions.

3. Create a shared language.

Sustainability can mean many different things for different people, which can make it hard to have a fruitful conversation. By creating a shared story around sustainability and a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities that exist, one can create the right conditions for teamwork. As such, basic sustainability education is an important place to start.

4. Make sustainability concrete for the individual.

A strong feeling that sustainability is important, or that “something should be done,” is not enough to mobilize employees to action. Sustainability must be made as concrete as possible for the individual in order for this to happen. Which sustainability challenges and possibilities might evoke a product developer’s interest? What roll could the purchasing department have?

5. Two-way communication.

If you really want to have everyone on board, there has to be space for dialogue, questions, and ideas. This space should be made in your employees busy work schedule so that they can contribute with thoughts and ideas.

6. Balance gravity and seriousness with fun.

Sustainability can often feel like a heavy and complex topic, which is why it is important to infuse communication about sustainability with things that make it feel meaningful and exciting to take part in. Humor can be a good tool, but of course it shouldn’t be a replacement for substance.

7. Create a network of trusted ambassadors.

Reaching out to everyone in the organization can be hard, especially if sustainability isn’t already integrated into everyday operations. Therefore, starting a network of ambassadors or “champions” that can operate as the sustainability department’s “extended arm” can be a great strategy. Through developing materials and tools that make it easy for the ambassadors to inspire and engage their colleagues, it will be easier to reach out to many, and much more quickly.

8. Celebrate steps in the right direction, and don’t give up.

Too much talk and no signs of action can easily result in exhaustion, or worse, complete dejection and people giving up. It is important both to have (bold and) realistic goals and to keep in mind the importance of recognizing even small steps along the sustainability journey.

 

There are a lot of exciting prospects when it comes to finding ways of engaging your whole organization. The right choice depends of course on both your specific conditions and the intended outcome. In order to reach out and establish a common starting point, an online course can be a good option (read more about our web courses here). If you want to motivate specific groups of employees to initiate an open and creative dialogue, a “train-the-trainer” program (in which select individuals are trained on how to educate others about sustainability) might work well, in combination with preparing engaging workshop packages. If you want to build up a support network, an ambassadors program with regular networking and training sessions might be suitable. To give sustainability leaders more support in their work, one could develop a Sustainability Council that serves to help provide data and evidence to inform strategic decision making.

Evidently, there is a lot that can be done to get an entire organization engaged in sustainability. The trick is just to get started.

Live long and recycle

This article was written by Kristoffer Lundholm, a Senior Advisor at Sustain in Time. For more sustainability news and thought leadership, follow Sustain in Time on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.