Environmental Lessons Learned from 2010

by | Feb 8, 2011

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As we enter 2011, we join much of the Western world in reflecting on the past year and making resolutions for the New Year. First, we celebrate our clients’ increased awareness of issues pertaining to environmental sustainability. Their raised attentiveness to environmental concerns leaves us optimistic for their actions in 2011. Yet we know that awareness and interest don’t necessarily translate readily into behavior. Our resolution for 2011 is to help our clients turn awareness and interest into impactful action to address sustainability.   

Of course we know that the path that leads to action is complex indeed! For example, in order to behave in accordance with new awareness, our clients will need to know what to do and how to do it. Also, most everyone is more likely to act when it is convenient to do so. And, of course, the effect of associated incentives and rewards should never be underestimated. Organizational norms, more commonly referred to as “corporate culture,” play a significant role in achieving goals through action. Lastly, good old peer pressure often works wonders in sparking actions.

We would like to offer a few lessons learned and examples from our clients concerning how to jumpstart actions that will lead to impactful results in 2011.

1.     Provide Specifics and Tailor to Audiences

Recently we, in partnership with GreenNurture, conducted an informal survey concerning employee engagement and sustainability via the internet. Almost all of the 101 people (92%) who responded said that learning more about sustainability was important to them. Yet less than half (42%) said that they were highly engaged in their companies’ sustainability efforts. The question we asked ourselves is why respondents showed high levels of interest in sustainability but lower levels of engagement in their companies’ sustainability efforts. Perhaps the lower engagement is due to lack of specific information about company targets and the relationship of the goals to their own jobs. Only a few indicated great familiarity with their companies’ specific sustainability targets. Even fewer said that they had a clear understanding of how their own work connected with the companies’ sustainability goals.

Companies that want to spur impactful action in 2011 must move beyond broad information about sustainability and bland, universal messages about company vision. According to Peter Robinson, CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation, an organization located in British Columbia working with companies on science-based environmental advocacy, the key to engagement that leads to action is to segment audiences and to tailor the sustainability-related education, training and messaging accordingly.

Maureen Cureton, Green Business Manager for Vancity, one of Canada’s largest credit unions, told us that in 2011, they will focus on molding their messages and education specifically to their sales force.   Cureton   emphasized the difference between pushing information out’ through their intranet and actually engaging employees. They believe that they have done an adequate job in engaging those in the central office. Now it is time to work with another segment of their employee population. Vancity’s vision is to ‘Redefine Wealth’ by going beyond profit alone to include community well-being, social justice and environmental sustainability. Vancity will work with the sales force throughout the coming year to ensure that they understand how the organization’s sustainability vision relates expressly to them and to their jobs.

2. Make Engagement Convenient

Let’s face it – most of us are more likely to act when it is convenient for us to do so! Inconvenience tends to breed inaction! Companies can use this simple truth to gain ground in 2011.

Port Metro Vancouver, Canada’s largest and busiest port, offers an example of how they succeeded in persuading more employees to bike to work. An employee-led committee made it less convenient for employees to drive to work by eliminating parking spaces available to them in their parking lot. The spaces deemed as excess were leased to the public. The money received from the leasing went to support an awards program for employees. In addition they made it more convenient for bikers by providing them with a dressing room.

3. Provide Incentives and Reward Actions

Who among us does not like to be acknowledged if not rewarded for our actions? Social scientists tell us that we, like other creatures, are more likely to engage in behaviors that are reinforced.

In our employee engagement survey, we found that only 13% strongly agreed that their companies adequately reward their contributions to sustainability.   Likewise, when we surveyed a sample of companies recognized as sustainability leaders (vanguard companies), under half reported that rewards and compensation were clearly linked to their organizations’ sustainability goals.

Louise Cook, the Director of Social Responsibility and Sustainability Policy for WorkSafe BC told us that they must focus on how to engage their employees in the field.  They will look to goals and incentives as a means to reaching field employees. She believes that the key to action for the field staff is to integrate specific goals related to sustainability into their Key Performance Indicators. In fact, approximately half of the vanguard companies that we surveyed have incorporated sustainability goals into their performance management system and others plan to do so in 2011.

4. Embed Sustainable Practices into Organization Culture

Every organization has a culture more commonly described as “the way we do things around here.” Culture and behavior are intricately related.  Each affects the other. Therefore, some of our clients are addressing culture and behavior change as the context for creating sustainable action.

For example, Brenda Goehring, Manager of  Corporate Environment & Sustainability at BC Hydro, a hydroelectric utility located in Vancouver, British Columbia, told us that in 2011, they will create a clear actionable strategy for sustainability and embed it in their culture. Their recent employee opinion survey showed that close to 99% of those who responded believed that attention to the environment should be a medium to high priority for the company in the future. Respondents did not believe that the environment was getting this level of emphasis in the organization currently. To close the gap, Hydro aspires to use sound change management principles to achieve what Goehring referred to as “institutional momentum.” For example, she said that actions related to the sustainability strategy will be incorporated into the day-to-day decision making criteria and processes as well as into work procedures.

5. Use Peer Pressure

Sometimes the most effective way to motivate people to act is to put them in competition with their peers. 

Park and Company a full-service advertising agency in Phoenix, Arizona successfully employed peer pressure to change behavior. Derrick Mains, CEO of GreenNurture, described how every employee was given only one ream of paper each year. Those who ran out had to plead their case in front of their fellow employees in order to obtain another ream. The program succeeded in saving money and increasing consciousness about conserving resources. Derrick said that no one wanted to be the one who had failed the organization! This approach was viewed as a fun, yet serious game that everyone wanted to play.

These lessons learned and shared with us by a few of our clients can serve as inspiration to us as we look for ways to turn awareness and interest into action. Sometimes it is the simple stuff that works best, i.e. providing clear information about targeted actions or enabling behavior by making it convenient to act. Other times the effort is a little more strenuous, i.e. changing an organizational culture to support sustainability.  Nevertheless, let us all commit to making 2011 the year of acting in order to make our sustainability visions come alive.

Dr. Kathleen Miller Perkins is a psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management  founded in 1980.  In addition to managing the company, she continues to remain active in assisting client organizations in assessing and addressing the organizational culture and leadership requirements for executing sustainability strategy.  She has delivered services to over 100 public and private sector companies. Dr. Miller’s client list includes organizations such as IBM, Toyota, BC Hydro, Brown -Forman, General Electric, Ashland Chemical, Ernst and Young, Bristol Myers Squibb and Kindred Health Care.

Kathi Irvine (MA) is the Director of Canadian Operations for Miller Consultants, overseeing the development and delivery of their services in Canada. She has over 20 years of corporate leadership experience with extensive background in organizational change, leadership development and performance management. She is a highly skilled organizational development practioner, business coach and workshop facilitator. She has proven expertise in collaborating with clients to design and deliver initiatives with the focus on business sustainability and leadership development.

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