How do you engage employees in your company’s sustainability efforts, particularly when you’re just starting out? It can be trickier thank you’d think. In Strategy for Sustainability Adam Werbach reminds us that,
Just as sustainability does not work for businesses unless it serves business needs first, sustainability does not engage individuals unless it first and foremost solves problems they experience in their lives.
So, how can you make sustainability personal and create the best conditions and incentives for engagement?
- Make it voluntary. Forcing people to care about something is a short-cut to resentment and inaction.
- Localize it. What matters to the team, to the community, to your customers that employees can connect to? Sometimes it’s as narrow as distinct employee interests (eating organic or reducing office waste, for example). The more localized you can take sustainability, the more personal it becomes.
- Start with what you care about. To make it personal, start by being personal. Share what issues you’re passionate about and how you first became involved.
- Don’t pretend to know it all. Leadership and communication style is a primary influencer of engagement. Inspire and listen rather than preach, scare or guilt. Your first job is to inspire possibility.
- Demonstrate the effect of action. One company piled up a day’s worth of trash to show the potential of what can be eliminated through recycling, composting and product choices.
- Make it a cross-functional effort. Involve people from different departments and seniority levels from the start.
- Publicly solicit, display and respond to ideas. After brainstorming sessions or employee surveys, list the ideas in a public place, respond to suggestions and questions and let employees know why some ideas can’t be implemented.
- Solicit input from outside stakeholders. How have other companies launched successful sustainability initiatives? Are there vendors, organizations or community groups that you could partner with locally?
- Give employees a place to start now. Even if it’s a small step. My grossest criticism of Michael Moore is that his movies fire me up and then leave me with nothing to do with the indignation he’s inspired. I’m left feeling manipulated and hopeless. What can employees do right away to capitalize on their interest and the momentum of the initiative?
- Start small for early success. Hitting your target early on builds momentum and confidence.
- Make it regular. Repeated activities or long-term goals are more inspiring and allow people to connect more personally than a morning of cleaning a park every quarter.
- Reward the most effective departments or teams. (Tying sustainability goals to individual compensation and bonuses is also very effective, but is more involved).
- Build company culture around sustainability goals. Whether it’s office parties, charity drives or 401(k)s, look for ways to align them with the company’s sustainability initiatives.
These are just a handful of tactics and ideas. I’d love to know what’s worked for you. What hasn’t?