Humanity embarks on a global ‘Race to Zero.’ It is now universally known that meeting the Paris Agreement goals will require us to take unprecedented international efforts. To make sustainability everyone’s responsibility and accelerate the transition of stakeholders from bystanders to owners, we require all hands-on deck; for sustainability to be sustainable, we require committed leadership and a shift to stakeholder capitalism.
Companies need to articulate their “purpose” and bring it to life. After all, the truth is that we, as humans, yearn for a sense of belonging that can be fulfilled by sustainability ownership. But how do we onboard everyone from the boardroom to the mailroom to take ownership and act sustainably? How do we get the frontline contributors to put sustainability at the core of their activities? Before I dive into the how, let’s focus on the what.
What Do We Even Mean By Purpose?
Purpose is defined as a firm’s “Raison D’etre,” the answer to the all-important question of “Why do we do what we do?” Let me help you understand further. Take, for instance, the cereal maker Kellogg’s. Its purpose is “nourishing families so they can flourish and thrive,” whereas, for Pfizer, it’s that “all people deserve healthy lives.”
Typically, the answer to “why do we do what we do” always relates to the key societal benefit that the firm provides. Purpose-driven leadership is rooted in the belief that profits are a consequence of the firm’s value for all its stakeholders.
As leaders huddle up and accelerate their corporate focus on sustainability ahead of COP 26 to build a well-contoured corporate purpose, what I’m concerned about is how that purpose can be brought to life and be cascaded internally in the most effective manner.
It’s only when people have a deep sense of ownership over an object or idea that they will experience it as an extension of themselves. The roadmap to a sustainable future is complex, yet fulfilling. The three core motivations that an organization’s internal strategy should be focused upon fulfilling are identity, efficacy, and belongingness. They help leverage human psychology and individual habit loops to accelerate sustainability ownership and trigger sustainability-related behaviors.
PRINCIPLE 1: Enable employees to connect with company identity
We’ve all had our version of Finding Nemo. (Flashback to our personal statement essays 😊) However, here’s the deal. From an early stage, we have been hardwired to derive our self-identities from various material and immaterial objects that we own. This need for identity that is fulfilled by ownership often drives behavior and therefore is an important lever that helps employees pick up the sustainability baton.
Thus, the goal of our strategy should be to weave emotional connection and brand purpose into employee experience in a manner that helps build self-identity and makes behaving sustainably second nature.
Start by asking simple questions:
- What do employees think of the company?
- What do we want them to think?
- Why should they believe in this?
- How do we tackle natural cynicism and resistance?
PRINCIPLE 2: Empower employees to co-create and be the solution
Ownership also fulfills the human need for efficacy or the need to feel competent in a given situation. This is excellent news for building ownership around sustainability because all of us, whatever our station in life, can help our planet and people.
It’s thus essential to focus on a strategy that gives employees creative freedom to act sustainably in line with the company’s purpose. Think of a scenario where the shop floor worker educates your customer about the benefits of investing in a product that has reduced packaging; that is an excellent example of sustainability ownership in action. We need even our frontline workers to know that our purpose is ambitious yet beneficial to society.
Showcasing impact through both social proofs and an ongoing opportunity that develops a deep understanding of the different facets of sustainability, the connections between them, and their relationship to the larger purpose of an organization helps accelerate the journey.
“For people to change their behavior, they have to believe in its worth. Because sustainable strategy requires behavioral change by individuals, personal engagement of employees is crucial.” – MIT.
PRINCIPLE 3: Respond to trends while focusing on a feeling of belongingness and value
Finally, ownership also fulfills the human need for belongingness – the feeling that we are part of a bigger picture. And what better than sustainability ownership to make us feel that we all belong to this big bright ball in the sky.
To leverage corporate sustainability and maximize business and societal value, it is essential that everyone feels as though they are part of something extraordinary. The enthusiasm, energy, and effort should be channelized to innovate outside-the-box solutions.
Apple’s Earth Day celebrations are an opportunity to unify employees around environmental issues, celebrate victories, and tackle concerns about the company’s purpose. Similarly, Enel’s “My Best Failure” project helps people to learn from their own and their colleagues’ mistakes – an initiative in line with the spirit of the Enel Group’s Open Power approach. Such quirky companywide challenges, rewards, and campaigns help spur continuous momentum that is self-empowered and grassroots-driven.
Sustainability ownership can only be created if employees see work as part of their actual life and not just as a paycheck. Employees should develop real feelings towards the company and come to feel a camaraderie for the organization’s purpose. When employees take ownership of their work as they do other aspects of their life, we can cascade purpose and sustainability ownership across all stakeholders.
“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else is going to save it.” – Robert Swan.
This article has been reprinted with permission from CB Bhattacharya’s Linkedin article.