Behavioural change is a complicated process, no matter where it takes place. When it comes to engaging employees in sustainable actions, we need to understand there is a gap between knowledge and advocacy that needs to be covered by us, employers, to not let the employees jump this gap alone.
Get employees to act on sustainability
Behaviour change usually takes a lot of time and makes us step out of our comfort zone, yet, it’s essential when you’re looking to have lasting impact. There are many reasons why behavioural change can get tricky. One of them might be fear and negative emotions we begin the change with. When we look at the state of our planet now, we tend to ask: “What can I change if I stand here alone? Do we still have enough time for a change?” It is necessary to define which of the five steps your employees stand, to identify what may hold them back during the upcoming process.
Preparation before going through the steps
Before jumping into the steps of behaviour change, you must also decide what results you are hoping to achieve. Is your goal to get employees to ideate on sustainable behaviours? Or are you prioritising their ability to execute the organisation’s sustainability strategy and reach KPIs? Regardless of the ideal result, you have in mind, it is important to determine this in advance and plan accordingly.
Once you’ve decided on your main goal, consider: on the path to attaining this, what will engagement look like? For most organisations, the baseline is that engaged employees are those who begin thinking and acting sustainably and in accordance with the company strategy. Essentially, they are practising what the organisation is preaching.
Now think about what else you need your employees to do. Should they be able to talk about all the points in your company’s sustainability report? Do you want them to display sustainable behaviours in public? Your answers to these questions will help guide the employee engagement process.
Then ensure sustainability is recognised as a responsibility for the average employee, not just assigned to the sustainability manager. This is important work! And it’s a large undertaking that requires collaboration across departments, including internal communications, learning and development specialists, CSR leaders, ESG managers, and more.
Engagement must be thought of as both the process and the end result. Getting all employees involved and motivated can help you develop sustainability and brand ambassadors within your organisation. These individuals will then spread the word to their family, friends, and communities. This is the ultimate goal, and it has the potential to increase your customer base and brand reputation, entice investors, improve employee attraction and retention, and more.
But to get there, you must go through the necessary steps. Below, we’ll explore the 5 steps to engage employees in sustainability: knowledge, buy-in, know-how, practice, and advocacy.
Step 1: Knowledge
In an article for GreenBiz, Tripos Software CEO Grant Ricketts posed an important question regarding organisations’ sustainability initiatives. He said, “If sustainability is truly a desired corporate objective that contributes to the company’s strategy and positively affects employees, customers, partners and the community around it, where is the training?”
This was in 2013. Unfortunately, it seems the question can still be asked today, perhaps with a small adjustment—where is the effective training?
The first step to getting employees to act on sustainability is knowledge. Companies first must identify the current beliefs and level of knowledge regarding sustainability among their employees. In order to adopt and advocate for more sustainable behaviours, people must be able to understand the basic concepts.
What will this look like in your company?
- Surveys assessing what members of the organisation know, don’t know, and want to know
- E-Learning courses that teach employees about a wide range of sustainability topics
- Workshops to engage participants in customised, facilitated activities
- Training on your company’s sustainability policies, targets, and more
The key is to make sure these knowledge-building activities are not one-way communications. Putting up posters, circulating newsletters, or emailing topical videos aren’t harmful, but they also aren’t going to lead to lasting change. There must be a learning process wherein employees can truly engage with sustainability concepts by discussing, reflecting, and using peer learning. This way, they will be able to name, understand, and act on the organisation’s initiatives.
What else can your organisation do?
- Provide information that is as clear and relevant as possible. Confusing, over-complicated, or disconnected lessons will only discourage.
- Personalise content, so people understand how sustainability matters impact their daily lives. Show them exactly how they produce waste, pollution, etc., and what the global impact of this is.
Ensure all employees approach this information from a job perspective as well. Individuals should see how what they do each day for the company connects to the organisation’s sustainability strategy.
Step 2: Approval
Getting members of an organisation to act on company initiatives requires their buy-in. As you might expect, “when employees accept decisions or changes, they are more likely to be productive when tasked” (S. Lucas). The same is true when it comes to acting on sustainability as well.
For this second step of approval, businesses should focus on building trust with their employees. This requires catering to both their hearts and their heads. Staff trust employers, who treat them fairly, accept their personal needs and opinions, appreciate their work and have good intentions in mind. Build trust to make them more open-minded and ready to adopt changes.
- Accept and approve sustainable behaviours, consider applying them to your own life
- Engage employees in activities they find fun and meaningful
- Respond favourably to information about sustainability, discuss with personal networks
- Company must create trust
Inform the employees how the sustainable changes you decided to apply will affect them and make sure to highlight the benefits if you seek their support. Although, keep in mind to stay honest and address any bad news if needed. A successful buy-in may in the end create more engaged employees, who find a new passion in sustainability.
Step 3: Intention
Employees have already heard and agreed there is a problem they should contribute to and entered the stage of formulating a question: “What can I do?”.
Personal compacts are made in three parts: formal, psychological and social. Formal consists of contracts and agreements, psychological rewards, recognition and social include values. For a successful transit of sustainability strategy into a company, the space between personal compacts and corporate values must be filled.
Employees would like to see sustainability being mentioned in job descriptions, receive certain rewards for starting the action and lastly, make sure the organisation acts based on what they newly promised. What is truly important is for leaders to be noticed trying their hardest in sustainability both internally and externally of the business. Managers need to be seen as representatives of the sustainability initiative to avoid scepticism too.
- Develop intention to adopt more sustainable behaviours, strengthen skills to enable change
- Recognizes it meets a personal need, takes initial steps or develops plan of action for practising sustainable behaviour
- Company must: convey concrete benefits, provide peer support for action, encourage healthy competition and reward those, who decide to take the step further
Step 4: Practice
Practice combined with action is an ideal tool for leaving a sustainability mark printed in employees minds and drives a sustainability culture. Employees should practise decision-making in a creative and mistake-friendly environment among co-workers.
You may watch their progress to map potential breakpoints and dilemmas, where standard problem-solving is not enough and step in to help. The practice provides space for brainstorming, where new ideas for optimizations or innovation can come up anytime, maybe for a short-term, medium-term or even long-term implementation.
- Adopt and practice new sustainable behaviours
- Timely use of sustainable behaviours, choose behaviours to act on
- Company must: build skills, reduce barriers
It is only an advantage if the employees eventually decide to practice sustainability in their personal lives. Human Resources staff might be a great help here, in providing tools and advice about eco-friendly lifestyles. Making sustainability a part of employees’ outside-the office lives will help the final transition to sustainability, brand advocates.
Step 5: Advocacy
Advocacy is for sure an ideal outcome for every company that cares about employees’ engagement in sustainability. Advocacy for sustainability in an organisation creates brand ambassadors, who spread the good word and gain trust for the company. Let the employees be curious, decide what they would like to explore next, how they connect sustainability to their job positions and present potential new ideas to other departments and teams.
Before this freedom is given, the first four steps are crucial to take. It is extremely important for employees to understand the concept of sustainability well so when they are asked about the connection between their company and sustainability from the outside, they will defend it correctly and the business does not look like a green-washing.
- Engage with others (in the company and outside – ex: community members) about sustainability matters (both within company and generally), become agents of change
- Continues to act sustainably, advocates for others to do so as well
- Company must: provide social support, create confidence to speak out
These steps of engagement are the steps of behavioural change – needed to build sustainable culture and mindset in the mind of every employee. The way for achieving results is by designing a behaviour process in engagement strategy. Employers need to understand how to design each of the presented steps, measure progress and identify, where you are not scoring highly (within each step) to see, what needs to be adjusted or supplemented. Focus on data that reveals what employees’ motivations are, challenges they are facing, what rewards work, etc. Data collection and interpretation is essential.
2030 Builders delivers an engaging, data-driven platform, where we teach employers and employees to follow the steps at the right speed as a part of our methodology. Experience engaging gamified learning with a focus on critical thinking and teamwork. Book a demo with us and see everything we offer to help you with sustainability implementation.
Written by Cassie Powell and Victoria Liptakova