What We Talk About When We Talk About Engagement

The National Environmental Education Foundation and GreenBiz today released a new study of sustainability and employee engagement. There’s very useful material in this report. But does it look at the topic backwards?

The study, “Toward Engagement 2.0: Creating a More Sustainable Company Through Employee Engagement,” is a nice resource with useful case studies, some interesting data based on a survey of 1,183 GreenBiz readers. (The study rightly makes no claim that the survey sample is representative of businesses generally, but the data has some value nonetheless.) If you are interested in the topic of employee engagement, you should definitely check it out.

It’s Not the Little Things

Much of what is written about employee engagement and sustainability seems to suggest that a key to effective corporate sustainability programs is “engaging” employees. There is often an implication that encouraging small actions by individuals is somehow to key to achieving sustainability goals.

Indeed, Ellen Weinreb,  an executive recruiter with a specialty in sustainability, wrote today in her new GreenBiz column:

Too often I see employee engagement translated into “simple things you can do:” turning off the lights, double-sided printing, powering down your computer. While such things can engender significant savings when everyone takes part, it’s a far cry from culture shift.

I would argue that sustainability is no more about “simple things you can do” than any major objective is. My research with over one hundred companies who are known for their leadership in corporate sustainability shows that achieving sustainability goals is not that different from achieving any corporate goals. It requires having a clear strategy; setting specific goals and explaining how those goals support the strategy; and managing and measuring performance against those goals. It requires giving employees the right training, incentives and motivation.

Engagement is Key to Performance Generally

To the degree that employee engagement is key to sustainability success, it’s because employee engagement is critical to corporate performance generally. Indeed, as the NEEF study acknowledges, “There is a substantial body of knowledge demonstrating that engaged employees are a key contributor to a company’s success in any endeavor, so companies seek both to interest employees in sustainability and to provide them the information they need to take action.”

Sustainability Drives Engagement (and Vice Versa)

What’s new here is not the discovery of engagement as a mystical property that can drive corporate performance, or that sustainability programs uniquely rely on engaged employees. Rather, it’s the fact that environmental stewardship and sustainability are values that lots of people can relate to. Companies are finding that they can engage employees through the company’s commitment to sustainability, not just in their commitment to sustainability activities. Sustainability programs can help drive employee engagement, and not just the other way around.

I’ve spoken to numerous corporate sustainability executives who see establishing a clear corporate commitment to sustainability as a way of attracting, retaining and, yes, engaging empoyees in the corporation’s work. Sustainability has become a medium for these companies to talk about values and higher purpose with their employees. The benefit goes far beyond achieving sustainability goals. It includes making employees proud of being on the company team and inspiring greater motivation to help with its other goals as well.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with using a corporate commitment to sustainability this way, provided that a company’s commitments are sincere, its goals are clear and it measures and rewards performance. But let’s be clear what we are talking about when we talk about employee engagement.

What do you think?

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1 Comment

Filed under sustainability

One response to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Engagement

  1. It makes sense to me. As you say, if sustainability isn’t in the fabric and values of the organisation or not led from the top (CEO, CFO) the engagement on these principles will seem a little out of place – something they have to do instead of wanting to do. I think this is why much ‘engagement’ up to now has been been about the little things and the quick wins. As sustainability becomes part of the core strategy of organisations it becomes more integrated and normalised and engagement becomes more about company itself rather than the just environment.

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