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 global 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 transition 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 mail room 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, lets 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 value that the firm creates 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 that is appealing and effective at sowing the seeds of sustainability ownership across the value system, what I’m concerned about is how that purpose can be brought to life and be cascaded internally in the most effective manner. 

Only when people have a deep sense of ownership over an object or idea, do they 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 a variety of 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 great news for trying to build ownership around sustainability, because all of us, whatever our station in life, can do something to help our planet and people. It’s thus important to focus on a strategy that  gives employees creative freedom  to act sustainably in line with the company 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 a great 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 social proof and an ongoing opportunity that develops 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 bright big ball in the sky. To Leverage corporate sustainability and maximize business and societal value, it is important 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 Failureproject 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, campaigns help spur continuous momentum that is self-empowered and grassroot driven. 

Sustainability ownership can only be driven if employees see work as part of their actual life and not just a paycheck. They develop real feelings towards, and come to feel a camaraderie for the company. It is only when employees take ownership of their work like they do of other aspects of their life are we able to 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

ABOUT SMALL ACTIONS BIG DIFFERENCE 

Based on interviews with 25 global multinational corporations as well as employees, middle managers and senior leaders across multiple sectors, this is the first book to connect sustainability to the theory of principles of psychological ownership and to propose a succinct, easy-to-digest model of managerial use. 

 

 

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This fortnightly knowledge byte series is an effort to rekindle courage to take action, share experience, insights, and innovation available across the globe to give us the courage and accelerate change. For we can be the generation that passes on a future of hope, abundance, and tranquillity to our children if only we are brave enough to see it, if only we are courageous enough to be it!