What does a typical employee’s “sustainability journey” look like? The other day, it occurred to me that it is very similar to the company’s journey that Bob Willard describes in The 5-Stage Sustainability Journey. In Willard’s five-stage continuum, companies evolve from Pre-compliance, Compliance, and Beyond Compliance in Stages 1, 2 and 3 and progress on to Integrated Strategic and Purpose Driven Sustainability in Stages 4 and 5.

5_Stages_Graphic

Source: The 5-Stage Sustainability Journey (Jul 27th, 2010)

Just as a company (and its leadership) can progress through the five-stage sustainability continuum – so can employees. When employees are in Stages 1-2, Pre-compliance and Compliance, they are being asked to change behavior (e.g., turn off lights, recycle), but they may (or may not) comply with what they are being asked to do. A lack of participation and/or engagement in activities such as these may be due to legitimate barriers, lack of communication, and/or the individual’s particular values or attitudes. Regardless of which is the case, these issues need to be addressed in order for engagement to progress to more advanced levels.

By Stage 3, Beyond Compliance, employees start to engage in more proactive ways to achieve operational and resource efficiencies (e.g., changing processes or equipment that lead to saving water, energy, or reducing waste). While this definitely constitutes improvement, they are still more or less tactical activities and are not necessarily indicative of sustainability being integrated into the mindset of the organization. So employees at this stage are partially engaged, but have not quite embraced larger, more strategic sustainability goals. Again, this could be due to ineffective communication, barriers to implementation, or lack of personal motivation.

At the 4th stage, Integrated Strategy, the company has committed to the principles and values and is working to instill them into its culture and employees. Stage 4 companies have begun to realize the value and benefits of applying viable concepts proactively in the business planning process, for example, by using life-cycle analysis to design or re-design more sustainable products. These companies create a work environment that requires their workforce to focus more broadly on risks and opportunities in ways that will provide additional financial and societal value. As companies engage at this more advanced stage, it becomes increasingly obvious whether or not sustainability principles have truly become a part of the culture of the organization. If companies have not been successful engaging employees effectively along the continuum to this point, achieving transformational change is far more difficult.

At Stage 5 companies are contributing to creating a better world, often because they recognize it is right thing to do both for the company and for society. By this time, employees are highly engaged and have numerous avenues through which they can contribute toward the company’s sustainability vision. These companies also realize that their workforce needs to be progressing in a coordinated way towards its long-term goals, and some thought and planning must be applied to making this happen. The effort spent on engaging employees in the cultural shift required to move from integrated to passion-driven purpose is in itself highly enriching and builds strong bonds. Ultimately some employees will engage at this level while others will not.  The difference often lies not in what the management team has done or not done to drive engagement, but rather with individual motivations and values. Those who do not go along most likely will move along; their journey often ends before or at Stage 4.

With this in mind, and to manage growth toward transformative change, companies who desire a deep level of commitment and culture change can begin working these principles and values into their hiring process, and then to further cultivate them from orientation onward. As people become progressively more aware of sustainability and more entry-level employees emerge from institutions of higher education with foundational knowledge in sustainability concepts, candidates will become more abundant and this process will become easier.

Even in the best cases, achieving a culture of sustainability is a long and challenging process. But by marking progress and engaging employees all along the way, companies can have a better sense of where they are on journey of continuous improvement and where they need to go next to create the transformative change that is found in a purpose-driven enterprise. Sharing information in this context with senior management and strategy teams can be helpful in getting alignment around the company’s direction and the intended long term goals of the employee engagement program.