Own it. This is the key point about sustainability that Professor CB Bhattacharya makes in his new book Small Actions Big Difference. While corporate sustainability on the surface is growing more prominent than ever, Professor Bhattacharya laments that meaningful action is too slow for most companies. The primary culprit for this shortcoming is a sustainability strategy that relies too heavily on a top down approach that fails to get broad buy-in from the myriad employees who are actually responsible for implementation. To fix this Professor Bhattacharya proposes using the psychological concept of “ownership” to fuel an emotional connection to sustainability initiatives where all employees view sustainability not as someone else’s job but as a key part of their role and responsibility. This is a view we deeply share at Sustain 6 and can also be seen in other initiatives such as the recently launched campaign by Project Drawdown “Climate Solutions at Work/Every job can be a climate job.”
Not all issues can effectively be “owned” by the workforce, but it turns out that sustainability is a prime candidate for ownership because of two primary factors. First, every employee has the ability to relate personally to sustainability, and second, sustainability moves beyond profit into the realm of purpose; employees want to work for companies that have a broader sense of mission, that can help answer the question: is the world better off with my company in it?
Though sustainability can often be overhyped and even disingenuous (greenwashing), sustainability has a broad aspirational quality that embraces creative thinking, individual action and collaboration within an increasingly sophisticated and globalized workforce that want to see the world be a better place. In short, Sustainability is akin to a new Renaissance that has an equivalent capacity to reshape the world. This is something that employees really want to take part in.
So what does “ownership” really mean and how does it work? Professor Bhattacharya defines ownership as:
“the feelings of possessiveness and connection that we have toward people, companies, things and even ideas. We express these feelings, which we begin to develop in infancy and early childhood, through terms like “my,” “mine,” and “our.” When we have a deep sense of ownership over something, we experience it as an extension of ourselves and as an expression of our identities. As a result, the feeling of ownership engenders in every person a favorable behavior toward the thing that they claim is theirs.”
And the key aspect that makes ownership powerful is its ability to help fulfill three fundamental human needs (they fit variously within Maslow’s hierarchy of needs):
1. Efficacy/competency is the desire to gain skill, control and confidence to overcome challenges in our lives and surrounding environment. Think of the new homeowner who starts to embrace the bittersweet joys of yard work (I still hate it) or the young grom who wants to be the next Kelly Slater. Own it and master it.
2. Self-identity is a nuanced idea that surrounds the questions “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” A key part to the answers of these questions lie in the societal context we place ourselves including where we live, who our friends are and, increasingly important, where we work. If work fails to deliver on purpose greater than a paycheck, the reality is that an individual will not likely extend their self-identity to work and begin looking for a better fit.
3. Belonging is a fundamental human quality that not only fosters security and wellbeing but also promotes a greater sense of meaning by being a part of something larger than ourselves. We extend our feelings of ownership to our groups; schools, sports teams, churches and workplaces.
Any manager, leader, parent or coach knows the power of “owning it.” How to do it is, of course, the key trick and understanding these three human needs driving the ownership concept offers a loose playbook that can be used to develop a more holistic and methodical strategy of ownership. With regard to corporate sustainability this is exactly what Professor Bhatacharya proposes through a comprehensive process that he breaks down into three stages: Incubate, Launch and Entrench.
Small Actions, Big Difference. By CB Bhattacharya
From an employee perspective, it is the Launch stage that is arguably most important. How does a company entice and enable its workforce – those responsible for implementing the strategy – to embrace sustainability goals and metrics, to get real intrinsic buy-in instead of extrinsic and arguably transitory compliance. One powerful suggestion is to align corporate sustainability values with personal sustainability values. In 2013 the consultancy Globespan found that 83% of employees wanted more than engagement with their company’s sustainability vision; employees wanted their companies to help them with sustainability in their own personal lives; they wanted consistency.
“We recognized that many of these programs were falling short in terms of what they really could achieve in getting employee buy-in.“
And happily many companies are starting to embrace the tactic of “employee sustainability benefits.” Prominent examples include Clif-Bar’s Cool Commute program, Intuit’s expansion of wellness reimbursements to include sustainability purchases and Biogen’s and Goldman Sachs’ employee focused community solar plans. While we applaud these efforts, at Sustain 6 we recognized that many of these programs were falling short in terms of what they really could achieve in getting employee buy-in and fostering authentic climate leadership across their workforce. This is why we put Sustain 6 into motion. Our employee sustainability platform is a turnkey solution that aligns and amplifies the climate mission of companies and their employees.
“Owning” the sustainability mission is a powerful way to think about sustainability strategy. Yes, a top down approach that helps prioritize and contour initiatives is critical, but the sustainability task is too large and the urgency too great for all employees not to be involved in a meaningful and intrinsic way. We encourage everyone to read Small Actions Big Differences and as we like to say:
Imagine your impact when every employee is a climate leader.
Owning the Sustainability Mission
Sustain 6 CEO