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Why do some sustainability initiatives become firmly embedded in an organization while others fizzle out?

It may have something to do with how your employees interact as they tackle the sustainability issue at hand.

Sustainability work covers a massive range of potential issues—from waste reduction to social inclusion—and companies often struggle with how to move forward or how to prioritize multiple issues. Research by University of Michigan Assistant Professor Sara Soderstrom and Northwestern University Professor Klaus Weber, published in Administrative Science Quarterly,  sheds some light on the internal processes organizations use to address sustainability, and the influence that employees can have. 

“Our study is grounded in field data collected over 18 months at a large biomedical company that sought to become more sustainable. Over that period, some sustainability-related issues became firmly embedded in formal structures and procedures, while others faltered,” the authors wrote. 

Their research found that the progress a company can make on sustainability does not depend only on top executives’ decision-making. Senior executives aren’t the only ones whose actions matter. Lower-level employees also have a hand in these initiatives’ success or failure. Their research indicated that internal advocates at middle and lower levels influenced how organizational structures developed. When the CEO and other senior executives make decisions, they may rely on initiatives and proposals that mid-level employees developed. 

Soderstrom and Weber noted that the quality of employees’ interactions can influence how successful a sustainability initiative is. When employees are attentive and emotionally invested, understand the topic, feel positive about interactions or discussions, and are committed to allocating their time toward a sustainability issue, that issue is more likely to be adopted by or embedded within the organization. The more frequent these positive interactions are, the more likely the company is to make real progress on the issue at hand.

Soderstrom shared her takeaways from the research: “What happens inside an organization matters. When it comes to sustainability, it’s not just about whether the CEO cares or not. Sure, having a CEO that’s excited opens the door for sustainability, but it doesn’t tell you what to do. Our work shows that it’s actually how you interact with others internally to build excitement and commitment that helps to influence which initiatives happen and which initiatives succeed.” 

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