To create a culture of sustainability, companies must invite participation from employees at every level of the organization. Doing this, however, is easier said than done. Where do you begin? How do you effectively communicate with employees? And how do you measure results? These are some of the questions that Dr. Stephanie Bertels, Assistant Professor at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business, set out to answer through her recent work on employee engagement for the Network for Business Sustainability. We spoke with her this week to learn more about the importance of employee engagement and where some programs are falling short.
Q: What led you to this research topic?
SB: I began my career as an environmental engineer, consulting with a number of communities around drinking water protection and contaminated sites. What I was found was a lot of the times it was not a technical problem, it was a ‘people problem’ in the sense that you had well-meaning people in organizations that were sometimes not enacting the behaviors that they needed to, and as a result of that, you end up in situations that it was then my job to come in and fix. On the surface, things get described as a technical failure, but when you dig in much deeper you realize that a lot of times it’s not simply whether or not the right technology was in place but it’s more about whether there was a cultural issue. That was my practical experience and then that drove me to go back and do a Ph.D in organization theory and in strategy and sustainability. That has been a dominant theme in the work I’ve done.
Q: How did you define the dimensions of engagement? What are the particular levers that can affect the level of engagement within a company?
SB: We started by trying to gather all of the available information we could, whether from academic journal articles, reports, practitioner reports and even full-length books and we asked ourselves three questions. What are they trying to do? What is it that they’re trying to change? How are they going about it? Are they using informal means or formal means? And by that are they trying to create rules and procedures or are they using ‘felt leadership’? And then with what degree of success? In those instances where there had been some degree of assessment or measurement, we asked whether that measure was effective. We had a practitioner-oversight council and they were pretty clear with us that they didn’t want just a laundry list of activities. They wanted some way to think about or frame this. So that’s where I decided to turn to action verbs to say, ‘What are they doing?’ So in each instance, we’d ask ourselves, what are they actually doing? They’re telling stories, or they’re integrating it into business processes, or they’re communicating it to employees. So it became organized under the framework of what are they trying to achieve?
Q: Why do you think it’s important to measure the engagement, whether it’s happening formally or informally?
SB: Companies are driven by metrics so they manage to metrics. If you start trying to assess whether employees are engaged then people will start to pay attention to whether employees are engaged. If it becomes something that they track it becomes something that they’re more inclined to manage and attempt to move the dial on. What we found in the literature review is that there had been a lot of efforts of people describing how they had changed a culture by going back to see what they had done and then claim that that is what caused the change. We’ve not had a lot of really high-quality studies that have looked at this from a forward-perspective, what are the key levers in creating that change? For the company, I think it’s really important to measure it to see if what they’re doing is working.
Q: What did you learn about engagement from your research?
SB: Very frequently when you see work on cultural engagement in organizations, there’s a tendency to measure values. The presumption is that if employees have a certain set of values that they will act on them or they may go in and measure perception of leadership values, which both of which are important, but they don’t always lead to behavior. So then the next piece of it is to understand efficacy. To what extent do I think that I can act different than I currently act in this organization in order to make change? What do I think is possible within my organization? Do I think it will be sanctioned? Do I think I have the resources available?
Q: Is there any correlation between the size of a company and employees’ perception of how well their ideas will be received?
SB: I would say no. We work with a range of organizations and it can be just as paralyzing in small organizations, especially if you have a very strong leader or founder. I don’t think it’s about size. I think it is about signals from senior leadership. As you move into large organizations, the signals from senior leadership become important in the sense that they set the signals for mid-level leaders. But mid-level leaders have a very fundamental influence in larger organizations. So a number of the very large organizations in our working group have identified this gap. While they have made great progress with regard to their senior leaders and they’ve made good progress with regard to front-line employees, The people who are most pressed within organizations are those mid-level managers because they’re the ones who are really dealing with the very short-term deadlines that they’re being assessed against. So they may not have that strategic vision that the senior leaders do.
Q: How do you change that?
SB: You’ll never get uniform cultures because culture gets enacted in very different ways. There are certain tools that become dominant in organizations so I think part of engaging that middle group is to really understand what drives that organization. In one organization that I work with they are extremely project-driven, so they really don’t set a long-term strategy. They have particular projects and project goals, so if you want to influence how the organization is behaving and thinking about sustainability, what you need to do is work on those project goals. You need to work with the people who control and administer the project management system to insert these elements into it to then have that come up for all of those project managers across the organization. So it’s important to understand what the dominant pieces of your culture are and how decisions get made in your organization. In another company, they are extremely risk-driven. And as a result of that, their Vice President of sustainability decided that he was going to train all of his EHS and sustainability teams in the company’s advanced risk tool so that they would know it inside and out. That way, when they were talking to people inside the organization they would know how to take sustainability and attach it to the language of risk that was already in use. Often times people think that changing culture means that you have to dismantle and replace, but culture is quite enduring in organizations and you also need to attach yourself to what’s already there and then try to slowly shift it over time. You need to be very conscientious about figuring out which are the elements that can be leveraged and which are the most important elements that you might need to do some unlearning around.
Stephanie Bertels is an Assistant Professor of Technology and Operations Management at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business in Vancouver, Canada, where she studies how organizations make the transition towards sustainability. She will share NBS’s latest employee engagement tool at NAEM’s 2013 EHS Management Forum on Oct. 23-25 in Montreal.