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15. Sep 2022

Green change: good sustainability management creates cultural change

by Eleonora Kurbanov
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The sustainability strategy is in place, the goals have been set. Everyone knows what needs to be done. In theory. In practice, however, many companies fail at precisely this point - implementation. Because what is often overlooked is the corporate culture.

A company's culture is more than just events and fruit baskets. It shapes the cooperation, satisfaction and motivation of employees. It is determined by explicit and implicit rules that have grown over time through experience and are consciously or unconsciously passed on by employees. In short, it cannot be expected to change overnight. And unfortunately, it is often not taken into account when it comes to implementing important changes in the company. Yet it determines which behavior is desirable in a company and which is not. This means that it can make a significant contribution to ensuring that the behaviors required to implement a new strategy are actually displayed.

From task force to management task

Often all hope and responsibility is placed in the hands of sustainability task forces. While it makes sense to set up a competence center to maintain an overview of a rapidly developing and complex topic, these teams cannot also manage an organizational transformation process. Many hands are needed to tackle it - and preferably some from the very top.

One of the main causes of failed change attempts in 73% of cases is a lack of Leadership. It would be easy to blame managers for this. But they also need the right conditions and drivers to bring about behavioral change. As long as success is measured by short-term sales targets, the right incentives for sustainability-oriented activities are missing. If a company has ambitious sustainability targets, they should also be reflected in the performance reviews at management level.

For example, since 2021, bonuses for managers at McDonald's have also depended on the achievement of diversity targets. A measure that, among other things, contributes to the overarching corporate goals of promoting gender equality and creating a more inclusive and therefore sustainable culture.

Overcoming change fatigue

For many employees and managers, the topic of sustainability is initially met with a dismissive, listless attitude - similar to that of digitalization. And as soon as even some colleagues are frustrated, it affects the rest. This can be caused by changes that are too rapid and too extensive and that do not take into account the reality of employees' work. It becomes even more difficult if the purpose behind the changes is not understood or not perceived as important. This can quickly lead to "change fatigue" - the resignation of employees to organizational change.

If everyone understands that the changes bring opportunities for the company and for the day-to-day work of each individual, much has already been gained. Ideally, this should be communicated using formats that are fun, offer scope for participation and go beyond Power Point charts. In terms of content, they should be close to the work of the workforce in order to make sustainable and strategic topics less abstract.

When Patagonia decided to use organic cotton instead of conventional cotton, they faced a lot of headwind from their employees and production partners. The change in material has brought with it many changes and risks. Instead of giving them a dry explanation of the reasons for this, all employees were taken in groups first to a conventional cotton farm, then to an organic farm and then invited to a discussion. Experiencing the differences live rekindled the employees' motivation and awakened their willingness to change.

Celebrating learning successes

It doesn't go down well with either the public or your own employees if you deny what you have done wrong so far. Learning processes are human and an open error culture is important for the implementation of new topics and the ability to innovate.

If you want to harness the full innovative power of your own company and meet the sustainable demands of our time, you need to put work into shaping the right corporate culture. Good sustainability management gives organizations the chance to replace outdated ways of working with a new, forward-looking mindset.

We are happy to receive project inquiries

Paul End,

Business Partner Sustainability Transition