Why Organizations Need to Consider Employee Engagement
As a Part of Sustainability Initiatives

Robyn Rickenbach, Springboard International Inc.

In a recent New York Times article, the author Bryan Burrough compares the “knot of issues that have come to be known as ‘sustainability’ … ” to other global issues that “went on for so long that [we] finally gave up [following them.]” In other words, the notion of sustainability is thrown around with different meanings for different people, akin to how people use the word Kleenex to mean any sort of tissues. Depending on whom you ask, sustainability might mean very different things.

I’d like to spend some time considering the importance of long-term, sustainable strategies to keep employees engaged within an organization as a key part of any sustainability strategy.   In my experience, most of the organizations that have been labeled as early adopters in the sustainability movement have focused their energies on re-use or recycling, or the “planet” part of sustainability. They may also focus on the “profit” part of sustainability, in that their efforts have led to significant economic savings, increased public relations that then increased market share, or internal process improvements that have generated additional revenue for the organization.

However, without deeply engaged employees, without the “people” part of sustainability, I don’t believe an organization will be sustainable long term.  The American Society for Training and Development’s definition of talent management states that an organization will “drive short- and long-term business results by building culture, engagement, capability, and capacity.” In addition to re-cycling and re-purposing of resources, let’s focus for a few minutes on re-engaging our employees as a means to building a sustainable business.

To build an engaged workforce, I believe you need to consider three critical elements: aligned goals, developing the skills and knowledge of your employees, and celebrating employees’ and organizational successes. Let’s consider each of these three elements to effective employee engagement individually.

The First Element: Aligning Employee and Organizational Goals

Most organizations have specific business goals like revenue, sales, costs, and so forth. Many organizations also have organizational goals including the purchase of new systems and succession planning initiatives. The best organizations have aligned their business and organizational goals with a corporate vision and values. Employees are no different. Each employee has a set of individual goals that matter to them—around money, recognition, promotions, and so forth. Each employee also has a core purpose and passion including what motivates him or her and what he or she is naturally good at. When an organization can align the organizational components to the employee goals, they fulfill the first element for employee engagement. Here is what it might look like:

Employee Engagement

One of our clients recently said, “A company is nothing more than a group of people who come together to work toward a common goal.” Making sure that your employees share the same goals and vision that your organization shares is a critical component of employee engagement. It is essential to building a sustainable business.

The Second Element: Developing Skills and Knowledge

My gut is that most organizations provide training programs for their employees. But the difference between training and real development for employees is this: training engages the employee for a specific topic or time; development requires a long-term initiative and a systematic series of events that allow the employee to truly grow and change his/her behavior over time. Studies have shown that people only retain 2-6% of what they hear once (like in most training programs). Employees who are a part of a long-term, sustainable development program learn new concepts, practice them in the workplace, work through challenges with peers, and retain about 62% over a lifetime. In addition, strong, profitable, sustainable organizations recognize the value of developing a team that leverages the natural strengths of each employee. As an analogy to investigating and then implementing the very best process in order to become more sustainable as a business, when an organization can find the very best employees who as a team then complement each other’s strengths, the organization is also more sustainable. Mike Goldman’s book, Performance Breakthrough, discusses this element of leveraging natural strengths in more detail.

The Third Element: Celebrating Employees and Organizational Success

We know intuitively that celebrating organizational and individual success leads to a better organization. In fact, many studies by Zenger Folkman, Great Places to Work, Towers Perrin, and others have demonstrated clear relationships between employee attitudes around respect, fairness, camaraderie, and business profitability. So why is this element so difficult to achieve? I think that organizations remember the core components of financial rewards, promotions, and formal recognition of employees, but they forget—or don’t take the time—to practice informal celebration. A colleague of mine says, “There is a reason why teams play better in front of the home-town crowd.” Informal, organizational celebrations serve to keep employees engaged; they stimulate creativity and a willingness to go the extra mile. Those celebrations may also be opportunities to align organizational and individual goals and passions, and to nurture natural employee strengths.

Building a sustainable business requires a focus on many areas within the organization including, building an engaged employee team. As you continue your work to become or remain sustainable, consider these questions as a way to evaluate your own employee engagement practices:

  • How effectively are your organization’s vision and values communicated and socialized throughout your organization?
  • How do your performance expectations take into account an employee’s purpose and passions?
  • What percentage of your overall training dollars is spent on “training” versus “development?”
  • How does your organizational culture encourage people to focus on building strengths versus focusing on weaknesses?
How does your organization celebrate employees today?