5 steps to a sustainable organisation

Karen Tidsall argues that business needs a more sustainable way of working for long-term success

Today’s business mantra is ‘growth at all costs’. It’s become so endemic and so mainstream that we don’t even question it. But this global growth ambition has become the economic engine-room that pushes human beings, organisations, societies and the planet beyond their limits. Globally we are consuming resources 50 per cent faster than we can replace them. We cannot grow indefinitely in a world with finite resources. 

The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) argues that achieving sustainability will require an approach that de-emphasises growth and explicitly embraces environmental and social goals as the key dimensions of development.

But the dominant economic paradigm perpetuates the myth that growth is the only way forward. This is not workable and on a fundamental level it is de-humanising. Organisations increasingly require a more sustainable way to work in the future. 

There is a deep-seated emotional driver that is pushing the economy and people to beyond their capacity – boiled down to its essence this can be seen as the need to be loved. While we are not terribly comfortable looking at work through the lens of the psyche, emotions play a leading role in our life at work.

Psychologists Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer interviewed 600 managers and found that 95 per cent thought money was the key motivator for employees. But after analysing over 12,000 employees, they found that the number one motivator was emotion: the feeling of making progress toward a meaningful goal everyday.  

Deep down all human beings are susceptible to harbouring a core belief that ‘I have to be perfect in order to survive’. But the job of growing up, of becoming an adult is about examining deep-seated beliefs as they strongly influence not only our relationships but how we create and manage our systems and organisations.  

A common psychological trap for many is assuming that we can perform always at our peak – particularly when we are young – because this is actually when we are at our most productive. But no one can sustain this level of output in anything longer than short bursts. 

The right amount of pressure is good for us and will lead to increased motivation and satisfaction. But organisations, leaders and individuals in the pursuit of the growth agenda mistakenly assume that everyone should perform at their peak level at all times. This is simply not sustainable. While the optimum level of pressure is different for everyone, too much leads to stress, impaired decision making, lower productivity and eventually burn out. 

Sustainable achievement is the counterbalance to the 24/7 short-termism that plagues business. It advocates that congruency, empathy and respect within work1 are the core conditions necessary for individuals, teams or organisations to grow for the long term. It is about challenging the growth-for-growth sake agenda and re-examining how we lead our organisations and develop employees within them.  

In many ways this requires a redefinition of power. Leaders have a duty to be as fully conscious as they possibly can so they are not perpetuating unhealthy patterns of behaviour. Our CEOs and leaders generally don’t have measures in place for self-scrutiny but the more power leaders hold the more self-scrutiny they need. In the world of therapy there are prescribed procedures for self-reflection – it’s the professional code of conduct that ensures therapists have both the support and checks in place to keep their professional services on track. Had similar balances been enshrined in business before 2008, the near collapse of the Western banking sector could well have been avoided.  

Steps to sustainable organisations

Organisations can establish healthier, more sustainable ways of working which don’t compromise the bottom line but in fact build it for the long term. Organisational health is fast becoming the new competitive advantage. After 10 years of research McKinsey found that healthy companies perform most successfully. In its research on 16 oil refineries McKinsey discovered that organisational health accounted for a 54 per cent variation in performance. There is a growing understanding in business literature, research and within progressive organisations as to what the practical steps are to build sustainable achievement in business.

1. Defined purpose
It is essential for organisations to have their core purpose discussed, defined, explicit and clearly written up. Organisations must ask: what are our values and how do we demonstrate them? This has to be regularly reviewed and refreshed. John Baldoni author of Lead With Purpose describes purpose as a combination of vision, mission and values. In its simplest form, purpose is the organisation’s reason for being. Once there is a deep congruency and connection between people and the organisation’s core purpose, it enables the creative electricity to flow.  

2. Coaching 
Coaching is a key tool in building sustainable achievement at work. Embedding a coaching culture gives managers the skills to behave in ways that inspire an adult response. So they are able to use a coaching style in daily conversations: the ‘I have some ideas, but I’d like to hear yours’ approach. The ILM research 2010 Creating a Coaching Culture found that 95 per cent of leaders saw direct benefits to the organisation when coaching was introduced. The list of benefits were improved communication and interpersonal skills, leadership skills, conflict resolution, personal confidence, attitudes and motivation, management performance as well as preparation for a new role or promotion. It’s hard to see why you wouldn’t embed coaching at work.  

3. Wellbeing and setting limits 
Wellbeing is another crucial element of the healthy workplace. Effective performance management systems set out what is important in the company based on the goals of the organisation and its defined values. Again enlightened leadership is key – a good manager is able to establish limits and boundaries, so for example working for a set number of hours and not sending urgent emails at 11pm on a Saturday night! Linking effort and achievement with support, rest and recuperation. Only then can individuals contribute at their best in the long term. 

4. A development path
Sustainable achievement is critical for development and none more so than in training where organisations often, in their bid to manage ever increasing workloads, send staff on training and then get them straight back onto the day job. Giving little chance for either embedding learning or fundamentally changing working practices. The counterbalance is a development system where each individual or team is able to learn well, reflect and apply their learning in their day-to-day work for the betterment of themselves and the business. Sounds idealistic but a simple yet adhered-to learning system can make all the difference. 

5. Structure and flexibility
Today’s most successful organisations have sufficient structure in place to hold business activity but enough freedom for organic emergence and creativity to flourish. It’s a tricky balance to achieve. Too many processes and procedures lead to corporate suffocation. The solution is clever architecture which gives employees signs on a roadmap. There is a structure in place but it’s flexible enough to meet different types of customer needs. And the most evolved solution is where employees are able to co-create the experience with the client. LEGO is pioneering the way here with its creative platform where anybody can post a suggestion for a new product. If it attracts enough supporters and goes into production then 1 per cent of the revenue is shared with the originator. Virtually all products created in this way sell out. 

Paul Gilding in his book The Great Disruption points out that we will not respond to ecological sustainability when 50 per cent of biodiversity has been wiped out. But we will when 50 per cent of the value of our economy and lifestyle is threatened. And we’re at least 20 per cent down that road. Sustainable organisations give employees, teams and leaders the opportunity to perform at an optimum mental and emotional state. 

A successful business rests on the capacity for its people to think clearly, make considered decisions and maintain levels of motivation. They can only do this if well resourced. In sustainable achievement there is constant alertness which monitors the dynamic balance between giving and receiving, rest and effort, and using resources in a balanced way. This creates successful organisations which grow and contribute, that understand the difference between need and greed, and short versus long-term success. 


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