Social and environmental responsibility is far too important to be left just to the corporate sustainability department. And the way it’s practiced today is far too simple, ignoring the role that employee commitment and passion — and their learning and development – play in driving growth.
“There’s a problem with the way responsibility has been framed,” said Carol Sanford, consultant and author of The Responsible Business. “It’s been framed as something you do beyond what you do in the business. It isn’t about some separate thing. It means how we do business every day.”
Responsible business in this sense is not just being socially and environmentally responsible: It’s how you run a business that does good on multiple levels, from customer to stockholder. It extends to how you manage people and help them achieve their full potential.
Too often, social responsibility is framed in bottom-line terms focused on cost and measures of environmental impact. While it’s important for companies to think about their impacts, Sanford argues, that approach ignores the potential for growth and innovation that can come from responsibility.
“Instead, start with quintessential top line because top line is the place on the balance sheet where something grows — where you create new markets; where you create new opportunity,” Sanford said.
That top line should be driven by global imperatives that articulate what a company is trying to achieve on a global scale; for customers, employees, the environment and society at large. And the core of how you carry out those global imperatives is learning and development.
“You don’t do it by programs, by regulations, by best practices,” she said. “You do it by shifting how people can see, what they can think, their critical thinking skills [and] how they manage themselves. That’s how it changes.”
Sanford argues that traditional incentive and performance programs are not only ineffective, they are in fact harmful. Incentives can work for defined short-term projects, but they splinter the company and encourage people to game the system when used for larger, long-term projects and organizational imperatives.
“If it’s too distant in the future, if it’s anything big and important, incentives tend to have the opposite effect,” she said.
Performance management is too detached from day-to-day work and discourages rather than encourages people to take responsibility for their performance and results. It takes away rather than gives power and control to employees.
“I start modifying my behavior based on you,” Sanford said. “If you do something I feel like I couldn’t control, I feel like I’m a victim.”
Running a responsible business means getting people to do away with the victim mentality and develop an internal locus of control for their own behavior, balanced with external consideration of others, such as co-workers and customers.
“If you have everybody internally considering ‘Are they going to lay off people? Am I going to get my reward?’ how can you think about the customer? How are they going to think about the Earth? How are they going to think about the community?” Sanford said. “What you want is all the energy to be on external considering and the internal locus of control.”
To achieve that balance requires thinking about leadership as a process of awakening employees’ passion and tying it to the organization’s mission. Rather than focusing development on skills and capabilities employees need to acquire, focus on the global imperative, and development will follow.
“Promise to do something that you know needs to be done and let’s build your skill while you’re doing that and they [will] grow at a rate that is at least 10 times faster,” Sanford said.
Mike Prokopeak is managing director of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.