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How to Build a Green Culture

Insiders — and not just those at the top of the organization — can instigate cultural changes without disrupting the current corporate culture.

Harness change agents on the road to sustainability.

How can your organization develop a greener or more socially conscious culture without tearing apart the existing culture?

Past research suggests a major jolt or top-down initiative is required for significant culture change, invoking the “unlearning” of existing cultural norms. More recent research suggests that insiders — and not just those at the top of the organization — can instigate cultural changes without disrupting the current culture. These insiders instead introduce new cultural tools and ideas, adding them to the current culture of the organization by working carefully to create opportunities for learning and experimentation.

Researchers Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Jennifer Irwin (both of University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business), Karen Golden-Biddle, and Jina Mao (both of Boston University) explored three organizations that were able to build sustainability into their existing cultures by creating “liminal spaces” — places or events within the organization, but outside of the daily pattern of work.

Harnessing the Power of Change Agents

Change agents used these liminal spaces to allow other employees to experiment with new ideas, such as sustainability. Employees then transferred these new ideas and tools into their daily work, which helped the ideas to spread throughout their work groups and eventually the organization.

For example, one organization brought together a group of designers to brainstorm about how they could make their products green from start to finish. Designers were encouraged to come up with outrageous ideas – and several of the ideas were implemented. The success of these new, green products spread the idea of sustainability as innovation, rather than sustainability as regulatory hazard.

This qualitative study is based on in-depth interviews with change instigators at three very different organizations, as well as other employees who experienced these sometimes subtle change efforts. From the interviews, the authors developed a model of how cultural change can be initiated by organizational insiders.

Making the Green Shift

The researchers identified a number of factors important for culture change towards a more sustainable, CSR-driven culture to be successful:

  • Intentional culture change can take place without jolts or top-down programs.Instead, change can be developed within everyday organizational events such as sustainability meetings or training programs. For these events to be effective, however, they must be safe places for people to experiment with new ideas. (See also NBS article “Burned Out Employees? Reduce Absenteeism with Workplace Interventions.“)

  • Culture change does not require outsiders or internal authorities to break down the existing organizational culture. Instead, insiders who understand the current culture are successful change agents because they can connect new ideas for a more sustainable or socially conscious workplace to current responsible values.

  • New ideas can be added to an organization’s culture without unlearning old cultural patterns. Employees don’t need to forget everything they know about cultural rules and norms within their firm; they can simply add and apply new aspects to strengthen existing culture.

Managers trying to shift their company’s culture towards sustainability and greater social responsibility should:

  • Be on the lookout for everyday situations where you can inject ideas related to the desired change, reinforce new ways of thinking, or invite reflection from others.

  • Be mindful of the existing culture and concerns of the organization, and how these can be related to the desired change or new concerns. Think about adding rather than changing or replacing.

  • Remove employees — even temporarily and opportunistically — from their day-to-day setting in order to introduce new ideas. Test new ideas by having employees participate rather than simply listen.

  • Take a long-term view. Have an end vision, but be patient and flexible in how you help others move towards that vision.

Change is Good

Striving for better corporate citizenship and more sustainable practices doesn’t mean uprooting a firm’s existing cultural infrastructure. Every-day situations and ad-hoc moments are opportunities for growth and change; these aspects can be layered onto existing corporate values to produce a forward-thinking approach to sustainability and CSR.

Howard-Grenville, J., Golden-Biddle, K., Irwin, J., and Mao, J. 2011. “Liminality as cultural process for cultural change.Organization Science. 22.2: 522-539.

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