For Employee Buy-In, Supervisors Trump the CEO - Network for Business Sustainability

For Employee Buy-In, Supervisors Trump the CEO

As a supervisor, research shows you have more pull over employees than the C-Suite when it comes to selling staff on sustainability initiatives.
Lisa Richmond March 4, 2013
If you’re struggling to engage employees in your corporate social responsibility goals, focus on their immediate supervisors.

Researchers David E. Cantor, Paula Morrow, and Frank Montabon of Iowa State University discovered the employees who work hardest to achieve environmental goals are also the ones who believe it matters to their boss.

“The findings confirm what we know intuitively,” said Dave Robitaille, Manager of Citizenship and Corporate Affairs for IBM. “I've always operated by the adage: 'What interests the boss, fascinates me.' So research showing immediate manager interest in CSR outweighs that of the CEO makes perfect sense.”

Selling your Staff on Sustainability Initiatives

Professor Cantor and his colleagues studied employees in the supply-chain division of a global retailer. They measured the impact that employees’ perceptions of the company’s commitment to sustainability had on the employees’ own commitment to and effort toward the firm’s environmental goals. Corporate commitment was measured according to: supervisor support for the goals, company training programs, and rewards. Three important findings emerged from the study:

Key Finding #1: If the boss cares, I care.

To measure supervisor support, the researchers had employees respond to questions like: “My supervisor provides me with useful advice related to eco-initiatives.” Employees who were more likely to respond to the question affirmatively were more likely to perceive their company as placing a high value on sustainability. These employees were also more likely to characterize themselves as “really committed to our environmental activities” and more likely to have actively sought a solution to an environmental problem facing the company.

The findings are grounded in Organizational Support Theory, which states that employees seek a relationship of reciprocity with their employers. The more an employee believes the firm is committed to a goal  by providing the necessary encouragement and tools  the more the employee will respond to that goal with increased commitment and effort.

“In my experience in Corporate Citizenship, I've found that hand-to-hand dissemination of information is key, just as in many marketing campaigns,” said Robitaille. “People listen to and take advice from people they trust  more so than from slogans or campaigns. And while employees may trust the CEO, they pay closest attention to their peers and immediate manager for both information and advice.”

Key Finding #2: People achieve more with training.

The researchers also found a positive correlation between CSR training and employee engagement. If an employee received environmental training, he or she was more likely to believe the firm valued such behaviour and was therefore more likely to demonstrate the behaviour. The finding may not be sexy, but it validates what smart managers know: if you want people to achieve a goal, give them the skills they need to achieve it.

Key Finding #3: Reward programs don’t connote firm values.

Surprisingly, the researchers found the company’s reward program for environmental behaviour did not make the employees believe that the firm valued CSR. It’s possible the reward system at this company was too weak to influence perceptions. Or it’s possible the rewards actually do have little influence on employee behaviour, in which case, firms would be better to focus on other methods of engagement.

Employees Look to Supervisors, Not the CEO

The commitment to sustainability often starts in the C-suite, but Cantor and his colleagues observe that immediate supervisors may have a greater influence on employees than senior executives.

As a supervisor at any level of your organization, you can promote, or retard, the firm’s sustainability achievements with day-to-day influence on those you directly oversee. Act in accordance with sustainability principles and make those values known to your staff if you want them on board.
Cantor, D., Morrow, P., and Montabon, F. 2012. “Engagement in Environmental Behaviors among Supply Chain Management Employees: An Organizational Support Theoretical Perspective.Journal of Supply Chain Management.48.3: 33–51.

Related Resources

Research Insight

Employees who give feel more committed to their organization.

Pam Laughland
Research Insight

Good CSR and a strong corporate moral compass can drive financial performance through better employee engagement and commitment to your firm.

Bushra Tobah
Research Insight

Employees working for firms with environmental policies are most likely to implement eco-initiatives. To encourage employee eco-initiatives, managers can...

Lauren Rakowski
Topic Blog

This list captures nine signs that your employees understand and embrace your organization's environmental and social goals.

Anthea Rowe
Reports and Articles

NBS reviewed the best management research from around the world and discovered the five rules for becoming a sustainability leader. For your company to be a...

NBS