5 Proven Strategies for Inspiring Employee Engagement

5 Proven Strategies for Inspiring Employee Engagement

Lately, I've witnessed a surge interest from the corporate world in the topic of employee engagement around sustainability.

But, after countless hours working with and training highly talented sustainability advocates from some of the world's most forward thinking companies -- such as Intel, Walt Disney, Dow, Bristol Meyers, Ford Motor Company, 3M, Timberland, and Time Warner to name a few -- I've discovered that the challenge of getting employees engaged requires far more than just strong will power and talent.

It requires insight -- strategic, psychologically sophisticated insight based upon a deep understanding of what truly drives humans to change the way they behave, day to day.

Along these lines, the following five strategies represent the cream of the crop -- best practices I've learned from some very successful sustainability champions, and also from the trenches of my own consulting practice. I look forward to hearing success stories about you've used these strategies to create breakthrough results for your own sustainable business vision.

1. Start with Small Wins

Don't try to "boil the ocean" as they say. Start small. Pick a specific behavior to focus on first -- like recycling, energy use, or water usage -- and create a targeted campaign to shift that particular behavior. Then, once you've had some initial success, find a way to harness that momentum towards other critical sustainability projects and targeted behaviors. A series of small measurable wins will add up to serious psychological momentum, over time, and do a lot more to shift towards a culture towards sustainability-mindedness than any feel good slogans and lofty rhetoric.

For example, one major manufacturing company was having a hard time figuring out how to get their employees on board with new, highly ambitious sustainability program.

Their first approach was to issue an email announcement to all employees, nationwide, with a long list of expected behaviors to be implemented henceforth, and consequences for lack of participation. They also posted signs and placards around the workplace to reinforce the message. As you might've guessed, it went over like a lead balloon. Nothing changed. Employees were simply too stuck in old habits.

As a next approach, they decided to simplify things, focusing on one clear outcome first: reducing waste due to disposable coffee cup usage. They designed a fun, engaging campaign asking employees to bring their own reusable coffee mug, and even designed incentives to make this more compelling. This campaign became a huge success, and was a huge momentum builder for later change efforts.

2. Have Empathy for Non-Believers

Rumors of the death of empathy have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, based upon my experiences and research, I've come to believe that empathy -- the ability to see, feel, and understand the world from the perspective of others -- is the No. 1 key to designing campaigns that inspire behavior change. Unfortunately, for those who lead sustainability efforts inside large mainstream corporations, demonstrating empathy in a consistent and authentic way can be very challenging. Why? Because, let's face it: Sustainability enthusiasts are wired differently than others!

The data proves this. Our recent psychometric research as shown that sustainability enthusiasts have distinct core values, thinking styles and belief patterns relative to their so-called "mainstream" counterparts. (For more on this research, watch this helpful YouTube clip on the "The Psychology of Sustainability.") Because of these pronounced cognitive differences, sustainability leaders often unwittingly create campaigns and strategies that are better suited to their own worldview, than to that of their targeted audiences.

For example, a sustainability exec at a well-known technology company was recently having a hard time getting higher ups engaged around a rather ambitious vision. Everyone on the team was rallied around this idea and was frustrated that those controlling the purse strings wouldn't get on board.

To help solve this problem, I sat down with the team and -- after walking them through a tour of the worldview research framework -- had them do a fun role-playing exercise. Each person was tasked with trying on the "worldview" of the resistant decision makers: What did their department look like from that perspective? How did their proposal look and feel from this particular worldview lens? Each participant wrote a first-person essay capturing their experiences role playing in this way, stepping into their counterparts shoes. I then had the team read their answers out loud to each other, and listen to their collective insights garnered from this rare empathy experience.

The result? Not only did the team have a good laugh (at their own expense!) but their relationship with the higher ups improved almost immediately due to more effective communication strategies. Within a month, their project was fully funded.

3. Make It Fun

Let's face it: Most employees would rather get a root canal than think deeply about difficult, complex, systemic issues like climate change and their own impact on operational sustainability. As a result, most employees usually unconsciously resist or tune out sustainability-related messages before these communication even have a chance to make any measurable behavioral impact. But fortunately, there's a great antidote to all this deep muddy mind-madness -- it's called: "fun." Yes, when trying to inspire behavior change, a little fun can go a long, long way.

For example, a few years back, the CEO a well-established marketing company had a grand revelation, a moment of profound truth, after watching the movie "An Inconvenient Truth." He realized that his company needed to change the way they did business. Immediately. The next week at work he boldly announced his grand new vision for a sustainable workplace. It fell flat. For some reason, employees, board of advisers, and customers were reluctant to buy fully into the new vision he was promoting.

To help solve this problem we did a little research. We looked a little more deeply at the causes of this stakeholder resistance and found one, powerful underlying factor that cut across all departments: guilt. Employees were open to the idea of being green -- but the way this CEO was communicating his vision made them all feel unconsciously judged, and guilty for not being green enough already! What to do?

We got creative. To overcome this barrier, we put our "fun" cap on and designed a goofy faux legal contract called an Environmental Guilt Waiver. This contract came in pads of 50, and when filled out and signed by the giver, granted the recipient  "a 24-hour exemption from all existential torment in connection with the environmental crisis" for making specific, simple positive behavioral choices at work, such as carpooling, printing on double-sided paper, etc.

The end result? After receiving the waiver, employees and clients alike lit up and began passing them around to friends and associates, posting them on cubicle walls, making it a fun interoffice game of sustainability-related note-passing. Thus, a goofy idea -- based on a meaningful psychological insight -- spurred an employee engagement campaign that not only helped successfully rebrand a marketing company to a new generation of clients, but also drove measurable behavior change.

4. Keep It Simple

Sometimes the answer we seek is so simple that we can't see it. For example, the sustainability team for a reputable computer company was trying to figure out how to get employees to recycle. They worked through the issue in several meetings, with each team member bringing up several ideas as to how they might help create this shift among thousands of employees spread around the world, embedded in different cultures, seeing the world through a variety of geographically and organizationally distinct lenses.

At first, the sheer complexity of the challenge overwhelmed them -- and then, as if by divine inspiration, a simple idea hit them: What if they made it easy for people to recycle? What if, for starters, they just put visually prominent blue recycling containers in the common/kitchen areas and made sure they were placed right next to the ordinary trash cans? Might this simple, childlike idea just be crazy enough to work?

Yes, indeed. This miracle suggestion worked. Once these blue cans were strategically placed recycling immediately improved by over 50 percent across all departments, with very little need for strategic messaging and "big brother is watching" motivational tactics. Sometimes the best solutions are those that could've been cooked up by a 4 year old, so with all of our strategic brilliance and hifalutin degrees, let's be careful not to overlook the obvious.  Sometimes 4 year olds are really smart.

5. Stick With It.

Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither were your company's sustainability challenges. As you do your part to inspire your employee base to a more sustainable way of behaving, remember to be patient, be strategic, and -- just as vital -- be persistent. No matter how eloquent, savvy and sincere we may be, sometimes the only way to get through to people is with the grit and gumption of good old-fashioned perseverance.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once remarked that breaking up with someone is a lot like trying to tip over a refrigerator: You have to rock it a few times before it actually topples over.

Getting people to change their thoughts behaviors is the same way. So stick with it. Be persistent. After all, how much does sustainability really matter to you? Are you willing to continually raise the issues that matter to you, even when those around you seem stressed, apathetic or event cynical? Are you so determined and ambitious that you do what it takes to discover find that secret elixir of strategic insight that will give your sustainability vision real-world traction? If so, you are a true leader, and success is just a matter of time.

Images by sxc.hu user wagg66 and CC licensed by Flickr user Alaivani.