Recognising and encouraging organisational change from within.
When organisations talk about employee engagement, they often revert to giving managers tips on how to get employees to show commitment to an already formulated task, strategy, or project. And that’s a shame, because employees have lots of ideas and on-the-ground insights into what needs to change – as well as the energy to drive it. That’s why smart organisations focus on empowerment, not engagement: channeling employee's energy into workplace action.
Businesses play a crucial role in the transition to a regenerative economy, and employees are becoming pivotal actors in driving business change.
However, those eager to lead climate and social initiatives face challenges in the workplace. There are hierarchical barriers, time constraints, limited budgets, lack of formal power, and resistant internal cultures. Despite a workforce that cares deeply, organisations often rely on top-down engagement approaches that don't tap into inner drive of employees.
Employees, who by the way, are more informed about the climate transition, and often more willing to fight than managers crafting strategies. What these employees need is recognition and support from the organisation to flag challenges and initiate interventions. What they get is top-down engagement approaches to strategies that aren’t always rooted in reality.
One of the great values employees bring is that they can feed top-down strategies with real-time experience and knowledge. What often happens, however, is that senior teams turn a blind eye to issues flagged by employees. This is a risk. It estranges employees from the strategies, and it negatively influences the organisation’s ability to achieve its (ESG) goals. When employees experience this, they tend to disengage, leading to three kinds of behaviours: cynicism, quiet or conscious quitting, and employee activism.
Organisations should pay attention to all these behaviours if they want to really engage their workforce. Cynics are often a testament of energy that has been thwarted too often. These employees suppress their real contributions and instead constantly comment and slow things down. Quitting is when people don’t see that their businesses will be able to deliver the meaningful impact they expect, which is especially prevalent among GenZ and Millennials.
As for employee activism, it’s time that organisations started seeing it for what it really is: a group of employees who care enough to fight for their values.
When organisations reframe conscious quitting, cynicism and employee activism and see that it can be an indicator of employees caring, it becomes a gift.
Because face it, if you are having trouble engaging employees, perhaps your (ESG) strategy is unambitious, a fixed checkbox approach, too organised top-down and doesn’t allow for emergent practice, experimentation, or mistakes.
Stimulating employee activism.
Despite employee’s willingness to drive change from within only a small group (15% GenZ and Millennials) feels their influence is sufficient. These employees are looking for allies who support systems change and can use their positions to bridge old, dominant systems with new, emerging ones. The Employee Barometer, published last year, advises to companies to:
Show greater ambition about your impact on people and planet.
Communicate your actions
Empower your employees.
So, how is empowerment different from engagement? The excellent Cards for Life deck, invaluable for regenerative leadership approaches explains it like this: empowerment is about giving ‘power to’ and holding ‘power with’ employees so they can co-shape the direction of the organisation. When you see that power is abundant (meaning that more for them doesn’t mean less for me), then organisations become living systems of collective intelligence.
And, like activist groups who are united by a shared goal, they can tap into an awesome energy and momentum. Great examples of how this is happening in is business include Employee Sustainability Community, started by employees at Microsoft, the Work on Climate group, initiated by (ex) google employees, Les Collectifs a French association of work collectives driven by employees who volunteer their time and the Dutch Net Positive Movement that is being formed across big multinationals.
Alignment powers employee action
It is now abundantly clear that employees who want their jobs to be meaningful choose roles and organisations whose purpose they believe in. Over the past decades, organisations have understood this and made purpose and ESG strategies more prominently visible.
But employees expect more than words. Companies have to step up and not limit climate action to sustainability roles. People want to see that every job is a climate or ‘transition’ job.
When energy flows from within, people feel inspired and ready to act. What employees need is:
Schooling and skilling up on issues linked to sustainability and a socially just transition. Some great organisations that can help you are Climate Fresk, Climate Pitch, The Climate School, Creatives for Climate, The Drawdown aligned business framework, Climate Voice, Re-Generation Canada and the Work for Climate resources
Creative spaces to experiment and internal cultures that encourage dissent.Take example for Patagonia, who encourages their employees to volunteer and take action.
Organisations that want engagement need to work toward an internal culture that inherently supports employee initiatives, and encourages an emergent system of pioneers and communities of practice.
For those of you who want to become positive workplace activists, come and join our 6-week positive workplace activism course and learn how you can create positive change.
Author: Tessa Wernink
Founder Undercover Activist. Coach and trainer.