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Piling new expectations on already-stressed managers

July 2012

Imagine you are the manager of a busy supermarket. You face daily pressure to ensure that your store is performing well. Your staff work in shifts and it is a struggle to find time to bring them together for briefings. The store has to look great, shelves have to be fully stocked, queues minimised and tricky customers dealt with effectively. In short, a full-on and stressful role.

Now imagine your CEO has announced a comprehensive sustainability strategy with new environmental targets. You are ambitious and know you will have to demonstrate your commitment to this added set of expectations. Frankly, though, you haven’t a clue how you can translate them into your role. You have a nagging concern that the bright young things in the business are more aware of this agenda than you are. Basically, you feel uncertain and vulnerable.

Engaging middle managers is essential if businesses are to turn sustainability into reality, yet most find it incredibly difficult. A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development found that almost half of middle managers are under excessive work pressure. They are particularly unhappy with their work-life balance and are worried about job security.

As with most complex managerial issues, there is no silver bullet but there are three fundamentals that have to be in place:

1) Explain and Listen: Bringing groups of managers together in facilitated discussions is an essential precursor to change. This provides space and time for managers to understand the rationale for the new targets but, more importantly, gives them a chance to contest, discuss and consider implications for their roles. Sceptical voices are invariably overwhelmed by a broader desire to make the new targets stick.

2) Observe and act: Grand statements about carbon-saving targets and environmental imperatives gain little traction in busy, stressed workplaces. Far more effective are targeted, narrowly-focused messages aiming to change specific behaviours.

Targeted changes to staff behaviour achieve maximum environmental impact. This focussed approach discovers the unexpected, helping to explain why environmental performance can vary substantially across the same company. For example, we discovered one supermarket store using litres of boiling hot water to de-ice the fresh fish counter so that staff could leave their shift quickly. A change in behaviour saved water, energy and carbon.

3) Be consistent: Staff behaviour is driven by performance measures put in place by companies. In supermarkets, ‘secret shoppers’ play a vital role in ensuring standards are maintained. If these secret shoppers don’t have sustainability targets in their assessment process then change is unlikely. Indeed, in some instances, we found that secret shopper measurements actually hindered positive environmental change.

Three simple steps – but rare to find.

Trewin Restorick is chief executive of Global Action Plan
email: trewin.restorick@globalactionplan.org.uk




Trewin Restorick | UK & NI Ireland | Employee relations

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