Pathways to Foster Employee Engagement Towards Sustainability

In this post, authors Abraham Carmeli, Roshan Boojihawon and Ari Dothan reflect on their research paper, “Engagement in Sustainability Behaviors in Normative Social and Utilitarian Economic-Driven Organizations” published in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science.

In addressing both internal and external sustainability pressures, businesses endeavor to embed sustainability in their strategy but often struggle to integrate sustainability within their activities and operations. However, businesses may have seemingly opposing organizational identity orientations—utilitarian or normative—which guide different processes and potentially lead to different behaviors and outcomes. We argue, though, that not only normative (socially-driven) organizations but also utilitarian (economic-driven) organizations are able to encourage and promote employee engagement in sustainability-related behaviors.

workers cluster around screen at end of table

This is important because 1) while the identity orientation of the business guides the organization and its members, we shift the focus from the different types of organizational identities to the pathways by which they can be translated, through the development and enactment of specific mechanisms, into members’ engagement in sustainability, and 2) we call upon moving away from overly focusing on organizational-level endeavors to respond to external pressures for greater social responsibility and sustainability towards the ways businesses can foster the engagement of their employees towards sustainability-related behaviors.

Employees’ engagement in sustainability-related behaviors is crucial for at least two reasons. First, employees develop their perceptions and interpretations of organizational efforts for advancing CSR and sustainability. Employees’ perceptions about their organizations and what they stand for (i.e., the social identity) are socially constructed and permeate across organizational activities, processes, systems, and cultures. Second, employees are increasingly mindful of the profound implications of their organization’s actions on the human and social environment. This awareness influences their motivation to engage in sustainability-related behaviors.

Our article delineates a dual-pathway process that links two different types of organizational identity to members’ engagement in sustainability-related behaviors. Expanded on Etzioni’s (1975) work, we depict normative- and utilitarian-oriented organizations where leaders are either guided by their fundamental value to care for the well-being of their members and stakeholders while crafting the strategy of the organization, or by focusing on the attempts to satisfy a particular interest group, shareholders. We specify the different systems, practices and work environments that these organizations develop to influence the levels of members’ engagement in sustainability. Specifically, we explain why in normative organizations, a commitment-based human-resource management (HRM) approach is enacted, whereas in utilitarian organizations a transaction-based HRM approach is advocated. Then, we explicate why and how a commitment-based HRM approach creates a more inclusive work environment, and how the sense of dignity and worth that an inclusive work environment engenders in normative organizations fosters employee engagement in sustainability. We also explain why a transaction-based HRM approach engenders a more contingent work environment in utilitarian organizations, but also elucidate that it is vital to help employees develop perceptions of fairness, which are conducive for members’ engagement in sustainability.  

Our article offers important insights for both the communities of scholarship and practice endeavoring to foster individual engagement in sustainability in different organizations by delineating the distinct and unique pathways organizations with seemingly opposing identity orientations can work toward a similar desired end.

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Abraham Carmeli, Roshan Boojihawon, and Ari Dothan

Abraham Carmeli is a faculty member at Coller School of Management, Faculty of Management at Tel Aviv University. Roshan Boojihawon is a Associate Professor in Strategy at the Business School, University of Birmingham and a Visiting Research Fellow the Open University Business School. Ari Dothan is a strategic management researcher.

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