We Can Make Our Businesses More Sustainable. Here's How to Start

We Can Make Our Businesses More Sustainable. Here's How to Start

As the U.S. faced ever more extreme weather this fall – fires ripping through California, hurricanes and cyclones devastating coastal communities, and the aftereffects surging into disaster flooding in their own right – a group of scientists wrote a message to the government.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been working on the content of the report Global Warming of 1.5°C  for years. The takeaway inside is clear and alarming. It says that by 2050, if humans continue to heat the world at our current rate, humanity will be overwhelmed by events that will resemble Hollywood blockbusters.

The world is at a critical tipping point, but our ability to enact change is, fortunately, greater than ever. Green technologies are now more available and effective than ever. Diverse forms of energy have become viable. Plus, true financial drivers for being sustainable now exist. The cost of avoiding green technology is high, and the potential reward for embracing it wholeheartedly is massive.

Business owners can help thwart climate catastrophe

While the report is directed at policymakers, it has the business community in its sights too. In fact, it has historically been business owners and entrepreneurs who can take policy and push it into practice. And because small businesses are nimble, they can adopt new technologies and strategies relatively quickly. It's these small-scale changes that can drive global shifts.

Business owners are uniquely positioned to stimulate the global economy for low-impact development and sustainable technologies. Some experts are even pushing for small- to medium-sized enterprises to be officially recognized by governments as significant actors and "core economic engines" of climate change reduction.

Five ways to kick-start your sustainability journey

Both staying competitive and making a difference for future generations depend on fostering a green mindset and putting it into practice. Here are a few simple actions you can take.

1. Make sustainability a core value.

All action begins with admitting a need. To start making sustainability a business practice in your organization, you first need to identify the need for it.

This means making a proud and deep commitment to sustainability as one of your core values. Talk about this value with your team and get approval from each member. Then you can begin to view all your business decisions through this lens.

This perspective shift is financially costless, and it will allow your employees to connect the work they do with its effect on the planet.

2. Aim for low-impact printing and packaging.

Gradually adopting more sustainable printing and packaging options is an easy, low-cost way to make a huge dent in your carbon footprint.

First, you could aim to make your office paperless within the next few years. Use recycled content in your packaging whenever possible, or commit to printers that use chemical-free inks. These are small actions that reduce waste and add up over time to make a big impact.

3. Talk to your neighbors.

If you're in a co-working space or a building with other companies, talk to your neighbors about what you can do together to become more sustainable.

Could you set up a common recycling center or collection area? Could you share printing resources or start a ride-sharing program? Solicit other ideas from employees and those around you to turn sustainability into a creative business practice.

Creating relationships that check your accountability can have a profoundly positive effect on your business while also helping the planet.

4. When you build, build green.

As a small business, you may not be able to drastically change your community's architecture. You live and work where you can afford to, right? But as you grow and build out the spaces of your business, consider incorporating green energy and technology. Alternately, if you are renting space, push the building's owners toward adopting these solutions.

Start small: Reduce the amount of hardscaping around your business and add grass-filled permeable pavers instead. When you're resurfacing your parking lot or driveway, ask your contractor to use only sustainable, recycled or porous materials.

Afterward, you can incorporate other technologies into your business. Green roofs and insulation, low-water toilets, and heating and cooling systems aligned with the natural patterns of the sun are all viable options.

5. Offer work conditions for the eco-minded.

Work atmospheres have shifted as millennials have come of age, and by 2025, this generation will make up 75 percent of the U.S. workforce. Millennial dominance brings with it an emphasis on sustainability. Young employees have grown up aware of the startling effects of climate change and are eager to stop it.

To attract and harness the power of these young people, businesses should consider offering a more sustainable workplace. Offer remote or flexible work policies if you can. This cuts down on overhead and transport needs.

But beware cutting corners to appear sustainable or merely selling the idea of sustainability. Millennials are acutely attuned to authenticity, and they'll be a strong team player only if your motives are genuine.

Being green is good for business at large. It speaks loudly to customers about you and your values, demonstrating that beyond profit, you care about the world we all share.

When you're a small business, everything you do is especially visible and important. If your parking lot is made from recycled plastic, if you serve locally sourced food, or if your office lights are solar-powered, customers will see that you're forward-thinking and engaged in the mission to end climate change.

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It’s normal to underperform on occasion. After all, everyone has an off quarter — or even an off year — from time to time. But don’t just sit back and wait for that painful performance review. You need to have a conversation with your manager sooner rather than later. How should you position the news? How can you maintain your reputation while being honest? And what sort of explanation — if any — should you give?

What the Experts Say
When you’re having a bad time at work — your big project isn’t coming together as planned or you’re missing your sales targets by a wide margin — talking to your manager may be the last thing you want to do. But you shouldn’t shy away from the topic, according to Jean-François Manzoni, president of IMD and the author of The Set-Up to Fail Syndrome. “You don’t want your boss annoyed at you and wondering” about what’s going on, he says. It can be a tricky conversation, however. Dick Grote, a management consultant and author of How to Be Good at Performance Appraisals, says you must do two things to preserve your professional standing. First, “come clean” about your underperformance “before your boss has had a chance to discover it another way,” and second, focus on “solutions, not excuses.” Here are some ways to think about — and prepare for — the discussion.

The first step in owning up to your underperformance is determining the source of the problem. For starters, says Manzoni, you need to consider “whether you really are underperforming.” Often our efforts don’t “immediately translate into desired organizational outcomes.” In other words, “you could be doing all the right things but, unfortunately, it’s taking a long time for it to lead to positive results.” Look at what both the “leading and lagging indicators” tell you. If both point to underperformance, Grote recommends a period of “soul-searching.” You need to figure out if this “is a one-off situation or more of a trend.” If the missed goals are an anomaly or due to extenuating circumstances that’s one thing, but if they’re indicative of a pattern, they ought to “trigger some career thinking,” he says. This bad stretch might mean that “you are really struggling” and perhaps in “need of more development,” he says. It could also mean that “you’re not in the right job.” (More on this below.)

Next, says Grote, you need to think about your underperformance from your boss’s perspective. Ask yourself, how will my boss react to this news? “If you have a boss who has a propensity to blow up, you need to prepare for that,” he says. “You don’t want to go in naïvely thinking ‘I hope my boss is in a good mood today.’” Think especially about how you will explain what happened, says Manzoni. It could be, for instance, that you “took a risk” that didn’t pan out as you’d hoped. “You thought the market would turn. The odds were good. It was a reasonable bet, but it didn’t work out.” Or maybe you’re dealing with an outside distraction — an ailing parent, for instance — that’s the reason you’re “not at your best.” A “reasonable boss will be able to understand that,” he says.

Own up
When the time comes to talk to your boss, be straightforward and direct, says Grote. “Start the conversation by saying, ‘I have some bad news for you.’” Doing so “rivets the person’s attention” and ensures “no mixed messages.” Second, “appropriately express contrition and remorse.” A sincere “I’m sorry” goes a long way. Finally, segue into how you can make it right. “Focus on correction, not blaming, shaming, or fault finding,” he says. It’s natural to get defensive in these situations but do your best to avoid listing excuses. In difficult discussions like these, it’s natural to want to end on an optimistic note. And yet, “there are some conversations that won’t have a positive outcome,” says Grote. For this reason, he advises that you “ought not give too much thought about how to put a happy sheen on things.” The bottom line: “Don’t try to circumnavigate the problem.”

Ask for advice
As you offer ideas and suggestions on how to improve the situation, it’s worthwhile to ask your manager for guidance, according to Manzoni. “Asking your boss for advice shows that you respect your boss’s intellect and that you trust your boss,” he says. Asking for assistance is “flattering to your boss,” but you shouldn’t be obsequious, adds Grote. He suggests saying something like, “Here’s what occurs to me to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Does this make sense to you? How else would you handle this?”

Think long term
If your underperformance is representative of a bigger problem, you need to address it. This will be a separate and “longer conversation” with your manager, says Grote. He recommends saying, “When we get over this hump, I’d like to schedule a time to talk with you about the implications of this and what I can do in the long term to make sure it never happens again.” Possible interventions include more frequent check-ins or some sort of training to boost your skills. Your underperformance might also be a sign that you need to find a position at your company that’s better suited to your strengths. In this case, Manzoni advises talking to your boss about a possible move. “Say, ‘I appreciate your trust and support. I’m trying hard, but I am still struggling,’” he says. If you “establish your good intentions,” hopefully your boss can support you in identifying and transitioning to a more suitable role.

Principles to Remember 


Try to figure out the source of the problem by engaging in some soul-searching. Offer ideas on how to improve the situation and ask your manager for guidance. Resist any overly optimistic impulses. It’s not worth trying to put a positive spin on your underperformance.


Wing it. Prepare what you’ll say and think about how your boss will react. Mince words. Begin the conversation with “I have some bad news for you.” This ensures no mixed messages. Ignore red flags. If you’re struggling, it might mean that you need more frequent check-ins with your boss, more development, or a job change.

Case Study #1: Admit your mistakes and generate ideas on how to improve
Matt Lee works at ResumeGo, a resume writing service company. Matt joined the company in 2016 and has consistently been a strong performer — until he recently found himself in an unexpected slump. The company offers money back guarantees for clients who are not satisfied with its products, and a little over 10% of his clients had asked for refunds. “This was the highest percentage of unsatisfied clients I’d ever had,” he says. “I had to explain it to my boss.”

First, he thought about the source of the problem. “A lot of the issues stemmed from a lack of communication with my clients,” he says.

In looking back, he noted that several of his clients said they didn’t like the formatting of their new resume. “I realized that if I had simply showed them the format I was going to use beforehand and explained the reasoning behind why I chose that format, this [trouble] could have been avoided.”

Second, he thought about how his boss would react and prepared what he was going to say. “More refunds requested by customers ultimately means less revenue for the company, so I was definitely nervous [to talk to my boss],” he says.

Matt began the conversation by “openly acknowledging” that there was a problem. “I wanted my supervisor to know that I was very serious about finding ways to improve my performance.”

Matt says he didn’t want to come across as defensive in trying to justify his poor performance, but he also wanted to make sure his manager understood his perspective. “While I acknowledged that there were things I could have done differently, I also defended the specific decisions I made with regards to how I wrote each resume,” he says. “I’m the expert here when it comes to how to write and design resumes, so I can’t simply alter my standards every time a client disagrees with how I approach their resume.”

Ultimately his boss agreed with many of Matt’s points. “It’s important with these kinds of issues to stand your ground and justify your actions — especially when you are confident in the decisions that you made.”

Matt ended the conversation with ideas on how to improve. “I had a list of things I could do that would potentially increase my customer satisfaction numbers,” he says. “These mainly revolved around communicating with clients more extensively at the very start before making certain decisions about their resumes.”

Since the conversation with his boss, Matt has worked on his communication with clients, and his customer satisfaction numbers have improved as a result. “I think that particular quarter was likely just an outlier,” he says.

Case Study #2: Work together with your boss to improve your performance
Each January, Tracy Nguyen, an online media relations associate at Tiny Pulse, a Seattle-based startup that provides technology to assess employee morale, sits down with her boss to outline her goals for the coming year.

“This way I am always able to track my performance,” she says. “As many PR practitioners, my main responsibility is managing brand reputation through generating positive media coverage. Last May, I did not meet a monthly goal of securing seven unique instances of press coverage.”

She reflected on the reasons for her missed goal. “I sat back and looked at all of my approach methods to see what was working, what was not, and what needed to be improved.”

She figured out that her long pitch needed work. “It was not getting the attention of my target journalists,” she says.

Second, she did a lot of research on how to improve her pitching. She also sought advice from her peers on how she could get better at it. Then she prepared what she would say to her boss.

When it came time for the meeting, she told her boss that she missed her objective. She apologized for falling below expectations but then launched into a discussion of what she would do to improve. “I wanted to bring this to my manager’s attention instead of waiting to be asked about what holds me back,” she says. “I was determined to lead with possible solutions.”

Tracy also asked her boss for suggestions on how to enhance her pitching skills. “Together, we came up with a solution to try an 80/20 method, which means spending 80% of the time targeting middle-tier publications and 20% on top-tier ones,” she says.

To measure the effectiveness of this method, they compared the impact of the new practice to the previous one. “As a result, two months later I exceeded my goal,” she says.


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When it comes to the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, employees demand leadership accountability. Consider the recent Google walkout, which employees staged to protest the lofty exit packages paid to men accused of misconduct. In response, Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, and Larry Page, chief executive of its parent company, Alphabet, apologized.

Business leaders want to do better. The high costs of sexual harassment are evident, from employee outrage to the loss of worker productivity and employee attrition. One study estimated that for each employee who was sexually harassed, the company lost an average of $22,500 in costs associated with just lost productivity. Yet, solutions are hard to come by.

Our research points to a single step that leaders can take to help reduce sexual harassment: communicate to employees that preventing it is a high-priority issue for their companies. In just a few sentences, this signals to others how much they should prioritize the issue and sets a culture in which sexual harassment is not tolerated.

This messaging is critical because, more than any other aspect of a company, it is organizational climate that best predicts the occurrence of sexual harassment. When the climate toward sexual harassment is lenient, members feel that there are few consequences – that those who engage in sexual harassment will be protected, while those who report it will be disregarded or even penalized. Such a climate characterized the environments in which recent high-profile sexual harassment cases like those of Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose happened. In contrast, in a climate intolerant of sexual harassment, people perceive that their organization takes a strong stance against it by taking complaints seriously and holding perpetrators responsible.

Our interest in the impact of leader messaging arose from our own experiences working in higher education. In 2015, many universities around the country conducted surveys to measure the incidence of sexual violence on campuses nationwide, and university presidents then issued statements outlining the findings. As the media picked up the statements, we noticed a great deal of variation in how they were written. Some expressed outrage; others brushed off the disturbing survey results. We wondered if the different responses shaped how students came to think about sexual assault on their respective campuses. So we conducted a national experiment to explore the impact of leader messaging more broadly.

In that newly published research, we found that the way leaders communicate can indeed shape peoples’ attitudes toward sexual harassment. In our experiment, 618 online study participants in the US read a brief statement from a fictional company about the results of a sexual harassment survey taken by its employees. For some participants, the statement included a quote from the CEO emphasizing the severity of the problem, such as: “The results of the survey are alarming.” Others read a CEO quote downplaying the issue, such as: “We are skeptical that the survey represents an accurate rate of sexual harassment at Soldola.”  The factual information about the survey was the same for all participants.

This simple difference in leader communication turned out to be powerful. Those who read the “skeptical” statement were less likely to rate sexual harassment a high-priority problem at the company, while those who read the message about the leader taking sexual harassment seriously were more likely to rate it a high-priority problem. This pattern held no matter the participants’ gender or political affiliation.

While our study showed that leaders can raise the level of concern about sexual harassment, some might argue that it is not in the best interests of a company. Why acknowledge that sexual harassment is a problem and risk damaging the company’s reputation?

First, downplaying the issue may result in more damage to a company’s reputation. As we have seen in many cases this year, when a leader signals to her or his employees that sexual harassment is not taken seriously, those who are victimized may ultimately turn to the media, and, as we noted above, negative coverage of these scandals can have profound and expensive consequences, including leadership and employee turnover, reduced productivity, walkouts, and even boycotts. The public perception of a toxic culture can have long-lasting effects on the corporate brand, making it difficult to attract and retain not only customers but also employees who want to work in a safe, fair environment.

Second, ignoring the problem amounts to institutional betrayal, which can compound the trauma suffered by victims of sexual harassment. People who are sexually harassed already experience negative health consequences; and research shows that when institutions fail victims of sexual violence, their negative health outcomes are exacerbated.

If leaders do nothing, they are not just acting neutrally. They may be fostering a culture where sexual harassment will become more prevalent. But if a leader instead identifies sexual harassment prevention as an issue that the company prioritizes, our research shows that this stance will push other people in the organization to take it seriously as well.  Of course, leader communication alone will not solve this issue. Companies that wish to eradicate sexual harassment must follow words with actions, taking steps to bring transparency and accountability to policies and investigation processes. However, setting the right tone with a clear zero-tolerance message is an important first step.

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