The more things change...

“To improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often.”—Winston Churchill

Investment in a stable and prosperous society is an investment in future business performance. We’ve seen corporate commitment to this ideal in action during the development and ratification of the 2015 Paris Agreement, the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and in the fight for  U.S. marriage equality. More and more, companies are vocalizing their support of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues—and are executing strategic plans to create the change they know is required to achieve a sustainable economy. 

The emerging U.S. policy agenda could make the work even more challenging than it has been for the last decade. Especially if it is in conflict with the policies of global market economies in which your company likely operates. So what is to be done? Cling tightly to your coffee mug that reads, “stay calm and carry on” and do just that. There is overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real and human induced and socio-economic research that underscores the social ills that accompany inequality. The companies that have the courage to be among the first to make real commitments to improving the environmental and social conditions in their operating environments are the ones that have the opportunity to use those commitments as positive differentiators with institutional investors, customers, and the general public. 

We all know the old adage, “the only constant is change.” We also know that change is difficult to effect. I maintain that all sustainability and social investment work is change management. It is about envisioning a better, more sustainable, more equitable, future for our planet and the people who rely upon it for life—and compelling others to contribute to your plan toward this end. This is difficult work. Philosophers have explored reasons why it is difficult to lead change since the time of Aristotle who noted that, “the roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.” This quote is apt as applied to corporate citizenship because to adopt change requires learning. As human beings, we tend to be constitutionally resistant to change. Much has been written about the reasons for this, and most of what has been written refers to Kurt Lewin’s pivotal mid-century studies about change in groups. Lewin identifies six common reasons that people in organizations resist forces of change: 

Cost: People confronted with disruption or opportunity to change may perceive the cost of change to exceed the benefit of adopting it. Lewin points out that for change to be adopted, the rewards that come from the change must exceed the cost of change.

Saving face: Human beings have a strong desire for consistency. As such, if we have opposed an idea historically, we will likely be less able due to our own cognitive biases to perceive—never mind accept—information that supports the idea. 

Fear of the unknown: When confronted with change our first thought is likely, “what does this mean for me?” If that question is not answered for us in a way that paints a favorable picture we are likely to avoid or even resist change.

Breaking routines: We are creatures of habit. It takes energy and will to break habits that may have evolved over an extended period of time. Even once we have embraced an idea as logical and even desirable, it is difficult to change behavior. 

Incongruent systems: Our personal ecosystems may not be set up to support the work that we want to get done. Sometimes we may have to expand our networks to access all of the system capabilities that are required to execute change ideas.

Incongruent team dynamics: If our systems are set up to provide incentives for certain outcomes, we may need to rethink how we want people to interact, be compensated, and for which behaviors they will receive rewards. To get the team dynamics we value, we have to reward the ends and the means.

When faced with a change, people freeze. They wonder: How will my job change? Will I be overwhelmed? Will my career (and thus my life) be better or worse when this is done? As a corporate citizenship professional, it’s your job to manage this response—to help people embrace their role in the effort to achieve sustainable progress. Following the steps outlined below will allow you to help others overcome resistance to change. In the following months, I’ll be diving into each of these in greater detail.

Create a vivid image of the end result. At the end of the day, what will your organization look like after change is achieved? What’s different? What’s better? Most importantly, what is better for the people of whom you are requesting the change?  Once people understand what benefits this delivers to THEM, then they’ll get on board with your plan.

Communicate, communicate—measure—then communicate some more. While some may have greater ability to influence your change than others, every person in your organization—and many outside it—has a role to play in achieving progress. Once you’ve obtained buy-in from key players, it’s important to communicate your vision of change to your broader employee base and relevant external audiences, such as suppliers, investors, nonprofit partners, and customers. Partnering internally with HR and marketing departments can help you hone and deliver your message to ensure you’re clearly depicting the benefits of your change, and what each group can do to support it. Again, clearly outline what will change, and how that change will be felt by each audience. As a corporate citizenship professional, you can help maximize engagement by aligning employee volunteer programs, corporate giving efforts, and other support to relevant nonprofits.

As part of this effort, it’s important to identify the metrics that will help you communicate the progress of your program. You may choose to take advantage of a reporting standard to help aggregate the necessary data and deliver a complete picture of progress. Then, communicate what you learn back to your partners. You can use this data to not only identify areas of opportunity, but also to recognize and celebrate achievements. Keeping your colleagues regularly informed helps keep momentum going, and allows for an ever greater understanding of the benefits of change.

What I’ve outlined above is clearly a hefty task—and you as corporate citizenship professionals will need your own support to manage change. We at the Center continually strive to be that support, and through courses, insights, and research work to provide you with the resources you need to be an effective force for good in your companies and your communities. We know that you’re busy, and your work becomes more complex with every passing year, which is why we’ve begun offering our courses online. Now, you’ll have the option of taking classes in person with a group of peers, or working through them at your own pace in the environment of your choice. Registration for January and February online courses is open now, and more will be offered throughout the year.