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We all know the engineering and construction industry has a huge role to play in creating a more sustainable society. This societal need offers new business opportunities to companies who are embracing sustainability. Most construction companies are now aware of these opportunities and are keen to talk about their green credentials. But will these companies be able to sustain their sustainability activities in the long-term? Are engineering and construction companies truly going green?

 

A review of the websites of the major engineering and construction companies soon reveals that many are measuring their progress, in becoming more sustainable, against frameworks such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals or the Triple Bottom Line (economic, social, and environmental).  Most are now focusing on reducing the harm they do with their own operations, whilst a few also see their role as to encourage their customers to deliver increased sustainability.

 

Competitive Advantage

 

Whilst this is great work, how many of the major engineering and construction companies see sustainability as a route to competitive advantage?  Without being integrated into the company’s competitive strategy or it’s purpose, sustainability will remain a side issue, a marketing tactic or a nice to have during the good times which can be easily discarded when times get hard.  Whilst most engineering and construction companies may currently not see sustainability as a route to competitive advantage, many do talk about how it enables them to be more efficient and reduce costs. This suggests they are on the journey to becoming a 3rd Wave Organisation as mapped out by Dr. Dexter Dunphy, Emeritus Professor in the School of Management at the University of Technology Sydney, and his colleagues (see below).

 

 

1st Wave

Organisation

 

2nd Wave

Organisation

 

3rd Wave

Organisation

 

View of

Sustainability

 

Threat Ignorance Risk Cost

Competitive

Advantage

Transformation

Response to

Sustainability

 

Rejection

Non-

Responsiveness

Compliance Efficiency

Strategic

Proactivity

Integration

 

Result

 

Value

Destroyed

Value

Limited

Value

Conserved

Value

Recovered

Value

Created

Value Created

and Shared

Adapted from Dunphy, D., Griffiths, A., and Benn, S. (2003). Organizational Change for Corporate Sustainability. London: Routledge.

 

Leadership

 

For strategy to become a reality, rather than words in a document, leadership is required.  To be successful, strategy and leadership must be aligned.  Building a sustainable future will require an unprecedented amount of innovation and creativity. Unfortunately, most companies behave like ‘machines’, which stifle the innovation and creativity needed for sustainability. Consequently, most of today’s leaders have only experienced leading ‘machine like’ organisations. To generate the innovation and creativity needed, engineering and construction companies will need to behave more like ‘ecosystems’ and less like machines.  This requires a new type of leadership.

 

A review of the research literature indicates there are three qualities frequently associated with sustainability leadership:

 

  • Systems Thinking: The ability to appreciate the interconnectedness and interdependency of the whole system, at all levels, and to recognise how changes to parts of the system affect the whole.
  • Collaboration: Building commitment through dialogue and consensus, democratic approaches, and a culture and structure that provides peer support, encouragement and working across functional and organisational boundaries.
  • Design Thinking: A human centred approach to innovation which draws on the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology and the requirements for business success.

 

Unfortunately, our education system has prepared most of us to work in machine like organisations.  We were taught linear cause and effect thinking rather than systems thinking, encouraged to compete rather than collaborate, and rewarded for getting things right rather than for experimenting with something new. The development of the sustainability leadership qualities will require a transformation in leaders’ cognition, emotional intelligence and behaviour.  This transformation is typically associated with leaders who have developed to, what is being called, the ‘Post-Conventional’ (beyond the norm) stages of adult psychological growth.  Research is indicating that post-conventional development equips leaders to navigate the complexity of sustainability issues and mobilise individuals for environmental causes within organisations.  Research has also found that post-conventional leaders have the enhanced capacities required to transform organisations.

 

Ecocentric Worldview

 

Will leaders in engineering and construction companies be motivated to develop to the post-conventional stages in order to effectively lead sustainability?  This depends on their worldview.  In our society, we predominately have an anthropocentric worldview. This is where we see us humans as being separate to nature and as it’s guardian.  With this worldview we are inclined to continue with ‘business as normal’ in the confidence that we will be able to provide a technological solution to the sustainability crisis.  Whereas, with an ecocentric worldview us humans are seen as being part of nature.  As a consequence, leaders with an ecocentric worldview tend to see the intrinsic value of nature, its interconnectedness and, hence, its vulnerabilities.  Leaders with an ecocentric worldview are far more motivated to develop the psychological capabilities and leadership qualities required to lead sustainability than those with an anthropocentric worldview.

 

 

So, if engineering and construction companies are to be truly green, they need to first develop their leaders. Post-conventional leaders with an ecocentric worldview will be able to work with the interconnectedness and interdependency of the whole system, collaborate and create the innovative solutions required to build a more sustainable society and, in doing so, give their company a competitive advantage.  

 

 

Terry Sexton

Business Psychologist

14th January 2020

 

Contact us if you would like to chat with Terry about Sustainability Leadership. Take a look at Terry's profile to find out about his work and capabilities.