Empowering change: Three steps to improve employee engagement

The recent flurry of ambitious new behaviour change programmes from big business shows no signs of abating, with sustainability professionals citing it as one of their top priorities this year.

Here, Adam Woodhall from sustainability consultancy firm Carbon Smart explains the importance of ’empowered change’ to drive behaviour change and spark an environmental and cultural revolution within your business.

Empowered change is when people choose to take ownership and feel capable of positive action to deliver it.

Empowerment is employee engagement on steroids; colleagues may fully buy into your programme, but if they aren’t actively taking part in it then you won’t be realising the full benefits. Your desire is to create a more sustainable organisation. Whatever the focus of sustainability is for you, this will only happen with and through your colleagues.

Any empowerment campaign that you wish to create starts with one person: you. This is a personal journey, where you will face successes and setbacks; significant strides forward and sometimes one step forward and two back. To create the conditions for change, it is essential that you feel empowered to both start this journey and have the desire to keep going through the good and tough times.

You have unique attributes that you will bring to your behaviour change and employee engagement programme, and it is your opportunity to use your strengths to their best, and ensure that any weaknesses that you have are either compensated for by others, or they don’t hold back your campaign.

Taking responsibility for delivering a sustainability campaign in your organisation can feel like both a blessing and a curse. This is in large part because the logical benefits of sustainable action are a double-sided coin. Whether that be resource or energy efficiency, building community relations or effective supply chain management, there are many great benefits (a.k.a. blessings). The frustration (a.k.a. curse) is that you are working with humans, and they can resist change for any number of reasons.

Therefore, a key part of empowering change is to recognise that you’ll be flipping this coin regularly. Sometimes it will come down heads and you’ll have significant progress – for example, you exceed your energy reduction targets. Sometimes it will land tails and your new CEO is, at best, currently agnostic toward sustainability.

Smart change

To be successful in empowering change, you will connect with both your head and your heart. Using your head is key as the KPIs need to be demonstrating value to your organisation and you need to create a logically robust programme. Connecting with your heart is essential too; to feel into and understand why colleagues, senior and junior, are resisting your programme and how you can open the door to their enthusiasm.

Generating behaviour change and sustainable employee engagement takes emotional and intellectual intelligence, passion, time, patience, resilience, creativity and a great process. Smart Change, following the three steps ‘Ignite > Empower > Grow’, is a process that will guide you through a programme over months and years.

1. Ignite

The Ignite phase is the most important, most intellectually and emotionally stimulating and often the most overlooked. Why is it the most important? Because you are creating the foundations to build your programme. Why most intellectually and emotionally stimulating? Because you are tuning into your organisation with your head and heart. Interestingly, it is the most overlooked because there is a natural desire to jump to the Empower phase: it’s easy to come up with some great ideas to engage and communicate, and then play with our news toys. Resist this urge: take a step back, evaluate your situation, create a coalition and develop your strategy.

The first part of this first phase is also the most important: evaluating your situation. If you don’t adequately understand your organisation, there is a high chance of failure. This stage is not about you having all (or even many) solutions, it is about asking as many questions as possible.

There is an incredible power in asking questions: you both find out new information, confirm your understanding and most importantly for empowerment, you encourage the person you are asking the question to start creating their own answers, which they can then own. As part of your evaluation you will also create a coalition. These are the people who will support you on your journey.

The ultimate aim of your evaluation and coalition building is to develop a narrative that aligns with your organisation’s culture and needs and reflects your personal purpose. The first tangible output of this narrative will be a strategy and business case that you will use to communicate the sustainability story that you want to tell.

Of course you will want to ensure there are measurement tools and KPI’s but these are the tail; make sure they don’t wag the dog. The numbers will make it easier for people to understand the picture you are creating, but they aren’t the story, they illustrate the story.

It is also tempting to search for innovative communication and engagement tactics, but again these are tools to use. Aligning and connecting with individual and organisational motivations is what will make your programme sing.

2. Empower

The Empower phase might look like most exciting phase – which it is – but it can also be the most challenging. This is when the rubber hits the tracks and you find out if your evaluation, coalition building and carefully created narratives are going to work. It can be intimidating, but the more you approach it with relish, the more you will break through any barriers you face.

The first stage in the Empower phase is communicating your narrative and strategy. It may have been tempting to jump to this stage quickly, and that is a key setback of many attempted empowerment campaigns: you need to ensure you’ve completed your ‘Ignite’ phase first.

Assuming you’ve ‘Ignited’ successfully, you’ll now be looking to launch the programme. I’d suggest you launch on a number of platforms, and it is exceptionally valuable to organise a compelling event to create a sense of urgency in these early stages.

Once your ‘Empower’ phase has been kicked off, you can start to celebrate successes and focus on the short term wins. Whilst your excellent ‘Ignite’ phase will ensure there is plenty to get excited about, part of your personal journey is to also accept and learn from setbacks and not take any of it too personally. You both don’t want to get too discouraged when some of your carefully laid communications engagements fall on deaf ears, and also not get too intoxicated by the undoubted successes you will have.

3. Grow

Now you’ve laid foundations through the ‘Ignite’ phase, and built strong engagement through the ‘Empower’ phase, you can now start to ‘Grow’ sustainability.

The ‘Grow’ phase requires the most persistence: the excitement of the first two phases has now gone and your role is that of a patient gardener who will cultivate your patch. This is the phase where you can translate the empowerment from the last phase into true ownership. Keep communicating, demonstrating value and consolidate the gains you’ve made.

On a personal level, the most important thing you can do is breathe, relax, step back, let others take responsibility and enjoy what you have created.


To summarise, as much as you are looking to empower change in your organisation, the first person you must empower is yourself, to take action and follow through on the opportunity in front of you. Then, use a good process like the Smart Change ‘Ignite > Empower > Grow’ to create, guide and embed sustainability into your organisation. Good luck!

Adam Woodhall is associate director of Carbon Smart, which has launched its own behaviour change guide. The guide will be available for download on 2 June, with a 30-minute webinar marking the launch. Click here for more information.

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