SEND – Session 6 – Participation – overcoming barriers and competing priorities

By Wendy Firlotte, Employee Engagement for Sustainability Specialist

What Drives Participation? 

Increasing employee involvement in workplace programs can be challenging, especially if programs are informal and voluntary.  So, let’s ask the obvious question, what drives participation? What motivates people to get involved in workplace programs? Motivation and enthusiasm of course varies somewhat for each individual, but some influential factors can be workplace culture, meaningful employee involvement, local relevance,

Wendy gained experience as the Sustainability Engagement Manager for a large multi-national engineeing firm with 171 offices.

Wendy gained experience as the Sustainability Engagement Manager for a large multi-national engineeing firm with 171 offices.

personal interest as well as socializing.  In terms of general workplace motivators, achievement, recognition and working with others are among the top of the list.  It is helpful to take a look at your particular context and see what driving factors are relevant to your organization and work those into your planning.  

From an organizational level, making a commitment to integrating sustainable thinking and actions into all aspect of operations is a great place to start.  By building a more sustainable workplace culture, we are creating the space and attitudes for more sustainably conscious decisions, actions as well as new and innovative ideas.  People are more likely to think and behave in a more sustainable manner if it is encouraged throughout the organization, versus asking employees to change one particular behavior with the sentiment behind the request not being reflected in other areas.  

Building Enthusiasm

 In our last SEND discussion, we discussed some key strategic approaches to build enthusiasm and ownership through employee driven initiatives.  Heightened enthusiasm is a significant driver for participation.  The program’s strategic framework is a good place to highlight potential or actual weaknesses or challenges in the program with approaches to address them.  Some of the items discussed previously include:

Local relevance: Employees need to identify a clear connection of how the activities relate to them locally.  Build a system that creates space for local offices to contribute toward common organizational goals, but allows for local autonomy and office level planning.  

Office level Engagement:  Focus on constructive and meaningful employee involvement. Encourage the development of a local sustainability plan by involving the entire office.  This will open up avenues for increased participation, discussion, ideas sharing, solutions, collaboration and resources.  

Celebrate Success and Recognition: Employees invest time, effort and enthusiasm into

At Sears "retirement" parties were held for old energy inefficient refrigerators in staff lunchrooms.  It was a great opportunity to inform staff on energy efficiency at home and at work.

At Sears “retirement” parties were held for old energy inefficient refrigerators in staff lunchrooms. It was a great opportunity to inform staff on energy efficiency at home and at work.

planning and implementing local initiatives.  Creating the space to recognize and celebrate success and progress is very important.  

Feedback: Once a strategy is created, it is necessary to monitor how well it is working and if we can make any improvements.  Creating ongoing formal or informal feedback loops allows timely insight into how well the strategy is working.  

This section was a short recap from last month.  To read more on strategic approaches to creating and maintaining enthusiasm, see our previous post, Beyond Start-up: Dealing with Plateaus and Revitalizing Programs. 

The Fun Factor

It is not surprising that people are more likely to engage in activities that are fun and

Manager Tricycle races at the end of the cross country office Commuter Challenge was always ablast.

Manager Tricycle races at the end of the cross country office Commuter Challenge was always ablast.

incorporate things that they feel positively about, for example friends or food.   For instance, if several friends or colleagues are participating in a fun event, it is more likely that others will want to get involve.  Creating enjoyable initiatives and using clever social based marketing might bring a refreshing energy to programming.  Incorporating these concepts when designing program activities as well as marketing approaches, could go along way in peaking employee interest and increased participation.  Of course not everything can be a developed or marketed as “fun”, but if enough “fun” is bundled into some of the activities and perhaps into the over feel of the marketing, it will help attract new employees as well as keep return participants interested and engaged.

A couple of great resources are: 

Promoting Sustainable Behavior: A guide to successful communicationis a useful resource for effectively communicating and engaging people from a social marketing perspective.  It provides several great approaches and methods to consider. 

The Fun Theory is an initiative of Volkswagon.  The underlying concept is that making an action fun is the best way to change behavior for the better.  Of course the website’s content is based on the Fun Theory challenge, but I find it inspiring to watch.  If you are looking to get into the fun factor mindset, watch a few of these videos. 

Barriers and Competing Priorities

Many organizations have their own specific challenges when it comes to participation; however, several concerns do tend to be universal to some degree. Here are a few common barriers: 

Executive Leadership Support:  

Executive leadership support plays a significant role in the success of any sustainability engagement program. Wherever appropriate, create avenues to involve leadership, especially during the planning process; this approach also provides leadership with a sense of involvement and ownership in the program.  A key support will be for Executive leadership to communicate internally to management that sustainability engagement is a priority; this will aid program implementation tremendously.  It is also important to keep them involved with regular updates and summary reports. Build executive leadership updates into your communications plan.   

Local/Regional Management

A significant barrier to the top down, bottom up engagement system can be local leadership. They are the key holders to what is permitted to happen locally.  Often managers are overloaded with corporate programs and responsibilities that require attention from local offices. This often translates into situations where if managers do not have a personal interest in sustainability or they feel it is not relevant to their job they generally do not support it; some even actively oppose it.  Local leadership, at the end of the day, is usually most concerned with their work performance in terms of a balanced scorecard for their office or region or with their own performance metrics.

Possible Solution: This issue can be complicated and including ways to address it into your communications plan is good place to start.   Include local/regional management in the program planning process and devise a system of regular communication targeted at local management, especially when larger activities or events are to roll out in local offices.  Frame the communication so it is clear, concise and answers obvious questions.  Also this issue is important to address with Executive Leadership to get their support on the matter, as discussed above under “Executive Leadership”.  Local/regional management needs to know that it is a priority for the organization and therefore to them.  In an ideal scenario, every employee would have sustainability related Key Performance Indicators (KPI) to achieve in terms of their work performance, making sustainability an integrative part of their job responsibilities.   


Employees often have busy schedules and are limited as to how much time they are able to dedicate to sustainability activities.

Possible Solution: The key is to create ways for everyone to get involved, no matter what their time restrictions.  Options could range from being a regular sustainability/green team member to sitting in on a one-time 45-minute lunch discussion on a particular topic or issue.  As always, a reliable way to find out how employees could be best involved is to ask them; online surveys are a great tool for collecting feedback.

Motivation Recharge

Once a sustainability initiative is launched, the initial enthusiasm and participation sometimes wanes over time.

The Solution: A large motivator for employees is a sense of achievement and working together to accomplish goals.  Clearly and regularly communicating activity goals and progress is a great way to get employees involved, informed and keep them motivated.   

Competing Priorities

Within any organization, there are many corporate programs that require or compete for attention from employees.  This is a common issue and brings us back to the concept of integrating and imbedding sustainability into operations.

Possible Solution: Sustainability engagement programs should not function as a stand-alone initiative.   Whenever possible build on existing efforts, successes and work in tandem with other organizational activities. For example, working together to deliver activities with other groups or representatives such as social/event planning groups or committees, health and safety officers as well as quality or environmental management representatives.  This is another situation where ideally, every employee would have sustainability related KPIs to achieve in terms of their work performance, making sustainability an integrative part of their job responsibilities.   

Effort and Continuity

Sustainability planning and implementation at the local level takes a considerable amount of time and effort.

Possible Solution: Creating a local sustainability/green team structure that will leverage team member time and efforts will go along way in preventing burnout and establishing long-term continuity.  A governance framework that is committee or task force based, spreads the responsibilities and effort out to more people and in turn lightening the overall load.  This also addresses another important issue, when key people leave the organization.  Picking up the pieces and taking the reigns from key people who have moved on is easier when their tasks where shared with other staff members. 

Join the Monthly Sustainability Engagement Network Dialogues

Several of the barriers discussed in this post will be discussed in greater detail in next month’s SEND discussion topic, “Integrating Sustainability into Operations: creating culture, gaining leadership support and Sustainability KPIs.  Other topics already covered in the SEND discussion series may also be relevant to your situation; please take some time to read through previous posts.

If you have any comments, ideas, additions to share please a comment below.  This discussion series is about learning from each other.  Hearing about your experiences is valuable to everyone!  If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact Wendy Firlotte or Kathryn Cooper.

The Sustainability Engagement Network Discussion (SEND) Series is a network of Sustainability Practitioners using peer learning to accelerate employee engagement for sustainability.  If you are interested in participating in our ongoing sustainability engagement discussions, please contact Kathryn at

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About Kathryn Cooper

Kathryn Cooper is a committed sustainability practitioner and educator moving companies toward “green” profitability and sustainable competitive advantage by unlocking human creativity and technical innovation. Over the last two years she has had the privilege to work with companies like Dupont, Zerofootprint, WWF Canada, and Partners in Project Green on sustainability issues, best practices and renewable energy. Kathryn is a graduate of York University with a Master of Education specializing on Sustainability and the Environment. She holds an MBA from Wilfrid Laurier University, and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Guelph.
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