Environmental Champions – Hit or Miss?
I don’t think I’ve ever recommended to a client that they appoint environmental champions amongst their staff and my two books make only fleeting reference to them. And yet a huge number of organisations trying to go green have gone done the champion route. So why am I so reticent?
The simple answer is the most powerful question in our armoury – Why? What is it that environmental champions are expected to bring to culture change? I’ve never had that question answered satisfactorily.
The usual answer is that champions are embedded into the organisation and can provide peer-to-peer support to other staff members who want change their behaviour and act as local flag wavers for corporate green goals. Only one problem – peer-to-peer is by definition is bottom up, appointing people to roles is top down – and I believe that is a fundamental conflict.
My other problem is that I’ve seen the champion role widely abused. I’ve seen junior volunteers given energy efficiency targets for entire sites, I’ve seen them (post volunteering) being expected to read energy meters on a regular basis, and I’ve heard of them being expected to get into work before everyone else to check who has switched their computers off. That’s like calling a traffic warden a “parking champion”.
One of the participants at the staff engagement session I ran at the Low Carbon Best Practice Exchange last week had abolished their champions programme as it had descended into a forum for whinging. Instead they had appointed “green angels” to tackle particular problems. This story certainly surprised many of the other participants who had champions – and they seemed quite surprised that I sided with the dissenter.
Let’s look at some basic principles of culture change which I think conflict with the champion concept:
- If you give people responsibility, you must give them commensurate authority and accountability – these are not the hallmarks of a voluntary champion;
- If people volunteer for a role, they shouldn’t be subject to mission creep with more and more tasks dumped on them – you will breed resentment – yet mission creep is very common for champions;
- Peer-to-peer only works if it is genuine – you can’t dictate it top down and if peers feel that one of their number is judging them it will breed distrust, destroying the whole point of the exercise;
- If you want proper culture change, then sustainability must become everyone’s responsibility. Having champions can lead to others feeling they can wash their hands of the issue.
So what’s my alternative? Well, if you want to engage with green thinking people, why not create a forum to glean their ideas and share what is happening in the organisation? Then the peer-to-peer communication will come out organically rather than the artificial champions version.
Do you disagree? Have you got a thriving, effective champion programme? If so, then please share in the comments.