Why is it so difficult to transform organizations and consciousness, when the wall is right in front of us? The climate issue, and more broadly the environmental issue, is a fundamental question of our time. While the responsibility of individuals is regularly discussed, that of companies is just as crucial, if not more so. It is now clear that any economic model must integrate this ecological dimension to survive and prosper, including proposed transformations and human capital management models. Thanks to the valuable contributions of Boris Sirbey, philosopher and co-founder of Tomorrow Theory and the HR Lab, we offer you an article that provides a different perspective on possible transformations.
1) Type I transformations
How a company adapts and transforms in the face of climate reality is a major challenge that allows not only survival but also positioning as a pioneering transition player. In this respect, two categories of transformations are differentiated: Type I and Type II, according to the work of psychologist Kurt Lewin in the 1940s. To understand the issues of a successful ecological transition, it is necessary to shed light on these two types of transformations that companies can undertake. These two types of changes are distinct, but complementary. Let’s first look at Type I transformations.
Type I transformations refer to the adaptations that companies implement to integrate current and future environmental requirements into their economic model. The uniqueness of these transformations is based on the idea that companies assume their environmental responsibilities without the need to radically modify their activities. In other words, the dominant nature of economic performance is not questioned, but rather reconfigured to integrate ecological challenges.
To give a more concrete image of these changes, we can mention the switch to renewable energies, waste reduction, the use of recyclable materials, or the improvement of energy efficiency. Behind these actions, always the same logic: to ensure that economic activity remains profitable while minimizing its impact on the environment. In this perspective, the company mainly seeks to “do less harm”. We can cite companies like Danone or Unilever, which have been able to reshape their economic model by focusing on sustainable development. These companies have thus embarked on a real circular economy approach, incorporating strong ecological components into their production cycle, drastically reducing their polluting emissions and energy consumption.
But the transition to a more environmentally friendly economic model cannot take place without a supportive work framework. In this context, the notion of psychological safety is an essential element. Employee involvement is indeed crucial to the success of these transformations. Without their support and commitment, the transformations remain a dead letter. And their support necessarily involves a sense of psychological safety, i.e., a framework in which they feel free to express their opinions, share their ideas, and take risks without fear of reprisal.
In this perspective, the role of managers and HR executives is crucial. They are the catalysts for this psychological safety. Their challenge? To encourage a corporate culture tolerant of error, to promote open communication and co-management, and to foster a caring and respectful work atmosphere. In this respect, the work of managers and HR executives is really that of architects of the organizational climate. Type I transformations are thus a first step towards a sustainable economic model. However, they cannot, on their own, meet the challenge of climate change. This is where Type II transformations come into play, a subject that we will address later.
2) Type II Transformations
Type II transformations involve deep structural changes that require emotional intelligence, open-mindedness, and a holistic vision. These are often less immediate and more complicated transformations to implement than Type I transformations as they touch on the very roots of the established order.
Take the example of Patagonia, a company that has integrated sustainability at every level of its operations. Supplies, production, packaging, logistics, supplier relations; every position has been rethought to minimize environmental impact. From start to finish, the product life cycle is designed to be as environmentally friendly as possible. Such a transformation required intense awareness, strategic vision, and total commitment from all employees.
This is where the importance of psychological safety comes into play, a concept notably put forward by Amy Edmondson. A Type II transformation can create a lot of insecurity among employees because it challenges the status quo, the established processes, and therefore everyone’s comfort zone. Only an environment that allows the voicing of doubts, fears, and resistance to change can lead to sustainable and successful transformations. Leaders and HR have a crucial role to play in these transformations. They must carry the ecological vision and be able to communicate it in a transparent and inspiring way. They are also the guarantors of psychological safety and must implement concrete actions to encourage a positive and non-conflictual transformation.
It is important to note that Type II transformations not only impact the company itself but also its entire ecosystem. They can offer new perspectives for collaboration with stakeholders, open up possibilities for innovative, and ecological partnerships, and thus contribute to spreading sustainability values more widely in society. In short, a Type II transformation is a mutation, a profound change that requires a courageous questioning of the status quo. It’s a journey, sometimes difficult, but of unmatched power when the congruence between ecological ethics, employee well-being, and company performance is revealed.
3) Relationship between internal and external ecology
Internal and external ecology- two key concepts that, although distinct in their essence, are intrinsically linked and play a determining role in an organization’s ability to transform in view of climate transition. Internal ecology refers to how individuals deal with their own internal issues, whether emotional, cognitive, spiritual, behavioral, and how they connect to their workspace and their role within the organization. It encompasses personal development, introspection, and alignment — crucial factors in work-life quality, productivity, innovation, and resilience in the face of challenges.
In his reflection on inner work as “ontological guerrilla warfare,” American philosopher and psychologist Ken Wilber has deepened the study of how self-reflection and inner exploration can lead to essential transformations, not only on a personal level, but also on an organizational one. He argues that a company’s performance, and therefore its ability to adapt and transform, is intrinsically linked to how its employees manage their own “inner landscapes.”
On the other hand, external ecology refers to the relationship an entity has with its environment, to how it interacts with entities and phenomena external to it. For a company, it’s about the circular economy, environmental impact, customer relations, the supply chain — the entire range offered by interaction with the outside world. It is a critical issue in the current context of climate change where civil society pressure on companies to assume their ecological responsibility is stronger than ever.
The relationship between internal and external ecology lies in the understanding that one influences the other. A better self-understanding, a better alignment with personal values and motivations, can lead to more ethical and responsible behaviors towards the outside. This systemic dialogue between the inside and the outside is crucial to understanding how organizations can transform to align with climate challenges. And it’s precisely this bridge between the two that can serve as a tool for navigating Type I and Type II transformations mentioned earlier. It invites deep reflection, both individual and collective, which is necessary to initiate authentic, sustainable, and climate challenge-adapted changes.
4) The key role of leaders and HR in climate transition
To meet the challenge of climate transition, a new understanding of the roles of leaders and HR is more essential than ever. It’s no longer just about managing resources but about sparking the transformation, imagination, and resilience necessary to face an uncertain climate future. In this context of climate transition, leaders are called on to be the guardians and catalysts of a business model that puts internal and external ecology at the heart of its strategy. They are therefore responsible for the vision and direction to follow, while also being attentive to the needs of all employees and stakeholders.
To do this, they can notably rely on the concept of transformational leadership theorized by Bass. This leadership style involves inspiring employees to go beyond their personal interests for the good of the company and the common cause: in this case, climate transition. They must also integrate a dimension of strategic anticipation by recognizing impending crises and preparing the organization to face them. This role requires the ability to articulate a clear vision of the future and motivate employees to collaborate to achieve this vision.
The role of HR, on the other hand, takes on a strategic dimension. HR has the heavy task of creating an environment conducive to change, where each employee has the opportunity to evolve their skills and adapt their behavior towards a more sustainable attitude. They must ensure that internal and external ecology are taken into account in all aspects of organizational life: recruitment, training, assessment, career progression, well-being at work, etc.
5) The concept of Fair Transition
In terms of ecological transition, the concept of Fair Transition emerges as a guide for companies, who aspire not only to environmental sustainability, but also to a balanced social and economic reorientation. Originally developed by workers’ groups and unions, the concept of Fair Transition is rooted in social justice. It advocates a transition to a low-carbon economy that is fair and equitable for all, minimizing the negative impact on workers and communities. This perspective is essential for a transition respectful of human rights and to achieve comprehensive sustainability, as highlighted by the United Nations Charter for Sustainable Development in 2015.
However, the implementation of the Fair Transition goes beyond the issue of climate change. It aims to deeply transform existing economic and social structures. This objective rests on the active participation of collaborators, not only to avoid social crisis but also to ensure the resilience of systems and the retention of talents. In this process, the role of leaders and HR is crucial. They become agents of this transition, working to promote an inclusive, equitable, and climate-respectful working environment. Their action takes place at several levels:
- Transparent and appropriate communication: Employees must be well informed about the challenges, action plans, and envisaged changes. Open dialogue is necessary to manage concerns and expectations.
- Training and education: Faced with the evolution of skill requirements related to the green economy, ensuring the training and education of employees is paramount. Initiatives to develop skills related to sustainable development and career guidance plans aligning with new economic models are actions to consider.
- Social protection: Ensuring a fair transition also involves the implementation of social measures to best support those most affected. This can take the form of support in case of layoffs, measures to ensure equity in the context of telework, among others.
- Participation and commitment: Leaders and HR must encourage the participation of employees in this transition. This should go beyond mere “acceptance” of changes. Employees must be engaged in defining goals and implementing changes.
The Fair Transition is thus a complex task that requires a holistic approach and combined efforts from all company actors. The task of leaders and HR is certainly difficult, but by no means at odds with their skills and primary mission. The salvation of organizations, societies, and our planet depends on this transition, and only deep and determined engagement will shape a harmonious and resilient future. To go further, one could even link the concept to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN.
A dedicated podcast on the subject
Tomorrow Theory, in its CODEX podcast on the future of work, has dedicated an episode to the issue of HR facing climate transition. With Antoine Poincaré (Director of Axa Climate School), and Boris Sirbey (philosopher and co-founder of Tomorrow Theory and the HR Lab), Tomorrow Theory takes a tour of the topic. It’s in French, but if you can understand, it’s worth giving it a shot!
Internal and external ecology are far from being independent notions. On the contrary, they manifest a systemic link that governs the essence of our organizations. How can we want to respect and take care of our external environment without first taking care of our internal environment, i.e., our well-being, motivations, and fulfillment as individuals?
The current climate context demands not only awareness, but also immediate action from our companies. The complexity of the challenge requires considerable transformations, both evident and invisible, referring to Type I and Type II transformations. Components of the same galaxy of change, Type I transformations are guided by a spirit of rationality and pragmatism, asserting the unification between economic profitability and environmental sustainability through the circular transition of their practices and industrial processes. From Procter & Gamble to Lego, waves of changes have already been initiated and testify to the benefits that these modifications generate for our entrepreneurial and natural ecosystems.
However, these material transformations should not overshadow the immaterial transformations, or Type II transformations. These operate at a micro level, evolving in the often imperceptible and intangible territory of behaviors, attitudes, and soft skills. For instance, a strong bias for action could foster green innovation within a company. Or, a willingness for continuous learning will likely encourage the adaptability needed in the face of the rapid evolution of ecological paradigms.
These two types of transformations interact in a systemic dynamic to generate the change that the climate emergency requires. In fact, what happens outside — the external ecology — in nature and our environment, is closely linked to what happens within us, our internal ecology. Thus, the emergence of an individually responsible attitude towards our planet aligns with a collective revolution in our way of doing business.
For these transformations to effectively take place, a significant role falls to the leaders and HR of companies. Their mission, far from being simple, will consist in conveying the vision of this transmutation, motivating and reassuring their employees in the face of the uncertainties inevitably associated with this transition. Transformational leadership will be essential to create this culture of resilience necessary for a company’s adaptation to its environment. And, in this shift towards a more planet-friendly economy, the concept of ‘Just Transition’ emerges as a moral imperative. This advocates that the burden of the energy transition must not unduly rest on the most vulnerable people in our society, but be distributed fairly to prevent socio-economic inequalities.
The transition towards a company that respects and is in harmony with our environment is not a monolithic practice, but a range of transformations, visible and invisible, but all essentially interdependent. It is only by grasping the importance of each element of this prism that we will be able to achieve our goal: to make the climate transition a reality. ‘You can never step into the same river twice,’ said Heraclitus. This ancient maxim finds particular resonance today, reminding us that time is not only precious but irreplaceable. For the Earth and for our companies, evolving the status quo is therefore not an option casually considered, but an imperative necessity.
References for Further Reading
It’s impossible to cover the subject without coming across major works by thinkers such as Bandura, Bass, Edmondson, Hawken, Kegan, Kotter, Laloux, Lewin, Schein, Senge, or Wilber, among many others. Each in their own way, they manage to bridge the gap between what happens in individuals’ minds and the nature around them. Below are transformative readings to become as aware as educated on the subject:
- Bandura, A. (1969). Social-learning theory of identificatory processes. Handbook of socialization theory and research, 213, 262.
- Bass, B. M., & Avolio, B. J. (1993). Transformational leadership: A response to critiques.
- Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. John Wiley & Sons.
- Hawken, P. (2017). Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. Penguin.
- Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2001). The real reason people won’t change. Harvard Business Review Press.
- Kotter, J. P. (2007). Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail.
- Laloux, F. (2014). Reinventing organizations. Editions Nelson Parker.
- Lewin, K. (1942). Field theory and learning.
- Schein, E. H. (1983). Organizational culture: A dynamic model.
- Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline. The Art & Practice of Learning Organization. Doupleday Currence, New York.
- Wilber, K. (1997). An integral theory of consciousness. Journal of consciousness studies, 4(1), 71–92.
[Article written on September 23, 2023 by Jeremy Lamri with the support of the Open AI GPT-4 algorithm for about 20%. Images created with Adobe Firefly, all rights reserved, 2023].
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