Net Zero: Harnessing the Power of Organisational Culture

The word ‘Culture’ provokes fear and trembling in some business circles. The introduction to a recent report by Weber Shandwick is typical:

“Culture [is] at the heart of today’s biggest scandals… It’s only a matter of time before what’s broken on the inside is revealed to the outside.”

It is easy to find the evidence. Take the investigation into the fatal crashes of Boeing’s 737 MAX aircraft, for example, which found a ‘culture of concealment’ within the company.

The potential energy of organisational culture

If culture can break organisations, it can also make them. In ‘Good to Great’, Jim Collins describes how start-ups grew into large, successful organisations by paying attention to their culture. They avoided the slide into bureaucracy and hierarchy as they became more complex.

Put simply, the potential energy of an organisation’s culture can be an enormous force for good, or for harm.

We need to harness this potential energy for Net Zero 

A recent McKinsey study, The Net Zero Transition, outlines the scale of the “economic transformation and societal adjustments associated with net-zero transition.” Highlights include the need for capital spending at $9.2 trillion per year until 2050, and a gain of 200 million jobs set against a loss of 185 million.

This immense transformation is already rolling through every country, economy, sector and business, but it still has a huge distance to travel in a short space of time if we are to avoid potentially disastrous global warming. We need every power at our disposal to accelerate and sustain this transformation, and to ensure that it is as smooth and as just as possible.

That’s where company culture comes in. Its potential energy can be harnessed in the transition to a Net Zero economy. Company culture needs to support company transformation or it will run out of steam.

Can we tell what a Net Zero Culture looks like?

Yes, we can!

Put simply, a Net Zero culture is one in which each company actor is directed, or aligned, towards achieving a Net Zero goal. *

For starters, here are four indicators of a Net Zero culture:

  • Leaders who do not shy away from the enormous challenges of transforming their business, and who are prepared to act as Net Zero role models for others.
  • Intentional enablement of and reward for the employee decisions and behaviours needed to achieve Net Zero. This could mean incentivising managers based on achieving a reduction in CO2 emissions in production processes, or setting policies that promote more environmentally-friendly business travel.
  • Adopting a personal, candid and two-way style of internal communication, and adapting its content to highlight Climate Change and Net Zero issues. Personal, because climate change affects us all, whether we work in the boardroom or at the checkout. Candid, to raise employee awareness about the extent and urgency of the situation, and to reinforce the need for change. Two-way, because employees need a channel for sharing ideas and perspectives, and an opportunity to voice concerns about the future. 
  • An organisational purpose that is inspired by a vision to build a Net Zero world, and to leave a positive legacy for people and planet.

* Check out my definition of organisational culture in 150 words here

You can find these and other dimensions of a Net Zero organisational culture in our NetZero Culture Map. This draws on a three-year review of relevant academic research, alongside twenty years of experience leading culture assessments across hundreds of organisations.

The good news

The good news is that culture change is possible! In fact, it becomes easier when there is a clear and compelling case for it. In its January 2022 global risk report, the World Economic Forum (the organisation behind the Davos meetings), ranks Climate Action Failure as the most severe global risk we face over the next 10 years. The recent IPCC reports also stress the need for radical and urgent action.

What can be a clearer or more compelling case than that?

And, in other good news, creating a Net Zero culture does not require a wholesale dismantling of your current organisational culture. Some of its elements will no doubt already exist. The role of a Net Zero leader is to identify and amplify those cultural elements that support a Net Zero transition, and identify and challenge those that don’t.

In my next article I list some steps towards creating a Net Zero culture. But if you have read this far, you should already be at step one, which is to believe that culture change for Net Zero is possible, and essential. 

Let’s harness the potential energy of organisational culture, to transform our economies and societies for a Net Zero world.

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