01/22/2013 01:50 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

Forget Sustainability Programs

The research I have done on organizational change clearly shows that programs which are focused on organizations improving their performance in areas such as quality, costs and customer service are rarely successful. They may produce short-term positive results, but they lose momentum relatively quickly and performance returns to the bad old days.

The reason why programs are not sustainable is simple and potentially easy to correct. They never become integrated in the standard operating procedures of organizations. They are always add-ons. When something else comes along and attention shifts to a new program, or when disruptive change occurs, they are prime candidates for elimination or inattention.

All too often companies' efforts to improve their social and environmental sustainability have suffered the same fate as other programs. They produce initial gains that soon dissipate. This does not have to happen, however. Organizations can potentially perform well financially, socially, and environmentally for long periods of time. However, they cannot do this by simply doing business as usual with respect to financial results and adding programs having to do with social and environmental improvements.

Simply put, organizations must make environmental and social performance a part of the way the corporation operates just as much as it does financial performance. Unfortunately, recent surveys which have been done as part of our research programs at the Center for Effective Organizations show that most organizations do not integrate social and environmental performance into the way the organization operates. Social and environmental performance is not always measured. They are not always on the table when new projects and products are being considered. They are not part of the training programs of organizations. Individuals are not selected based on their knowledge or interest in social and environmental performance.

Perhaps the most serious omission of all is that the performance of individuals is not appraised based on how well they perform environmentally and socially. For most people, it is their productivity and financial results that are key to their success. How they achieve them and what outcomes they produce in terms of the environmental impact of the organization and the impact it has on the employees is rarely, if ever, front and center.

Our surveys of board members and HR executives show clearly that most large organizations have not integrated environmental and social performance into their way of doing business. Until they do, they will not be sustainably effective and will continue to be criticized and vilified for their poor social and environmental performance.

Crossposted from