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Employees are more likely to be “green” around the office if they feel they’re encouraged by their boss. And this support is even more important if they are already worn out by their deep commitment to their role. These are the key takeaways from an article written by two researchers, including NEOMA’s Pascal Paillé.

What can employees do to be environmentally-responsible at work? In theory, they have plenty of choice: they can save energy, water and paper; sort their waste carefully; avoid using anything that’s polluting or disposable; promote recycling; and educate their colleagues. In practice, several studies have shown that actions that aim to safeguard resources are easily the most widespread.

Every green action is a step in the right direction

How so? Because this green-oriented behaviour is simple: employees don’t need anyone to turn off the lights when they leave a room or shut down their computer when they’re not there. And their employer, in turn, doesn’t have to put a specific structure in place.

The responsibility for this green behaviour sits squarely with the person putting it into practice. But that doesn’t mean it’s plain sailing: these actions go above and beyond what is expected of an employee, and they call for vigilance and commitment. As such, employees are required to draw on their “resources”.

In the first place, it’s a question of their personal resources, the same ones employees mobilise to perform their work – their skillset, experience, and ability to take the initiative, for instance. Secondly, it’s their social resources, which are derived from interacting with close colleagues, business experts and their line manager.

Support from the line manager: there’s no doubt it works!

But to what degree does a manager’s support influence the green-oriented behaviour of his or her employees? Is it still effective if employees already feel they’re doing over and above what is asked of them? And what if they’re under a lot of pressure because they’re overloaded with work? These are the kinds of question that the authors answer in their article.

The two researchers handed a list of 19 questions to a sample of 313 people working in the private and public sectors in Canada. The questionnaires assessed perceptions about the “environmental support” given by managers, employee workload and their commitment beyond the requirements of their job. They also covered their eco-friendly actions designed to save electricity: turning off unnecessary lights, closing your computer when you leave the office, etc.

Sending a signal to your teams that the environment is a key issue

The first takeaway from the research is this: a manager who backs green-oriented behaviour has a clear impact on his or her employees. Although the study doesn’t go into detail about the potential forms this support may take, there is no shortage of them: listening, sympathy, kindness, feedback on the efforts undertaken, sharing know-how and knowledge, material assistance, and so forth.

These are all ways that a manager can spell out that the environment is an important issue. The signal a boss sends is all the more important since employees might otherwise think that green behaviour is not a primary concern – or, in any event, that work takes precedence.

The more committed employees are to their work, the more important a manager’s support is

And this is the second take-away: the link between a manager’s support and green-oriented behaviours differs depending on how involved employees are in their work.

The boss’s support is crucial for employees who feel utterly worn out, linked to the impression that they are going beyond the call of their work duties. Either this support is finite, in which case employees scale down their eco-friendly behaviour significantly; or it is meaningful, and employees step up these same actions.

Conversely, the backing of manager has less influence on the green behaviour of individuals who rarely suffer from fatigue due to excessive zeal.

The ideal: managers who are committed and employees who are not overloaded with work

The third lesson: if an employee feeling a deep-seated “commitment fatigue” also suffers from stressful overload, the support of his or her superior loses most of its impact on green-oriented behaviour. This confirms the findings of earlier researchers: individuals who are stressed by their work prioritise job-related tasks over voluntary, self-driven tasks.

The article corroborates the key role played by managers in the eco-friendly behaviour of the people working for them. This operates on two levels: the more a manager’s attitude supports everyone’s efforts, the more effort employees will make. And the more a manager balances the workload of his or her teams, the more receptive employees are to this support and adapt green-oriented behaviour.

At the same time, managers themselves still need to be convinced about the importance of these actions. However, research carried out by two authors in 2018 showed that managers on the whole thought that these actions went beyond the professional framework. For companies that are actively committed to the ecological transition, the message is clear: the first thing to do is to make sure that your middle managers believe in it if you want them to become a “social resource” for employees.

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Virginie Francœur, Pascal Paillé, Trop fatigué(e)s pour être écoresponsables… à moins d’être soutenu(e)s!, Management International, April 2023. DOI: 10.7202/1098926ar