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HR and labor management August 22, 2022

Sustainability is personnel

Graphic of two females and a male working in an office together
In an interview with Mercedes-Benz Consulting, Prof. Matt Bothner speaks on research and initiatives geared toward bringing sustainability into HR management.

What kind of leadership will be needed, according to your research? 

Leadership that deals well with ambiguity in virtual settings – especially ambiguity in informal authority or status – will be persistently in demand. The pandemic (and the virtual communication that has arisen with it) has reshuffled status orderings in workplaces. A simple but far-reaching sociological observation that goes back to the late sociologist Roger V. Gould is relevant here: Two people who are similar in status are especially prone to conflict – sometimes dangerous conflict, as my co-authors and I found in a study of collisions in Formula One (F1) racing. Without a hierarchy to normalize the interactions of these two people, competition (for influence, for instance) can escalate quickly into conflict.  

How does F1 racing relate to leadership in virtual spaces? I see three connections:   

First, a transition to virtual meetings may lead one colleague, who had been doing well face-to-face, to now do much less well online, while another colleague who wasn’t so effective in face-to-face meetings now does significantly better online. So, the recent shock ends up equating two individuals in status who were previously differentiated. Conflict isn’t too far away.  

Second, a shift to virtual leadership may bring together two individuals who were dominant in their previously separate environments, but who are now thrust together as near-equals (e.g., management may decide it’s a great idea to scale up the size of teams, because travel costs are now at zero), so an effort to get new synergies actually produces negative synergies.  

Third, among those who are already close in status, the threat of a continuing pandemic (soaking up time, energy, and resources) may throw gasoline on a simmering fire between two near-peers in status, catalyzing local hostilities that were previously latent. Energy levels are drawn down, patience is thinned, and, again, conflict is even more likely to ensue.  

Each of these possibilities – independently or in combination – calls for more reflection on how we lead others and ourselves. We need more self- and situational awareness to keep from misinterpreting and overreacting to the noisy signals emitted in strained online interactions. Some thoughts on this, which my collaborators and I developed out of the F1 study before the pandemic, are even more relevant now.  

What skills do managers now need? How will this shape personnel development? 

One vital skill – and part of the solution to the foregoing issues – is the capacity to give and receive help. Actually, this is more than a skill; it’s an attitude and set of learnable behaviors  –  which have become vitally important amid the pandemic. A protracted run of remote work has clearly taken its toll on people and organizations. In response to this, my ESMT colleague Prof. Gianluca Carnabuci has developed a social-science-based approach to restoring human connection, trust, and engagement in virtual work. I’m very enthusiastic about this and keen on seeing how far it will go.  

What’s self-evident is that a new approach to giving and receiving help is necessary. In the past, we supported our colleagues spontaneously, around the water cooler or espresso machine. Stripped of these opportunities, many have sought to replicate the experience online, around rituals like “virtual coffees.” These are often unsatisfying substitutes. Essential in an online environment, as Carnabuci has shown, is an approach that makes it easy – and authentic – to offer mutual support that’s structured, time-bound, and energizing. He has engaged managers and executives in intense and focused bursts of help exchange through a format known as the Help Workout Exercise. And he’s also taught leaders how to ask for help, how to determine which help requests are productivity-enhancing and which are not, and how to elude the dangers of over-helping. There’s perhaps nothing more draining than a social butterfly who zealously tries to help in an unfocused way. So, I believe skill in giving and receiving help also entails a strong dose of self-discipline.  

How should HR departments integrate sustainability into their work? 

We typically think of sustainability at the (macro) levels of the society or of the firm. Young people are leading protests for climate justice. Regulators are busy setting new sustainability reporting frameworks and policies. But there’s also a clear need to bring sustainability to the micro-level, to the individual. My ESMT colleague Prof. Eric Quintane has fascinating research pinpointing when workers experience their work as unsustainable. Quintane (in joint work with Claudia Estévez-Mujica at the University of the Andes in Colombia) developed an inventive research design which showed that burnout – captured by the two dimensions of exhaustion and disengagement – is traceable to measurable patterns in email networks.  

Two findings strike me as most salient: First, the more employees are intertwined in reciprocal exchanges with their superiors via email, the higher their risk of burnout. Lots of back-and-forth via electronic exchange with bosses is an early admonition, and one that’s relatively easy for attentive (but not intrusive) HR colleagues to detect. Reciprocal exchanges may go hand in hand – not just with employees getting absorbed by their bosses, but also with an absence of the more energizing face-to-face encounters that seem to me more congenial to workplace flourishing. Second, and quite surprisingly, Quintane’s models reveal that sending emails after hours is associated with a lower probability of burnout. One implication of this result is that a precipitous drop in after-hours communication portends imminent disengagement and/or exhaustion. (Needless to add, such a pattern shouldn’t be met with an exploitative expectation to continue to work after hours!)  

What I find especially exciting about Quintane’s research is that, without venturing into the content of email exchanges, HR leaders can discern and move on early warning signs of unsustainable work patterns. One of the most promising future steps for business schools and HR departments is to join forces in collecting, analyzing, and acting on personnel data valuable for making individual careers more sustainable.  

What are ESMT’s goals in the areas of sustainable leadership and sustainable people management?  

At ESMT, we have recently announced ASPIRE, a new strategy by which we will become one of the leading business schools in sustainability. Our aim is to strengthen our faculty in sustainability topics and develop our sustainability initiatives. These include the Sustainable Business Roundtable, a peer-to-peer learning network of international companies, and the Climate Governance Initiative Germany, a network we co-started with the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE) and Board Academy e.V., which works to mobilize non-executive directors and supervisory board members on business models that embrace ambitious climate policy. We also wish to advance campus initiatives, such as sustainability ambassadors, carbon accounting, and the Net Impact Club.  

Aligned with these endeavors, we are working on the topics of sustainable leadership in close cooperation with companies. For instance, we’ve hosted one of our Sustainable Business Roundtables on implementing sustainability in HR. Human resource practitioners exchanged best practices and challenges with sustainability managers from leading international companies. This is because we see our role not only as conducting research and offering research-driven recommendations that can be applied in practice, but also as fostering collaboration and exercising thought leadership in sustainability. We invite any interested companies to join the Sustainable Business Roundtable network to prepare for the next sustainability challenges. 


This article was adapted from an interview that first appeared in the 2022 whitepaper “Sustainable HR” by Mercedes-Benz Consulting GmbH, Leinfelden-Echterdingen, Used with permission. 


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