Sustainability in the developing world by taking the long-term view

In my next few posts i’ll be looking at 3 approaches to incorporating sustainability in business. It may sound counter-intuitive, since we often think of rapidly developing economies as putting growth before the environment; but that isn’t always the case. In fact, sustainable production can be less expensive than conventional production, making it an attractive proposition anywhere. These approaches, reviewed in more detail in the March Harvard Business Review by Knut Haanaes and coauthors, are remarkably successful, both environmentally and financially.

Approach 1: The long-term view
When you take the long-term view to sustainability, you invest in more-expensive methods of sustainable operation up front. The thinking is that dramatically lowered costs and higher output eventually result.

Sekem, Egypt’s first organic farm, successfully used this approach. Founded in 1977 when organic products were a luxury and the market was tiny, used biodynamic agricultural methods to reclaim arable land from the Sahara, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and used 20 to 40% less water for its organic cotton crops. These techniques lowered farming costs, improved average yields by almost 30%, and produced a superior raw cotton product in that it was more elastic than its non-organic counterparts.

Sekem’s leap of faith resulted in a financially and environmentally sustainable business model; from 2006 to the disruptions of the Arab Spring in 2011, Sekem grew 14% annually and is now one of Egypt’s largest organic food producers.

Questions for discussion

What Australian companies have adopted a similar sustainable business model to Sekem? How important do you think it is to consider environmental sustainability in business?

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Be positive, even when you need to fake it

Chiara Amati‘s doctoral research at Edinburgh’s Napier University found that managers need to behave positively at work, especially with their staff.

The study was based on a small sample (interviews with 12 managers and a survey of 30 managers) and seems to contradict the widely-held view that managers need to be authentic, open and honest. But it sort of makes sense, doesn’t it: a manager’s positive attitude, even when it covers up unhelpful, private thoughts or misgivings, helps employees perform well and maintains good working relationships with their team.

Amati says this seems particularly true in the case of first-line managers, who need strong influencing skills to get people to do things because they lack the authority to ‘command’.

Amati also believes that positivity is even more important for female managers than their male counterparts because females need to deal with contrasting workplace stereotypes. She explains that women are expected to be warm and nurturing but not display emotions such as crying, which is seen as manipulative.

In short, managers need to put on a public show even when they don’t feel like it–at least sometimes.

Discussion questions

In your experience, does faking positive emotions seem to be part of good people management? How does this study relate to emotional intelligence? When might it not be a good idea for a manager to cover up negative emotions or doubts? Does gender come into this picture for you? If Amati’s findings hold true in Scotland, would they necessarily hold true in Australia?

How to read difficult material effectively

There’s a solid body of research showing that ‘self explanation’ while you’re reading helps increase your understanding, particularly when the material is difficult or new to you.

When you try to combine your self-explanations with 1) other material in the text and with 2) what you already know about the topic, the self-explanation technique works even better.

Give it a try, if you haven’t already!

Does telecommuting kill creativity and teamwork?

I used to be indecisive but now I’m not so sure. For me, indecisiveness begins when I can see both sides of an issue.

Take the working from home bru-ha-ha that’s erupted since iconic tech company, Yahoo, announced ‘no more working from home’. The stated reason was that working from home is counterproductive, limits collaboration and communication and lowers quality and speed. People need the impromptu ‘water cooler meetings’ to bounce ideas off each other and spark new ideas.

This flies in the face of research showing that productivity increases for teleworkers, telecommuting is good for the environment because it saves so much petrol and carbon emissions and so on. (See pages 16 -18 of the text for more information on the benefits of woking from home.)

So which is it? Telecommuting is good? Or telecommuting is bad?

Here’s what I think. Both statements are true — in their way. Individual contributors whose roles allow it can productively work from home. Those whose work depends on working closely with others, for example creative teams, are probably better working together, at least some of the time.

Questions for discussion

What do you think? Does working from home increase productivity, or inhibit collaboration?