Making Organizations Humanly Sustainable

 I use the term “sustainable success” to link operational, people, and ethical goals. This revises the “triple bottom line” view of “people, planet, profit” by highlighting how organizations can renew themselves. Basically, organizations need to renew the capabilities of their workforce and they need to renew their relationships with clients and communities.

An organization puts its future success at risk if it burns out employees, runs deficits, alienates clients, acts unethically, and is irresponsible towards the environment. By contrast, organizations that thrive are constantly regenerating their resources. Leaders in such organizations think long-term and holistically. Organizations are like fragile ecosystems. Continued success depends on renewing the fine balance needed between culture, people practices, systems, and structures.

Healthy organizations generate benefits for the communities in which they operate. For example, healthier employees are less likely to use health care services. This has important implications for the public health system and employer-provided health benefit costs. The supportive environment of a healthy organization helps employees enjoy a fulfilling personal and family life. Employees have more time and energy to raise their children, assist their aging parents, and volunteer in community activities that matter to them. The latter surely is relevant to health care organizations given their increasing reliance on community fundraising and volunteers.

Employees now hold employers to higher ethical standards. While corporate social responsibility comes in many forms, what’s needed for “walking the talk” is having a strong connection with human resource goals and practices. Branding an organization as community-minded—essential in health care—signals to prospective employees that it is an employer that cares, treats others well, and reflects their personal values.

Sustainable success also requires employers to cultivate people capabilities for the future. Capability is a person’s actual and potential ability to do something and, at an organizational level, collective capabilities are greater than the sum of individual capabilities. In today’s uncertain economic environment, any organization’s future depends more than ever on its capabilities to adapt, learn, lead, innovate, and be resilient.