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Culture can be a barrier or asset to organizational change toward sustainability

Coaches can help organizations investing in sustainable business models to identify how culture supports or challenges organizational change.  


Rigid organizational culture can slow progress or prevent leaders from innovating


Coaches can help identify how culture can shape ideas about value and the role of business


Leaders can use coaching insights to develop a culture of systemic thinking that promotes problem solving and creativity

Wisdom Weavers

Organizational change starts with supportive leadership

Around the globe, an increase in environmental regulation coupled with popular demand for corporate environmental accountability is changing how businesses talk about sustainability. Organizations are publicly hiring sustainability officers, publishing climate pledges, and committing to sustainable investment. However, the integration and resourcing for these initiatives vary between organizations. The 2022 Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor found that many major corporations with climate pledges have ambiguous or limited emissions goals, often falling short of those outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Similarly, a study of chief sustainability officers (CSO) by PwC reports that among global CSOs, around half had limited remits and did not participate in important leadership meetings. PwC describes empowered CSOs as those with access to the board of directors and who can integrate sustainability into the entire organization. For organizations to make measurable progress toward their environmental commitments, they will need to invest in developing a sustainability culture that supports organizational change.

When it comes to modeling a sustainability culture, organizational leadership can be proactive or reactive to change. A survey of 300 companies in China found that environmentally proactive organizations invest in external green strategy while also encouraging internal capacity building through employee development. Wisdom Weaver Dorothy Maseke illustrates how leaders play a vital role in fostering learning and development through the example they lead within their teams “because they have resources, energy, and political presence within an organization. When leaders attend events to build, learn, and grow, they contribute thought leadership back to the team.” Dorothy highlights how the culture of learning at ICEA LION encouraged her to pursue sustainability training, which developed into a project where she helped lead sustainable insurance adoption in her company. Reflecting on her career development, Dorothy shares, “you can have vision, but if the organization doesn’t understand it or buy it, it can be killed. The support of my employer has made the difference between [the project’s] success and it being a dream.”

A growing number of Gen Z and Millennial workers are looking to work for environmentally and socially responsible businesses. As leaders work to integrate and resource new sustainability initiatives, they can engage their teams in conversations about the long-term impact of these initiatives. When leaders at Unilever invited employees to create a shared mission around sustainability, teams started generating new solutions to meet these goals. Leaders can support creativity, problem-solving, and engagement during these conversations by co-creating solutions with team members. Alternatively, Wisdom Weaver John Friedman explains that companies risk losing top talent when they ignore employee passions. As a sustainability advisor, he shares that when employees who want to explore new opportunities in sustainable business “are not listened to because of the hierarchy, or the structure, or the prejudices that exist within the organizational culture, they work on these ideas in their own time and end up competing with the company.”

Unsustainable business is a reflection of cultural values

Wisdom Weaver Dr. Josie McLean is a researcher in sustainability and cultural change and explores how business paradigms can inhibit or enhance flexibility when it comes to adopting environmentally responsible business models. She shares that in many Western cultures, “the role of control within organizations is so subtle and so strong everywhere, it often stops adaptive change from emerging.” When interviewing sustainability practitioners about barriers to organizational change, she reveals, “one of the most disturbing pain points was that in their organizations, they see their senior managers as the blockage. Executive and senior managers are the ones that are getting in the way because most don’t think systemically in ways that reflect indirect and nonlinear cause and effect. Understanding the behavior of living systems or complexity is increasingly being recognized as a competency required in senior management.” A review describing the relationship between organizational culture and sustainable business describes how bureaucratic cultures may struggle to innovate because they value stability over risk. However, leaders in bureaucratic corporate cultures may still be able to promote sustainability by adapting or expanding existing objectives. In her systemic coaching practice, Josie works with her clients to recognize the interdependence between the personal, structural, and cultural elements of our work and lives. She helps her clients do psychologically adaptive work to find new ways of working and being. New ways of being in relationship with themselves, each other, and all life that is represented by Earth.

 “The culture influences the leaders more than the leaders influence the culture, our societal culture, our organizational cultures. That was the beginning of my awareness of systemic work.”

Dr. Josie McLean

Differences between local and global cultures can produce unique approaches to environmental stewardship. For example, anthropocentric cultures view the environment as important because humans rely on natural resources. Ethical anthropocentrism works to enhance feelings of environmental stewardship by connecting planetary health to human longevity, or by illustrating parallels between the human relationship to the environment with relationships between other humans. Ecocentric cultures support environmental health because the planet is inherently valuable in and of itself. In 2022, Indigenous leaders in environmental conservation developed a call to action to develop environmental determinants of health using an ecocentric model.

To address potential barriers to sustainable business transformation, coaches use a variety of individual, team, and systemic approaches to enhance cultural awareness in their clients. When coaching organizations, Wisdom Weaver Dr. Peter Hawkins explores the connections between living systems to understand climate issues better. For organizations to operate sustainably, they need to look beyond single issues. He underscores how “climate, soil erosion, water pollution, the atmosphere, biodiversity loss, and global inequality are interconnected issues caused by how humans think and operate. These ways of thinking are not built into our DNA but have developed in the last 300–400 years, with the onset of the industrial, scientific, and modernist age.” His coaching practice helps organizations identify a wider range of stakeholders to better see how the organizations interact with connected and overlapping systems. Identifying organizational impact on individuals, communities, and the wider ecology helps his clients to create comprehensive and nuanced approaches to sustainable action.  

Coaching helps identify cultural beliefs to catalyze organizational change

Coaches work in various ways to reveal client assumptions, values, and beliefs about the world. For clients looking to adopt sustainable business models, coaches can help clients define what a successful program might look like. Wisdom Weaver Ken Bruder reveals how many business models are a product of past social values. To promote sustainable innovation, he highlights how “professional coaching helps people to recognize mindsets that worked successfully in the past, but also question them in a healthy way so that they can see new pathways forward.” When coaches help leaders “identify new ways of doing things or recognize new ways of valuing things,” they can ensure that sustainability goals are prioritized and resourced to enhance business value.

“Systemic change is about the breadth of the stakeholders taken into consideration. You’ve got to go deeper into the assumptions underneath that system to change and disrupt it. Sustainability is a paradigm shift in the way we perceive the world – and this paradigm or worldview is the ultimate ‘leverage point’ from which new ways of living, and working, and new structures will emerge.”

Dr. Josie McLean

Culture also impacts how coaches work with their clients. Peter argues that similar to concepts like bias and privilege, coaches will need to understand how their ideas about the environment shape climate-conscious coaching. Reflecting on a roundtable discussion of climate coaches, Peter shares that the question, “how do I bring the ecology into the room?” revealed an immediate assumption. He cautions, coaches will need “to unlearn that ecology is out there and it’s something separate.” He continues, “when everyone was talking about coaching in nature, meaning coaching out of doors, I had to find a polite way of saying that I think we’re caught in an assumption here. It’s a dangerous assumption because it implies that everything that happens indoors is unnatural and that nature is something different than us. We are part of nature, and nature is part of us.” Coaches who understand their beliefs about the relationship between people and the environment can identify how those beliefs contribute to action. These coaches are then better prepared to help their clients navigate the same process.

Coaches can help organizations understand the role of culture in achieving their sustainability goals by:

  • Examining how language around sustainability reflects organizational beliefs and values
  • Exploring how organizational hierarchy and communication styles may prevent or encourage collaborative dialogue and problem-solving around new sustainability goals
  • Identifying how sustainable programs align or conflict with existing cultural values around risk, stability, and adaptation

Transformational Questions for the Future of Coaching and Planetary Ecology:

  • In what ways does your culture influence how you approach climate topics? What about your client’s culture?
  • How does ecological and climate-conscious coaching differ from other coaching practices?
  • How can coaches connect sustainable action to client cultural values? In what ways do these conversations change in multicultural contexts?

Coaching Empowers People

Creating a sustainability culture means integrating environmental awareness and economic, social, and environmental values into every area part of the business. It’s a shift towards systemic thinking. Group coaching can help clients identify how existing beliefs, values, and language around sustainability represent the current organizational culture and guide the emergence of new ways being discovered. Speaking on the impact of a hierarchical organizational culture, Mark Searle, CEO of the City of Marion, found that top-down communication made his employees afraid to innovate or share new ideas with their managers. In coordination with The Partnership, leaders, staff and customers entered a mutual discussion around core vision. The group coaching conversations helped open creativity and passion around what team members wanted to collectively contribute to their community and the environment – encouraging them to change their day-to-day work activities. Coaching with The Partnership also helped leaders learn how to engage teams through the change process, enhancing team ownership and identification with the organization’s sustainability culture. The work helped create a culture of trust which opens dialogue around challenges, acknowledges achievements, and invites team members to shape organizational change. In the process, team members are valued and are engaged on a path of continuous self-development and growth.

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