Five top tips for promoting green behavior through ethical leadership

Five top tips for promoting green behavior through ethical leadership

In this article, the authors (Ahmad and Nazim) outline a vision for a new ethical leadership paradigm that promotes green behavior. They propose that the key is to foster ‘eco-ethical work practices’ – by combining ethical leadership and ‘green’ human resource management. The separation of environmental performance setting and human resource management acts as a barrier to leadership of this type. Ahmad and Nazim argue that the two must be brought together to promote green behaviour in businesses. They provide their top tips for business leaders.

The overwhelming disruption occurring in the global economic environment calls for a different paradigm for leadership – one that is more interactive, more adaptive, and more responsible for social, economic, and environmental impact, now and in the future [Adapted from Brundtland Commission Report & Agenda 21 – Ref: (Brundtland, 1987b)]. Organizational leadership is a core factor for organizations’ survival and sustainability. The recent pandemic shock - which caused massive business lockdowns and layoffs of workers - as well as rising global temperatures, are threatening business-as-usual practices. This, in turn, is raising fundamental questions of how leaders can foster pro-environmental (or green) business behavior in the context of, and to successfully navigate, the highly unstable world created by the pandemic and climate change.

An ethical leadership style to promote green behavior has not yet been developed in the literature: that’s why our approach is novel

Despite the proliferation of studies on organisational leadership, the literature remains fragmented and a comprehensive theory of the leadership’s influence on green workplace behaviour is yet to be developed. We still know little of those leadership styles that can effectively respond to the challenges associated with climate change in the dynamic, un-predictable and volatile post-pandemic period, we are now passing through.

Leadership that fosters an eco-ethical workforce is what is urgently needed

We propose that to achieve environmental performance targets, enterprises need workforces that are committed to adopting eco-ethical work practices. In view of the significance of the human element in organisational greening, scholars and practitioners have emphasised the adoption of ‘green’ Human Resource Management (HRM) to improve employees' pro-environmental behaviours in the workplace. Our proposed framework combines ethical leadership and ‘green’ HRM paradigms in a novel way.

Business leaders must lead by example, being accountable for the way they make decisions about the use of resources

Our recent research shows that ethical leadership provides an important link between the business and its environmental responsibility. Ethical behaviour at work ensures a balanced, careful and fair use of available resources in consideration of the needs and welfare of future generations. Ethical leadership has emerged as an internationally effective style of organizational leadership whereby leaders hold themselves accountable for the consequences of their actions and decisions on the sustainability of natural environment and society.

The research delineates the process through which the presence of ethical leaders in business settings improves both green HRM practices and employees’ pro-environmental behavior. The leader’s influence, accountability and embodiment of eco-ethical values inspire the development of sustainable behaviours among the followers. Ethical leaders are the role-models of sustainable behaviour in business settings. A great responsibility rests on their shoulders to inspire the followers to achieve the organisation’s pro-environmental goals, and empower HRM to implement human resource management policies and practices to reinforce the achievement of such goals through training and development of the workforce. Green HRM, which specifically deals with the provision of eco-ethical training and development of eco-friendly employees, can play an instrumental role in environmental management.


This means that environmental performance setting and human resource management must be brought together

We argue that the role of HR in setting the environmental performance targets is often limited in business settings because these are set by senior leaders who are typically outside of HR. The nature of a business’ attention to environmental issues is reflected in its environmental performance objectives and strategic initiatives. Ethical leaders’ innate concern for environmental sustainability is reflected in their businesses’ strategic priorities. They serve as role models for sustainable development, communicating the importance of green behavior and possess legitimate authority to reward those who show environmental stewardship at work.

The notion of sustainability has gained even more prominence during the global pandemic that is currently impacting the business world. If we want sustainability to play an integral role in shaping the future (low-emissions, environment-friendly workforce), ethical leadership can be a driving force and a key influencing factor in the decision-making process of the pro-environmental activities in organisations.  Operating with this new concept of sustainability, now and in future, organizational leadership and green human resource management (GHRM) would be playing a critical role in implementing policies and enforcing practices that regulate employees’ green behavior at work.

Our five top tips for business leaders are:

1.       Lead by example: Explain to your workforce how you are being guided by ethics and sustainability in your decision making and that you are held accountable not for your own actions, but also for the decisions of others. You need to continuously inspire and encourage your workforce through your own pro-environmental actions, because followers tend to mimic the behavior of their leaders. So, the right role-modeling at the top is the key for a quick behavioral change.

2.       Integrate human resource management team and environmental management team: The two teams play the most pivotal role in advancing the green agenda of a company. Integrating them facilitates in creating greater synergies in pro-environmental value creation. A company’s perspective of the environmental management and its ethical decision-making processes are both reflected in the performance and pro-activeness of their human resource management system.

3.       Consider human resource management and environmental performance targets together: You need to consider the environmental impact of your company’s activities and ensure the alignment of human resource policies and praxis with pro-environmental goals. Putting them together, when conducting strategic planning at the highest level, streamlines the work environment and introduces practices that models the workers’ behavioral towards the green goals of the company.

4.       Recruit supervisors and line managers with green credentials: Priority of green behavior should be inbuilt right in the screening and selection process of the managerial staff. Recruiting for environmental attitude saves time.  Prior knowledge and experience are helpful in guiding workers to gain a clear understanding of their performance targets along with the need of minimizing environmental impacts of productivity.

5.       Develop a culture of learning: You must encourage employees to come up with new ideas. Let them discuss and debate freely and take initiatives to experiment and learn from. Creating an open, learning environment leads to creativity and innovation which is the only way to survive in a rapidly changing world.


Authors: Saima Ahmad and Mohammad Nazim

Saima Ahmad, PhD, is a Lecturer of Business and Management at the Graduate School of Business and Law, RMIT University. She is a member Academy of International Business, Academy of Management and RMIT’s Centre for Business and Human Rights. Her research focuses on framing and developing models of ethical leadership to promote positive and sustainable work environments.

Mr. Mohammad Nazim is a private consultant in education and business management. His areas of specialization are Communication, Leadership, Organization Development and Learning in Life. Nazim is an author of several books, publications and articles on Sustainable Development and Globally Responsible Leadership.

25 May 2021


25 May 2021


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Acknowledgement of Country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.