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Social Sustainability Leadership – From Strategy to Result

How do we build trust in a fast-changing world? How do we adapt to change and lead our organizations, employees, and ourselves to efficiency and empowerment?

Many companies and organizations have goals and policies in place, but the real challenges are when implementing and integrating those into the organizational culture.

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The reason why many employees feel restrained or defensive, is that they do not feel safe at work— lack of security results in employees not contributing fully with their thoughts and ideas, which inhibit creativity and innovation.


The purpose with Social Sustainability Leadership is to develop conscious and courageous leaders; Leaders with a unique approach when faced with differences and challenges, leaders who can create a non-blame culture, leaders who are able to support others and themselves amid adversity. Leaders who are able and willing to take responsibility for leading towards a sustainable society.


The components of Social Sustainability Leadership


  • Psychological safety The most crucial, and probably most important factor in Social Sustainability Leadership is called psychological safety. In teams with high psychological safety members dare to aim high by challenging themselves and others and persisting even when there are obstacles. In teams with high psychological safety members have confidence in each other, believing in and being open to each other. In teams with high psychological safety failure is seen as a possibility to learn, which enables them to be successfully innovative together. This creates a culture built on inclusion, where everybody’s contribution is valued.


  • Leader-member exchange The quality of the Leader-Member Exchange between employees and managers is the single most important explanatory variable for employee performance and job satisfaction. This was found in the largest meta-study of managers' behavior (Kelley School of Business, Indiana University). Maybe not so surprising, but what components are crucial in an excellent leader-employee relationship, or in any relationship for that matter? First and foremost, a good relationship means that both parties experience a mutual exchange. Four components of this mutual exchange appear to be of particular importance: Contribution - confidence in that the other party can be trusted Loyalty - both parties feel supported by each other Affection - there are mutually positive feelings and affection between both parties in the relationship Professional respect - both parties have a humble approach to what the other person has achieved and is able to achieve


  • Fulfilling human potential Social sustainability leadership concerns people's opportunities to fulfill their potential. Depending on where in the world we live and at what stage in life we find ourselves, our needs look different. It may concern fundamental human rights or finding balance in our everyday life. It may involve the possibility to educate ourselves, to provide for ourselves, or to live in peace.


Based on the UN Sustainability Goals in Agenda 2030, the Swedish government has proposed five new social sustainability measurements for Sweden instead of only the Gross Development Product - GDP. One of the measurements proposed is interpersonal trust. This indicates an increased awareness of the link between interpersonal relationships and organizational effectiveness.

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"Social Sustainability Leadership starts with development of the individual; Openness to yourself and others are key ingredients when building trust. To lead others, first you need to understand yourself and others, the driving forces behind behavior and how behavior impacts the situation."


How to use Social Sustainability Leadership to build trust within the organization


Social Sustainability Leadership starts with development of the individual; Openness to self and others are key ingredients when building trust. In order to effectively lead others, you need to understand yourself first. The better you understand yourself, the easier it will be to understand other people, the driving forces behind their behavior and how it impacts you and the situation.

Leaders with a deeper and broader perspective are able to act and adapt differently. Sustainability leaders as individuals are compelled to make a difference by deepening their awareness of themselves in relation to the world around them.


When working with Social Sustainability Leadership, we concentrate on four key factors:


  1. Openness Openness is the ability to acknowledge and talk openly at the moment any difficulty arises. With a high degree of awareness, leaders are more fit to adapt to and handle complex situations. Openness increases awareness, which leads to people making more conscious choices, pay more attention to the outcome and being more willing to take responsibility for their own contribution.

  2. Trust In a culture built on trust, employees experience a high degree of psychological safety. People support each other through success and failure. They believe in each other’s ability to handle any given situation. Increased relationship management has a positive effect on the team member’s ability and willingness to help each other, which increases creativity. When relationships in a team improve, effectiveness and quality in delivery will follow.

  3. Self-esteem There is a clear link between self-esteem, productivity, and the bottom-line result. When self-esteem grows, so does the self-mastery; you become better at handling yourself. As we become better at handling our attitude and motivation, the ability to manage our relationships increases.

  4. Purpose All people need to find their own “why”. In an organization it is of crucial importance to develop a common purpose that everyone can buy into. In order to inspire the team, the leader needs to start with a deeply anchored “why”. Influencing employees to strive towards set goals are common elements in all businesses. In the same way, when setting social sustainability goals that are in line with the shared purpose, the organization will start its journey towards greater social sustainability.


It is vital to recognize how each group of related factors, such as people, norms, goals, processes etc, are connected and impact each other.

Social sustainability leadership integrates individual, cultural, behavioral, and structural change to achieve sustainable objectives. The result is socially sustainable organizations built on participation, empowerment, openness, recognition, and humanity.

By: Kajsa Fasth and Marie Sjöberg - Contributors, Brainz Magazine Kajsa Fasth and Marie Sjöberg work as leadership and organizational consultants. They focus on building effective organizations through creating an understanding of how individuals, culture, systems and goals work together. They both have a genuine interest in people’s behavior and underlying driving forces.

Kajsa is used to perform in both conflict areas and complex crises around the world. She has led multicultural teams and worked as international head delegate for the Red Cross in Haiti, China and Iran. Communication, organizational development and sustainability are her areas of expertise. Marie is a trained therapist with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social science with psychology as her main field of study.


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