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Middle Management as Environmental Change Agent

Middle managers increasingly hold a seat of power as drivers or obstacles to environmental change

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California solar energy conservation Excerpts from Maya Fischhoff

Why aren't people inside companies taking more aggressive environmental action on a host of issues?

One under-explored facet of this discussion involves middle managers, who increasingly hold a seat of power as drivers of -- or obstacles to -- change within companies. By influencing both lower-level workers and top managers, middle management is often critical to making change happen.

This executive report focuses on coal-based midwestern utility companies, which were mid-range environmental performers within their sectors.

What Makes Management Tick

First and foremost, managers said they are focused on regulations: their time spent working on environmental issues is almost entirely dedicated to addressing regulations. Perhaps even more significantly, regulatory standards also represent managers' environmental goals and aspirations.

The managers interviewed with have real, if limited, environmental sympathies; these are ethical motivations for environmental action. They talk about environmental action as "the right thing," and want to be "good stewards."

A major obstacle to environmental change is the perception managers have that environmental action is costly -- not something that can lead to profit. A manager explains: "With environmental actions, you are spending 50 percent more, getting less....

Managers also see environmental action as logistically challenging -- and this is true even of environmental compliance, which outside observers often think of as a basic step or a starting point.

Regulations are also constantly changing, and can take a long time to become final, making action based on them uncertain. Managers say they feel stretched thin by their responsibilities.

Getting access to the latest information on environmental issues can also be challenging for managers. Often, they have relatively few information sources, and tend to look to industry trade groups like the Edison Electric Institute; trade groups provide information through meetings, emails and committees. Managers also get insights on compliance approaches from their peers at other companies, especially those with similar fuel mixes.

The government is not a regular source of information, and these managers certainly don't look to the environmental community for tips. When managers talk about environmentalists, they describe them as untrustworthy: extreme and inaccurate. Managers say that environmentalists twist facts and make claims about non-existent problems or unrealistic future options; in particular, environmentalists claim that green energy is cheap. A manager comments: "Our hands are quite tied because we have to be accountable.... Environmentalists don't."

None of the managers mentioned groups that have sought to straddle the business and environment communities, like Business for Social Responsibility or SustainAbility; unfortunately, these groups are not yet within their frame of reference.

How to Make Management Work for You

For outsiders who want to affect companies, there are several logical steps to take.

First and foremost, groups should continue to push for stronger regulations. Regulations matter: they are the standard managers hold themselves to.

In addition to working on regulations from outside, it's important to build partnerships with companies you seek to change.

Although it might seem implausible that outsiders would have expertise that large firms lack, many companies have been downsized to a point of having few slack resources to follow fast-moving social and technological changes. Outsiders with engineering and policy competence could help companies sift through technology options, interpret ambiguous regulations, and identify ways that environmental actions can lead to cost savings.

Above all, the key to success can be as simple as remembering the middle managers. Outside groups engaging with companies often focus on the big names at the top of a company, but companies are affected by managers at multiple levels. While outsiders' interactions with top executives are necessarily brief, highly structured, and formal, middle managers' interactions with outsiders could be more discreet, frequent and sustained.

Maya Fischhoff is a Research Associate at Michigan State University's Environmental Science and Policy Program. This article is based on her dissertation, which was published in the journal Energy Policy, Vol. 35, Issue 7. For more detailed information, contact her at

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Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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