How to harness employees' skills and creativity for corporate sustainability?

Empowering employees to generate ideas and promote sustainable solutions in their work strengthens their commitment to a company's sustainability goals, according to Martina Kurki's doctoral dissertation.

In her doctoral dissertation, Martina Kurki studied the engagement of employees in promoting sustainability goals. 

According to her findings, employees' conviction in the authenticity of the company's sustainability objectives goals and sufficient autonomy in finding solutions are essential for the development of individual sustainability thinking. 

“Increased knowledge and skills, as well as linking sustainability tasks to their job description, also clearly strengthen employees' commitment to a company's sustainability goals,” says Kurki who will defend her dissertation at the University of Vaasa on 7 June.

The dissertation also revealed factors that undermine psychological ownership of sustainability goals. These included the lack of a clear mandate and sustainability goals that remain unconcrete.

“The outsourcing of deeper sustainability thinking to customers or sustainability specialists within the company also led to experts becoming passive. Similarly, an overly stereotypical view of the professional's role can encourage the outsourcing of sustainability thinking,” continues Kurki.

According to her, the results showed that the factors can have contradictory effects, both strengthening and weakening psychological ownership. For example, the scope and complexity of the concept of sustainability can create confusion, which can be experienced as inspiring or disturbing and even distressing.

 Engaging controllers in sustainability change

A sub-study of the dissertation focused on the perceived professional role of accounting professionals, controllers, and how this role could and should incorporate elements of corporate sustainability in the future. 

Controllers seem to have a tendency to exclude sustainability from their work, seeing it more as the responsibility of other functions. Colleagues, on the other hand, challenge this view and hope that controllers will broaden their perspective from a purely financial focus. 

The results showed that many of the elements that could strengthen the commitment of controllers to corporate sustainability are lacking, such as connection to their own work, adequate skills and a proper mandate.

“There needs to be a strong push from the accounting community, accounting education and corporate culture to actively engage accountants, who have skills to measure and monitor in corporate sustainability transformation,” says Kurki.

Middle management and technology professionals in focus

The dissertation examined engagement in corporate sustainability from the perspective of psychological ownership. The study was conducted among middle management and experts in multinational technology companies. 

The dissertation was based on interviews with 50 employees, public data on corporate sustainability objectives and participant observation in a project to develop corporate environmental accounting. 

Do you want employees to contribute to sustainability? – Then add more corporate sustainability to the job description

The empirical results of Kurki's dissertation support the observation that incorporating corporate sustainability-related tasks into one's work clearly stimulates psychological ownership. According to Kurki, this seems to happen regardless of the initial level of competence and commitment.

“The key is for employees themselves to start thinking in terms of sustainability and innovation: what are we doing, how are we doing it and why are we doing it?” concludes Kurki. 

Doctoral dissertation

Kurki, Martina (2024) Toward engagement in corporate sustainability. Acta Wasaensia 531. Doctoral dissertation. University of Vaasa

Publication pdf

Public defence

The public examination of M.Sc. Martina Kurki’s doctoral dissertation ”Toward engagement in corporate sustainability” will be held on Friday 7 June 2024 at 12 at the University of Vaasa, auditorium Nissi.

It is possible to participate in the defence also online, password: 517836

Professor Matias Laine (University of Tampere) will act as opponent and Professor Marko Järvenpää as custos. The defence will be held in Finnish.


Further information

Martina Kurki, tel +358 50 334 1214,

Martina Kurki was born in 1967 in Närpiö. She graduated from Seinäjoki Upper Secondary School in 1986 and received her Master's degree in Economics and Business Administration from Åbo Akademi University in 1991. Kurki, who lives in Vaasa, has forged a long career as a controller. She is currently working as a sustainability specialist at ABB.

Did you like the article?