One of the hot new topics in the business literature these days is something called the Triple Bottom Line (sometimes abbreviated as TBL or 3BL). For those not familiar with this concept, it is essentially a measure of organizational success that looks at not just financial outcomes, but also considers social and environmental outcomes in the appraisal of how much value an organization creates (Slaper & Hall, 2011). Many people trace this term back to John Elkington’s work in the early 1990s and it has become all the rage for people who feel that business entities should be responsible to more than just their shareholders. For example, most of the academic research on what is now termed values-centered leadership focuses on a leader’s responsibility to drive their organization towards the Triple Bottom Line. Moreover, a key thesis of the value-centered leadership domain is that managers who focus on just financial results at the expense of social and environmental impacts are ineffective and irresponsible.
While the Triple Bottom Line is a very interesting and noble idea; like a lot of other popular concepts, the excitement for it has overshadowed many of the important details of how to achieve it. Some organizations seem to assume that it can just talk the TBL into existence by incorporating a few key words into their mission statements. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case. For example how many times have we seen an organization publish press releases about how it focuses on social responsibility and sustainability, but then a news story breaks about them strip mining the rain forests or sending special need orphans into coal mines? While these examples might seem like a bit of an exaggeration, the conflict between cultivated image and reality is far too common. Some might say that a lot of these contradictions between word and deed can be attributed to news media’s love of salacious stories, but those stories wouldn’t exist if organizations were doing where practicing what they preach.
So what can be done if an organization wants to do more than just talk about the Triple Bottom Line? How do they turn these aspirations into outcomes? The simplest answer is they must focus on what we will call the Triple Top Line… Performance, Process and Culture.
As we have discussed over the last few months, performance is not just about the outcome we want, but about the behaviors that drive those outcomes. Processes how we communicate to the people in the organization what specific behaviors we want them to engage in. Culture is about how we go beyond just defining what behaviors we want, to addressing how we want people in the organization to live those behaviors. So what does this have to do with the infamous Triple Bottom Line? Simply put, if we want to have an organization that drives towards the Triple Bottom Line, we have to start off focusing a Triple Top Line that drives towards the desired outcomes. Otherwise our sustainability goals won’t be very sustainable.
Slaper, T.F. & Hall, T.J. (2011). The triple bottom line: What is it and how does it work?. Indiana Business Review. 86 (1).
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About the Author
Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with eighteen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture and Hewlett-Packard.