Managing energy in organisations

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Published by
Jan Hills
January 13, 2016

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It seems to me that understanding what inspires energy and what drains it is possibly the most important and least talked about role of leaders.

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Would you define your role as managing and focusing the energy in your organisation?

How would you rate the energy levels in your organisation, unit or team?

What specific things have you noticed that energise people? And what seems to drain their energy?

Most of the history of management theory and practice has been about adopting a technical, analytical approach in which the role of the so-called soft factors like emotions and feelings has largely been ignored. Similarly, whilst energy is frequently talked about, it has received little attention in HR or leadership practice. That trend, however, is now being reversed, with both academics, HR and managers recognising that soft skills have an important impact and that emotions impact behaviour in business.

It seems to me that understanding what inspires energy and what drains it is possibly the most important and least talked about role of leaders since, we’d argue, the point of leadership is to generating an environment with a sense of genuine purpose and connection, an environment that unleashes and focuses energy that will in turn make for maximum productivity, effort and wellbeing.

The research suggests that we should first generate organisational energy and then focus it.1It sounds straightforward but, as one might expect, the reality is a little more complicated. People with a lot of energy are more productive, creative and have a naturally positive influence on others.2 High energy employees stimulate each other by continuously giving that extra bit of effort, and greater productivity is achieved.3

From an understanding derived from science energy seems to need two key elements. The clarity and buy-in to purpose and social connection across the group. Positive energy is generated by increased social connection both for individuals and across an organisation, and this is backed up by recent studies.4

Organisational energy can be defined as the extent to which an organisation (or division or team) has mobilised its emotional, cognitive and behavioural potential to pursue its goals.5 Energy involves the amount of interactions between people, as well as their quality. It‘s also contagious and malleable: it can be changed based on the context of the organisation, the way practice and process is managed and the style and role of the leader.

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Many leaders turn to negative energy generation.

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Using energy in organisations

When leaders realise they need to change the energy status of their organisation to achieve goals, we typically see one of two approaches used.

Many leaders turn to negative energy generation. Indeed, management theory often encourages this with the emphasis on creating a ‘burning platform’ to motivate people. Negative emotions like anger, fear, hate and shame, effectively shock people into action by activating their survival instincts.

This focus on a threat will, it’s true, create energy and focus people’s attention. The issue with this strategy is that in this state people lack creativity; energy will burn out quickly and there’s a high risk of unintended side effects such as excessive stress and reduced well-being as well as reduced social connection because people focusing on self-preservation at the expense of working together.

This strategy is particularly unsustainable in the long-term and results in untold potential damage for future change projects. People show resistance to change and won’t buy into new ways of working. Also, once the immediate threat is reduced people will tend to move towards apathy, further reducing growth and creativity. In these states – apathy and threat – leaders will require more discipline, time and personal energy expenditure to keep people focused because there won’t be the mental energy reserves available that people draw on when thinking for themselves.

The alternative strategy, one that is less often seen, is to harness the positive energy of a clear purpose. Companies like Zappos and the fear free or democratic organisations have adopted this approach. The strategy builds enthusiasm for an exciting sense of purpose and involves people in co-creating the future. It taps into positive emotions and the connections between people, and gets them concentrating on the purpose. In this context, purpose relates specifically to why the strategy is important rather than what is to be done or how it is to be done. This understanding activates the brain regions responsible for thinking about ourselves and others, so has a natural link to maximising personal and team efforts when the purpose is co-created.

There is research that links energy levels and the creation of positive energy with the social connection of people in the organisation. Rob Cross, Wayne Baker and Andrew Parker, writing in the MIT Sloan Management Review in 2004, report research that matched work performance information collected about people with the person’s position within the network of people they interacted with.(6) The data showed links between energy levels and positive performance as measured by annual performance management ratings.

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The alternative strategy, one that is less often seen, is to harness the positive energy of a clear purpose.

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Energy creation

Two themes emerged from the research as a whole. First of all, energy is not just about the observable behaviour between people in an isolated context. It also depends on the characteristics of the individuals involved and the relationship between them. In identical discussions with different people, a person may very well be energised by the vision of someone known for their integrity but de-energised by another person who is inconsistent or sends conflicting signals about their trustworthiness.

Second, energy is created in conversations that balance several dimensions, as listed below. This is backed up by Sandy Pentland’s research which we have discussed before. According to Pentland, the best teams have people who are high energy and fully engaged as well as people who connect outside the group and bring in new ideas.7

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A person’s ability to create a clear purpose is a consistent differentiator between energisers and de-energisers.

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A compelling purpose: People are energised by conversations with others when a clear, shared purpose is created, such as when people define why they will pursue certain actions, the way the team will work, the goals they will pursue and how any difficulties will be handled. Energy is not usually generated and may even dissipate in conversations about current or past problems.

The purpose needs also to be well defined and the direction to achieve it clear. Clients we talk to say consistently that conversations about unrealistic projects or where goals are unclear were draining and that they left these meetings either annoyed that they had wasted their time or concerned about how to do the work. What people are indicating here is a concern about certainty in the CORE model (see more in this video). A clear purpose and steps to achieve it provides certainty for people and a good dose of dopamine in the brain.

A person’s ability to create a clear purpose is a consistent differentiator between energisers and de-energisers. Energisers see realistic possibilities; de-energisers see roadblocks and obstacles.

Making a contribution: People are energised by interactions in which they can make a meaningful contribution. Energisers create these kinds of conversation, getting others involved in finding a solution no matter how expert they are. De-energisers either don’t create the space for others to contribute or signal that they don’t value their contributions. Effective contributions need to be acknowledged and ineffective ones handled in a way that doesn’t threaten the person’s sense of options and reputation as described in the CORE model. This can be a particular problem for people with a great deal of expertise and who may find it hard to hold back and allow others to contribute.

Emotional engagement: People are energised when they’re emotionally engaged. Body language plays an important role in this. If people display a lack of attention (like looking at their phone) or attempt to do more than one thing at a time, it can send signals that dissipate energy. Equally subtle cues can increase energy, however, such as being animated and giving undivided attention.

Progress towards goals: People are energised when they get recognition for progress towards their goals.8 The Cross, Baker and Parker research already cited found that energisers are goal driven but also open and flexible about how they attain those goals.

In contrast, de-energisers may have a goal in mind but a preconceived plan of how to get there that they attempt to impose on everyone else. We see this happen more frequently than many leaders might think. Often overloaded with problems, they come into meetings with a ‘fix it’ mentality and think they are putting out a fire. What they miss is the devastating effect on energy that the exclusive focus on problems and their own favoured solutions can have.
De-energisers can also wipe out a sense of progress by being too unfocused – by constantly bringing up problems to the extent that no one understands which direction to take. People feel more certain when they know what steps they need to take and the options they have, and both of these activate the brain’s reward networks.

Positive emotions: People are energised by positive emotions such as hope and excitement. Hope, for instance, reflects the fact that people believe that the objective is worthwhile and can be attained; they get excited about the possibilities and stop looking for the pitfalls.

Energisers have two characteristics that influence people’s willingness to hope. They are direct and straightforward in how they speak, even when the message is not good, and they display integrity – there’s no mismatch between their words and their actions. Cross et al said they frequently heard in the course of their interviews about de-energisers who dashed hopes or energy was depleted because people did not meet their commitments.

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One practical action suggested by this research is to look at the company’s policies and practices whilst asking whether the organisation needs to energise or de-energise.

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Energisers and de-energisers

The Cross et al research also linked those who energise others with higher performance. Energisers had the following approach to working with others. They:

  • Motivate others to collaborate within an organisation and also with clients, who as often as not make the decisions about who to work with or what products to purchase based on the levels of energy they perceive.
  • Give undivided attention in a meeting or problem-solving session. People are also more likely to give discretionary time to an energiser’s ideas or projects. For example, people working with an energiser will spend time reflecting on a problem outside of office hours and they’ll make additional efforts to solve issues and / or work with others to do this.
  • Energisers attract the commitment of other high performers; people deliberately position themselves to work for them. And not only are energisers better performers themselves, people who are well connected to an energiser are also better performers. Thus a single energiser can cause positive networks or clusters of energisers to spring up quite naturally.

Interestingly, Cross and his colleagues also found that energisers affect what individuals and networks as a whole learn over time. People rely on their networks for information to get their work done, and they are much more likely to seek information and learn from energisers than from de-energisers. The flip side of this is that the expertise of de-energisers is underused, no matter how relevant it is.

De-energisers, who may have exceptional and wide-ranging expertise but find it difficult to modify their behaviour to keep the organisation running smoothly, tend to persist in unconstructive approaches when they’re bypassed like this. For example, they might cause more problems because they don’t feel they’re being listened to or perhaps they’ll keep pushing the same advice (only more forcefully) rather than trying different ways to engage their colleagues constructively.

The researchers summarised their findings by saying that energy does indeed have a substantial and predictable effect on performance and innovation in organisations.

One practical action suggested by this research is to look at the company’s policies and practices whilst asking whether the organisation needs to energise or de-energise. Even apparently minor changes to things like hiring criteria or performance evaluation processes can have a big impact. For example, one organisation included items on enthusiasm and energy in the criteria to assess potential hires. Another included dimensions of energy and trust (an important factor in social connection) in 360-degree performance feedback. A third embedded ideas about increasing energy in leadership development training.

Energy has a substantial and predictable effect on performance and innovation in organisations. So how do your HR practices and policies encourage the creation and application of energy? And are you using negative emotions or positive ones to get and keep people energised?

References

  1. M Tushman & CA O’Reilly III, ‘The Ambidextrous Organization: Managing Evolutionary and Revolutionary Change’, California Management Review, vol. 38, 1996, pp. 8–30
  2. H Busch & B Vogal, Fully charged: How great leaders boost their organisations energy and ignite high performance, Harvard Business Review Press, 2004
  3. Isaac Emery Ash, ‘What Makes a People Lethargic or Energetic?’, American Journal of Sociology, vol. 19(3), 1913, pp. 370-379
  4. Emily D Heaphy & Jane E Dutton, ‘Positive social interactions and the human body at work: linking organizations and physiology’, Academy of Management Review, vol. 33(1), 2008, pp. 137–162
  5. Heike Bruch & Sumantra Ghoshal, ‘Unleashing Organizational Energy’, Sloan Management Review, October 2003
  6. Andrew Parker & Rob Cross, The Hidden Power of Social Networks Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations, Harvard Business School Press, 2004
  7. Alex Pentland, Honest Signals: How They Shape our World, MIT Press, 2010
  8. Teresa Amabile, Steven Kramer & Sharon Williams, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, Harvard Business Review Press, 2011

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