Creating Good Organizational Energy

By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner

A company that is optimistic, collaborative and up for any challenge doesn’t just happen. It takes leadership, vision, hard work and positive energy. The good news? Personal and organizational energy is a truly renewable resource—if you know how to foster it. Here are eight tips for successful energy management.

Though I’m interested in global warming and alternative energy sources, they’re definitely not my areas of expertise. I’m not about to expound on energy prices, carbon credits or solar panels. But I do want to talk about the energy (in varying degrees of positive, negative or neutral) that we all bring to any interaction that we have.

I became aware of the effects of personal energy when I heard leadership coach Anese Cavanaugh of Dare to Engage, St. Charles, Ill., speak about the importance of energy management. About two minutes after she started, the clarity and compelling nature of her point hit home. Like most leaders, we at Zingerman’s manage our own energy with great efficacy. This energy management has contributed to the success the organization has achieved over the years. The problem, I realize now, is that we’re often unaware of what we do and how well we do it. In order for our organization to grow and get better, it’s important for us to take these areas of “unconscious competence,” (as Maggie Bayless, a managing partner at ZingTrain calls it), and figure out how to get them organized into teachable, learnable, practical recipes that people can put to work every day in meaningful and measurable ways.

So, while I don’t have the answers to any of the world’s energy issues here, I can share with you my own approach to personal energy efficiency.

1. Good Energy vs. Unproductive Energy

Let me start by defining the difference between good energy and bad energy. Good energy is fun, inspiring, exhilarating and enjoyable. It quickly helps to get others into a good mood. Good energy is healthy, life giving and it contributes positively to pretty much everything from spiritual well being to measurable sales building.

Anyone who’s been to a great concert, theater presentation or sports event knows what it’s like to feel the buzz the minute you walk into the room. High-energy, good-vibe events are the ones people want to go to because they feel good and they’re fun. Well, the same is true of businesses too, both when we enter as customers and in the work experience as well. High-energy organizations are the ones most people like to go to. In the workplace, you know the energy is good when you go to a meeting and people are having fun and are engaged, even if dealing with difficult issues. People are upbeat even when they put their differing views out on the table. Good energy is when you come to work and people are smiling, they’re nice to each other and they engage with customers and co-workers in meaningful ways rather than just going through the motions.

Bad energy is frantic, frenetic and unproductive. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about: There’s a lot of racket, a lot of motion, a sense of near hysteria that, while intended to get people fired up, mostly just gets staff firing in all directions in a less than coordinated manner. It’s dissonant, distracting, discouraging. Fear takes the place of focus. Taking energy in that direction is probably worse than having flat, neutral or next to no energy at all. There’s lots of motion, lots of talking, lots of pressure, but the results are poor.

2. Leading with Good Energy

Think quickly of almost anyone who you like, or liked, working with. If they’re like the great leaders I’ve been around it is safe to say that they almost always radiate positive energy. Other people feed on it and the feeling in the entire group gets better almost instantly. They give credit liberally to others and to the organization around them, and take it for themselves only rarely. They may challenge others regularly but it’s done in a good spirit, one in which the best around them feel caringly pushed to rise to ever greater heights. They laugh a lot. They have a sense of solidity and being at peace with themselves.

Becoming consciously competent on this subject has made me realize that most of this stuff around personal energy management can be taught, learned and taken forward with ever greater ability by any fairly smart, self-reflective leader. Sure it comes naturally to some, but anyone who’s ready and willing to bring good energy to the ‘game’ can do it. They just need to have seen the effect of good energy and the behavior of those who exude it—and then commit themselves to making it a personal and organizational reality over time. And it all starts with your own personal energy output.

3. Building Good Energy

It is important to understand what things in life help raise your energy levels and what things deplete your energy. There are no absolutes about what helps each of us build the positive energy within ourselves but, generally, people who can keep themselves at high rates of positive energy engage in regular routines that somehow include positive and planned physical and emotional workouts. They regularly seek to learn and to connect with others in a way that works for them. Most are also pretty generous and nearly all are appreciative.

The key is knowing what it is that helps you to build, restore, maintain and sustain positive energy. And then to make sure that you do those things regularly. For me, it’s things like time alone, learning, reading, running, journaling, cooking and connecting one on one with people I like to be around.

4. Protecting Good Energy

Part of keeping my energy up is also managing when and how I will engage with the things that lower my energy. I try to tackle tasks I don’t want to do early in the day so I can get them over with. I’ve long since stopped reading financial statements and customer complaints late in the day—I can’t get them out of my mind and my energy when I go home is awful. If I have a meeting that I think is going to be stressful I try to schedule time to go running right afterwards.

It is a super-important challenge to limit time spent with energy-draining people. While we certainly need to be kind and to interact where needed, honestly I try to keep my time with these folks as short as possible, the better to keep my own energy level high. And, when I’m feeling a bit down, tired, stressed or distracted, and I know that I’m all the more vulnerable to absorbing their bad energy, I politely but pretty firmly avoid them with ever greater diligence.

When we have people like this in our organizations there’s just no way around the reality that they’re unwittingly but effectively leaving a negative mark on our culture. One way or another, respectfully and caringly, we need to help them to alter their energy to the positive end of the spectrum, or help them find another place to work. Basically, these people are like the gas-guzzlers of the organizational energy world. They take about ten times as much energy to go the same distance as our best, high-performance players. If you want to subsidize them in your organization, by all means go for it. Unwittingly, I’ve certainly erred into it here in the past. But seriously, these people are draining good energy out of everyone around them as fast as even the best, most positive leader can infuse it.

5. Monitoring and Mentoring Others’ Energy

Since I began thinking about energy, I’ve started to tune in to people’s energy levels in much the same way that I pay attention to the flavor of our food. Just as I can often say why an entrée item is falling flat or a cup of coffee is spectacular, I’m now much more able to see what is happening with an employee’s energy and be clear in my expectations around it.

Even a small improvement in energy “administration” by the manager of a 20-person team makes for a huge improvement of the group’s performance. Anyone who’s ready to do a bit of self reflection and then modify his or her behavior can make a big difference in a short time.

Towards that end I’ve started to contribute coaching comments on energy to everyone in the organization that seems to have particularly positive or, conversely, unproductive energy. In particular I’ve made a point of complimenting entry-level folks regularly when I feel like they’re putting good energy into play each day. The more front-line people we have who bring great energy every day, the better we’re going to do as an organization.

6. Projecting Your Energy

Ten seconds before you enter a room, start a dialog or make a phone call, pause and get your internal energy properly calibrated to make sure you are bringing to the room what you want to bring. It is a small, no-cost contribution to the success of the entire organization. I guarantee it ten times over that the energy I bring will influence that of others—the better mine is the better theirs is likely to be. The better theirs is, the more fun I have.

I have a checklist I go through to make sure my energy is where it should be. I ask myself: Am I being appreciative of the little things going on around me? Am I having fun? Am I smiling? Is my body language good? Am I breathing regularly and evenly? Am I making positive eye contact with others around me? Are my interactions with them meaningful? Am I listening well? Am I giving out heartfelt compliments? And if not, I try to make appropriate changes.

Also remember that just as you project good energy, you also project bad. Watch out for any negative talk, facial expressions or body language. When the leader is curling up in the corner, grimacing and groaning, the rest of the room will pick up on it and it’s obviously not a good thing. I mean, imagine the quarterback coming into the huddle looking hunched over and timid. What would that do to the confidence level around him? Seriously, if you don’t think that this matters, think again—looks alone can drop the energy level of a group by half in about half a minute. A couple of sighs and eye rolls from company leaders (or even coworkers) can deflate the most dedicated staff member. Pretty soon people spread the word—“stay away from the boss,” “don’t bother making suggestions,” “keep your opinions to yourself.” Even though no words to the effect have been spoken, people aren’t stupid. They simply shut up, take their good energy elsewhere and the organization suffers.

7. Managing Group Energy

Another element of effective energy leadership is the ability to read the energy of the group and then alter one’s own energy level to get the group to where it needs to go. You can see this at play in sports, or equally so in the classroom or in board meetings. If people are starting to get discouraged or fall flat, the leader needs to step up, raise the energy bar and bring more enthusiasm into the room. Quickly, the team starts to feel more optimistic, the energy of the group shifts up and success, while not guaranteed, gets a lot more likely.

Conversely though, there are occasions where the group is actually too high—they’re getting cocky, losing focus, getting a bit full of themselves. On the surface, their energy seems high but a closer look tells you it’s not grounded, not anchored in the realities of what’s going on. It’s often unproductive energy—there’s a lot of motion, but most of it isn’t meaningful. In sports this is the young team that’s high fiving and whooping it up all over the place, acting as if they’ve pulled off a big win just by getting off to a nice lead in the first quarter. Every good veteran coach knows that this is the time to slow the rookies down, to mellow out their instinctive response to celebrate way too soon. To do that he brings his own energy down a notch, gets the group to take a deep collective breath and be a bit more cognizant of the realities of their situation. The team’s slightly lower—but significantly more solid—energy is what’s needed to keep their “heads in the game” to get to the desired outcome effectively.

In either case, the super-effective leader is going to monitor the group’s energy, assess how that compares to the type of energy needed and then adjust her own energy level accordingly.

8. The Truly Renewable Resource

Perhaps the greatest thing about having my awareness raised so suddenly by Anese is the realization that with a bit of increased effectiveness as leaders, we can tap into a long-standing, totally natural and completely renewable energy source. The more good energy you and I put out, the more we manage it well in ourselves and others, the more it will attract customers, partners and staff who already put out good energy on their own. When the energy is better, sales go up, stress goes down, tensions decrease, fun goes up, everything just works better. And best of all? An improvement like this in energy management costs nothing!