Tools For Leaders

Understanding how to improve

How Much Productive Energy is in Your Enterprise?

Recent work with clients has included a powerful exploration of the level of productive energy in their organizations. The topic was first explored in a ground-breaking research project outlined in the fascinating book Fully Charged by Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel. Their multi-year study examined hundreds of organizations and thousands of employees to examine differences in productivity and internal energy relative to performance outcomes.

Consequently, over the past several months I’ve been working with a number of clients to assess the nature of energy within their organization and design strategies to optimize it. I’ll share a “skim-the-treetops” version here so you can begin to think about the level of productive energy in your company.

Bruch and Vogel’s definition of organizational energy is compelling:

“Organizational energy is the extent to which an organization activates its emotional, cognitive, and behavioral potential to pursue its goals.”

The vital word in that definition, I believe, is the word activates, in all three of the energy dimensions. Energy is of course present in every organization – the questions are relative to the nature of that energy and the leaders’ ability to activate it.

The first step in the process is of course an assessment step, and we’ve been using a streamlined yet highly effective version of Bruch & Vogel’s comprehensive survey. The big challenge in that process is clarifying one’s mental framework in responding to the survey, insofar as that framework will dramatically affect the outcome. Wherever possible, we like to get input from employees within a business unit as well as the leaders’ perspective about that business unit and then compare the two viewpoints. The assessments develop a graphic representation of the four dimensions of organizational energy on a matrix.

An additional challenge for leaders, of course, revolves around the accuracy of one’s perception about a particular department or group of employees within the business. As uncomfortable as it is to read, Tom Peters has astutely noted:

“The further a leader is from the front lines of work and workers, the more he or she tends to think everything is OK.”

For this reason, a comparison between the leaders’ perspectives and the employees’ perspectives is crucial to having a useful conversation and then developing an appropriate  strategy .

Bruch and Vogel’s work demonstrates that energy in a given organization flows along two axises and to the degree that it can be visually represented, it can be better understood and better managed.

One axis represents the Intensity of energy – high or low. The second axis represents the quality of energy – also high or low, and a matrix is created. The survey assessment results can then be graphically plotted within the matrix to create a clear picture of how the organization functions relative to the intensity and quality of its energy. The four dimensions of organizational energy measured are:

  • Productive Energy (High Intensity and High Quality)
  • Comfortable Energy (Low Intensity but High Quality)
  • Resigned Inertia (Low Intensity and Low Quality)
  • Corrosive Energy (High intensity but Low Quality)

It’s important to note that the energy states are independent of each other and present in all organizations simultaneously. The operative question is simply: “To what degree does our organization function in each of the four energy states?”

Let’s bring some greater definition to each of the four states, as defined by Bruch & Vogel.

  • Productive Energy is defined as: "High attention, high performance, full emotional engagement and mental alertness, positive excitement, high activity levels, speed, stamina, productivity, pride, inspiration, action."
  • Comfortable Energy is defined as: "High shared satisfaction and group identification coupled with more relaxed activity levels, calmness, easy tempo, reduced mental alertness, organizational comfort, following patterns and routines."
  • Resigned Inertia is defined as: "Low activity levels, high frustration levels, mental and emotional withdrawal, cynicism, depression, discouragement, burnout, poor communication, low collective engagement, little motivation."
  • Corrosive Energy is defined as: "Collective negativity, rumors, cynicism, tension, conflicts, destructive behaviors, internal politics, resistance to change, self-focused behavior, little teamwork, lack of focus."

The presence of each of these energy states can be measured and graphically represented on the matrix. remember that all organizations operate in all four states of energy, to a greater or lesser extent.

While we would all like to operate exclusively in the arena of Productive Energy, Bruch & Vogel’s research indicate that it’s not realistic nor sustainable without a nearly equal level of Comfortable Energy. Otherwise, organizational fatigue and stress are created which will eventually devolve into Resigned Inertia (or even Corrosive Energy).

The three key drivers of Resigned Inertia are:

  • Change that seems endless (and/or repeated change in management).
  • Lack of positive perspective.
  • The over-acceleration trap.

And that Over-Acceleration Trap is defined as: “The dangerous occurrence of organizations which become too energetic, take on too much, increase the number and speed of activities, shorten innovation cycles, raise performance goals, and continually introduce new systems.” It’s characterized by “over-loading, multi-loading, and/or perpetual loading” – that is, in some form or fashion, the organization taking on more than it has the capacity to execute effectively. Symptoms are:

  • Fatigue and exhaustion
  • Increased turnover
  • Increase in time and speed pressures
  • Changing priorities
  • Employees have  difficulty prioritizing tasks
  • Work/Life balance issues

Conversely, if too much Comfortable Energy is present at the expense of Productive Energy, the organization’s performance will be adversely affected – an all-too-common occurrence.

And interestingly, their work reveals that a certain amount of Corrosive Energy is in all likelihood unavoidable in the presence of Productive Energy – as the ancient philosophers observed, “Where the ox grinds the wheat, there will always be some poop on the ground.” (A slightly edited for public version.) The key is in the proportion of each. If either Resigned Inertia or Corrosive Energy exceed 20 or 25%, the organization will be unable to perform at optimum levels. If Comfortable Energy exceeds productive Energy, everyone will enjoy working together, but the organization will under-perform. If Productive Energy isn’t balanced by Comfortable Energy, the organization creates the seeds of self-destruction.

Bruch and Vogel identify the benchmark numbers for optimum performance, which you can then use to calibrate your own organizational development work and leadership.

This is just a brief overview of a great book – again, it’s Fully ChargedI by Bruch & Vogel. Let me know what you think and then together we can explore the level of Productive Energy in your organization and how it might be elevated.