Boost Talent Energy
by Heike Bruch and Bernd Vogel | Talent Management
Individuals experience the ebb and flow of different states of energy in an organization. This energy can be the fuel to make a company work, as it is a cornerstone to people’s effectiveness. Further, organizational energy is measurable and manageable.
To actively influence their organization’s energy, leaders need to understand or assess it. Second, they should boost and sustain the energy in their organization, unit or team so people are fully charged to execute business goals. To master this challenge, talent managers should provide process support for leaders.
What Is Organizational Energy?
A company’s energy reflects the extent to which an organization, division or team has mobilized its emotional, cognitive and behavioral potential to pursue shared goals. To tap into the full scope and possibilities, talent leaders need to understand three crucial attributes of organizational energy:
1. Organizational energy is collective.
It comprises a company’s activated human potential. It considers the dynamics and interactions amongst people.
2. There are three components.
Organizational energy comprises the activated emotional, cognitive and behavioral potential exemplified by shared enthusiasm, cognitive alertness in the company or collective effort in shared initiatives, or the lack thereof.
3. Energy is malleable.
Organizational energy reflects the current state of energy activation in a company, and it’s fluid, not stable. This means it ebbs and flows more readily than the organization’s culture, and leaders actively can alter it.
Companies experience different types of organizational energy along two dimensions: Intensity, which reflects the degree to which a company has activated its potential, and quality, which describes to what extent human forces are or are not aligned with shared company goals.
Combining these two dimensions results in four different energy states, and companies typically experience, to varying extents, all four simultaneously. They are:
1. Productivity energy:
Characterized by high emotional involvement, mental alertness, high activity levels, speed and stamina.
2. Comfortable energy:
Characterized by high shared satisfaction and identification coupled with low activity levels, reduced mental alertness and organizational complacency.
3. Resigned inertia:
Characterized by high levels of frustration, mental withdrawal and cynicism and low collective engagement.
4. Corrosive energy:
Characterized by collective aggression and destructive behavior. For example, it may manifest in internal politics, resistance to change or focused efforts to maximize individual benefits.
How to Assess and Manipulate Organizational Energy
A talent leader’s gut feeling about a company’s energy state could be accurate, but there are ways to measure it. Talent leaders can help teams analyze their profiles across the four energy states, and choose leadership strategies and instruments to improve or maintain the organization’s energy.
One tool is the organizational energy questionnaire (OEQ), a standardized survey instrument to measure and analyze companies’ energy profiles for business units, departments and teams. It is advisable to assess major energy drivers such as leadership quality simultaneously.
Talent managers can work with the OEQ in three ways. It can be a periodic employee survey, an organizational energy pulse-check - to monitor change processes - and an instant energy check in workshops with management teams. In 2005, Alstom Power Service made the OEQ part of its global employee opinion survey to detect company energy overall and in various business units and departments engaged in global and local leadership activities. Alstom nominated identity champions to facilitate workshops in divisions, business units and country organizations to work with survey results. Every unit derived managerial issues from its energy state and defined action plans around engagement and alignment. These kinds of activities allow talent leaders and line managers to identify and nurture leadership talent based on data and tackle issues based on energy profiles.
In organizations that face the complacency trap, languishing in a state of comfortable energy, or are experiencing resigned inertia, talent managers need to help leaders activate human forces. To charge the company, they can support the leadership capability to perceive either a major threat - the Slaying the Dragon strategy - or a promising opportunity - the Winning the Princess strategy.
Slaying the Dragon focuses the company’s shared emotion, mental agility and effort on overcoming an existential external threat, ultimately generating productive energy. The strategy includes three tasks and underlying leadership instruments:
Task 1: Identifying, interpreting and defining a threat.
Task 2: Mobilizing communication to create awareness of a common problem.
Task 3: Strengthening collective confidence that the company can deal with the threat.
The Winning the Princess strategy is based on the observation that productive energy can be particularly high if companies are pursuing a special opportunity. An innovation, a developing market or a new organizational vision can release a desire for action and the positive forces in a company. The strategy works with three steps and underlying leadership tools:
Task 1: Identifying, interpreting and defining an opportunity.
Task 2: Passionately communicating the opportunity.
Task 3: Strengthening people’s confidence to achieve the opportunity.
For example, Tata Steel focused on its employees in three ways during a restatement of the company’s vision. First, it engaged employees in creation of the vision. Then it launched a comprehensive communications campaign. Finally, the company followed up with a full-blown initiative to increase employees’ commitment to the vision. As a first step, Tata Steel’s 40 top executives developed basic ideas during a two-day discussion. But CEO B. Muthuraman encouraged the entire workforce to participate. Via the corporate intranet, employees could comment on the first ideas for the vision, express their opinions, or submit their own ideas, and more than 8,000 did so. After collecting all ideas, an internal group worked with external specialists to define two main goals.
Once the vision was defined, the next step was to realize the vision and communicate it throughout the company. The Vision 2007 project was launched in May 2002, and various communication channels from posters to mouse pads were used to spread the vision among employees. Further, the vision was a key topic of regular large-group meetings like the Senior Dialogue, which involved 500 senior executives. Muthuraman also used the company newsletter to internalize the concept.
The motto Lakshya 2007: Ek Chunauti (Vision 2007: One Challenge) was created. More than 1,500 workshops in small groups of 20 to 25 people were held to help employees identify individual and team goals. Employees also were asked to write down what they were doing during their work day in diaries so people could start to connect the vision to their daily work.
How to Overcome the Corrosion Trap
In companies experiencing the corrosion trap, people’s energy is invested largely in negative forces such as anger, fury and destructive in-fighting. Corrosive energy is infectious; it quickly eats away at human potential and has significant consequences for talent management.
Individuals cannot thrive working in a corrosive environment or for corrosive management teams. When destructive energy starts at the top, there is a lack of positive role models to emulate. In organizations with high levels of corrosion succession, career decisions are not based on individual capabilities but on politics or power interest. This causes risk. Either individuals will not perform to their greatest potential, or they will leave the company.
Executives may neglect or consciously deny negative forces. They deliberately distance themselves from negative events that affect lower-level employees - often because they are one of the reasons behind destructive energy - and may not be able to fix the problem. When organizations master this first hurdle they can engage a set of clear, effective leadership tasks to fix the problem:
1. Task 1: Detect corrosive forces.
Organizations need to accept corrosion, deal with it head-on, and assess negative energy early. Companies can use the OEQ to identify corrosive energy and determine whether negative energy has been addressed or sugarcoated within the workplace. Talent leaders should facilitate discussions in the management team around questions such as: Are managers and employees working toward the company goals or maximizing their own benefits? Is silo thinking prevalent in many of the organization’s units? Are conflicts a dominant feature of work in top management?
2. Task 2: Clean up corrosive energy.
Destructive energy cannot be transferred directly into productive energy. Talent leaders have to help managers engage in a phasing down step by facilitating release valves to let off steam. These may include hotlines or workshop forums where tensions can surface in a structured way.
3. Task 3: Re-charge the organization with a strong identity.
Only when corrosion calms down can executives think about charging up and re-igniting the organization by developing a strong identity and purpose. To instill pride and perspective talent leaders can facilitate discussions with management teams to answer questions such as: Are managers and employees aware of company strengths and competencies? Are employees proud of the company? Is there a shared understanding of a focused, ambitious strategy and company vision?
How to Escape the Acceleration Trap
In highly energetic companies, leaders often start too many activities simultaneously, devoting too little time to individual activities and overwhelming employees by pushing them past their limits. Similarly, talent leaders often inherit implementation of these initiatives and add more of their own. What begins as a positive aspiration to attain a goal can end in an uncontrolled flood of activities. The result is often burnout, resignation or fatigue for an entire company, or worse, acceleration becomes a facet of the organizational culture.
Talent managers can crack patterns of acceleration where executives do not have the stamina or sensitivity to do so. For instance, they can orchestrate the rhythm between high-energy and regeneration phases. Within the standard business cycle an organization needs to define episodes with a clear beginning and endpoint, deliberately alternating between high- and lower-energy periods. People are more willing to be stretched to their limits if they know a phase of lower pace and less pressure awaits them at the end. Talent leaders also can initiate stop-the-action initiatives or spring cleaning, regularly analyzing what is and is not of central strategic importance to enable the organization to stop doing certain things.
Talent management organizations need to develop “the philosophy of the No. 1.” Talent leaders need to regularly and openly ask: Are the talent managers individually and as a department a role model for a love of peak performance? That can propel their energy and standing in business units.
Second, talent managers must have the courage to stand up to senior executives. Despite executives’ love of the limelight, talent leaders must convince them to step back and help their people and the talent they have identified to lead and create organizational success.
Rising Beyond Energy Traps
Sustaining energy is the final challenge in dealing with an organization’s collective forces. Some questions that companies, their leaders and talent managers regularly face include: How can organizations destined to get to the top of their industries stay there, remain agile and keep growing? How can companies prevent falling back into comfortable energy, resigned inertia or corrosive energy? Sustaining energy refers to leadership and talent activities that help organizations sustain high levels of activity, alertness and emotional involvement.
The solution may call for a drastic change of the executive role. Talent leaders can coach senior leaders how to make this shift in mindset. Executives need to accept that the top team or an individual executive cannot be the only source of energy, innovation or growth. Sustaining energy asks for a network of batteries throughout to charge the organization. That means many if not all managers and employees have to be sources of high-productive energy.
How do successful executives create an organization full of batteries with a proactive sense of urgency? Talent leaders support their efforts to develop and align three components of a vitalizing management system - strategy processes, leadership and culture.
Talent leaders can help systematically identify weak signals in the market by involving numerous employees in the strategy process. For example, companies such as Liechtenstein-based Hilti, a construction manufacturer, with its competition radar process, ask the sales force to systematically report back from customers about competitor and product information, integrating weak or hard signals with other intelligence into the strategy process.
Talent leaders help to establish strong leadership capability among managers at all levels for an energizing leadership climate. ABB’s leadership challenge program addresses everyone in the company, working on each employee’s leadership behavior and talent. By 2010 more than 40,000 people has taken part.
To create a vitalizing culture, talent leaders have to identify specific vitalizing values relevant for the organization’s context and purpose, and become the guardians of culture development.
A vitalizing management system encourages all managers and employees to be sources of productive energy and establishes a sense of urgency in the entire organization, which is key for a company to sustain energy for long-term high performance.
[About the Authors: Heike Bruch is professor of leadership at the Institute for Leadership and Human Resource Management at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, and the founder and research director of the Organizational Energy Program. Bernd Vogel is associate professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the Henley Business School, University of Reading, U.K.]
Boost Talent Energy