What Creates Energy in Organizations?

Spend some time in most any organization and you are sure to hear people talk about the level of energy associated with different people or projects. In some instances, an initiative may be characterized in terms of the energy “around” it. In others, a team in which ideas flow freely and its members build effortlessly on one another’s work will be described as “high energy.” In still others, a particularly influential person may be known as an “energizer” — someone who can spark progress on projects or within groups.

On the flip side are the people who have an uncanny ability to drain the life out of a group. These energy-sappers are avoided whenever possible, even when they have expertise to contribute to solving a problem. When a meeting with a “de-energizer” is unavoidable, people often waste time dreading it and mentally rehearse how they will cope. They usually find the interaction unproductive and disheartening and afterward may seek out colleagues in order to vent their frustration. Thus de-energizers not only drain the people they meet but often affect the productivity of people they might not even know.

Image courtesy of Flickr user jah~.

Most people are quick to acknowledge that they have both energizers and de-energizers in their lives. Equally quickly, they relate energy to important managerial concerns such as team performance, innovation, employee motivation and job satisfaction. Yet while the term energy is pervasive in much of organizational life, it is also a highly elusive concept in that context.1 Usually when people describe energizing conversations, they refer to ones in which they are mentally engaged, enthused and willing to commit effort to possibilities arising from the discussion. But is energy truly related to performance or learning in organizations? And how is it created and transferred in groups?

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References

1. Energy is defined as “a type of positive affective arousal, which people can experience as emotion — short responses to specific events — or mood — longer-lasting affective states that need not be a response to a specific event.” See R. Quinn and J. Dutton, “Coordination as Energy-in-Conversation: A Process Theory of Organizing,” Academy of Management Review, in press. Related concepts in psychology and sociology include “energetic arousal” in R.E. Thayer, “The Biopsychology of Mood and Arousal” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) and “emotional energy” in R. Collins, “Emotional Energy as the Common Denominator of Rational Action,” Rationality and Society 5 (April 1993): 203–230.

2. The first group consisted of 125 consultants and managers in one office of a global strategy-consulting firm; the second was a group of 86 statisticians in a major credit-card organization; the third was a group of 101 engineers within a large petrochemical organization.

3. In all three organizations, the rating was a composite figure based on an aggregation of project evaluations and objective data from the previous year. The figures were not entirely consistent — each organization was concerned with different dimensions of performance in the annual evaluation process — but they were consistent as general appraisals of a person’s performance. The evaluations were also separate from the person’s perception of his or her own performance.

4. For example, see W.E. Baker, “Achieving Success Through Social Capital: Tapping the Hidden Resources in Your Personal and Business Networks” (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000); R. Burt, “Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992); M.T. Hansen, “The Search-Transfer Problem: The Role of Weak Ties in Sharing Knowledge Across Organization Subunits,” Administrative Science Quarterly 44 (March 1999): 82–111; and R. Sparrowe, R.C. Liden, S.J. Wayne and M.L. Kraimer, “Social Networks and the Performance of Individuals and Groups,” Academy of Management Journal 44 (April 2001): 316–325.

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Tom Bateman, Steve Borgatti, Jane Dutton, Amy Halliday, Ryan Quinn, Gretchen Spreitzer and Ellen Whitener for helpful comments on this work. We would also like to acknowledge support from the Batten Institute at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration.