Unleashing Organizational Energy

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For 50 years, management theory and practice have adopted a technical, analytical approach in which the role of the so-called soft factors like emotions and feelings has largely been denied. That trend is now being reversed, with both academics and managers recognizing the powerful role that emotions play in shaping corporate behavior. The real challenge, however, is to link emotions to performance goals and objectives. The leadership task is not just to make people happy in the hope that happy people will do the right things. The central leadership responsibility is to ensure that the company’s vision and strategy capture people’s emotional excitement, engage their intellectual capacities, and produce a sense of urgency for taking action. In essence, it is a task of unleashing organizational energy and marshaling it in support of key strategic goals. (See “About the Research.”)

About the Research »



1. See M. Tushman and C.A. O’Reilly III, “The Ambidextrous Organization: Managing Evolutionary and Revolutionary Change,” California Management Review 38 (summer 1996): 8–30.

2. See A. Pines and E. Aronson, “Career Burnout: Causes and Cures” (New York: Free Press, 1988).

3. For a description of the consequences of collective energy, see A. Etzioni, “The Active Society: A Theory of Societal and Political Processes” (New York: Free Press, 1975).

4. For both a review and an important contribution, see Q.N. Huy, “Emotional Balancing of Organizational Continuity and Radical Change: The Contribution of Middle Managers,” Administrative Science Quarterly 47 (2002): 31–69.

5. For a description of the causes and consequences of the low-energy state, see J.W. Dean Jr., P. Brandes and R. Dharwadkar, “Organizational Cynicism,” Academy of Management Review 23, no. 2 (1998): 341–352.

6. The term “comfort zone” was introduced by J.P. Kotter, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” Harvard Business Review 73 (1995): 59–67.

7. For a description of the links between organizational energy and company performance, see R. Cross, W. Baker and A. Parker, “What Creates Energy in Organizations?” MIT Sloan Management Review 44 (summer 2003): 51–56.

8. On the strains of change, see A. Pettigrew and R. Whipp, “Managing Change for Competitive Success” (Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell, 1991).

9. See T.H. Davenport and J.C. Beck, “Getting the Attention You Need,” Harvard Business Review 78 (2000): 118–126.

10. Q.N. Huy and H. Mintzberg, “The Rhythm of Change,” MIT Sloan Management Review 44 (summer 2003): 79–84.

11. For a rich description and analysis of the pathology experienced by companies trapped in the comfort zone, see D.H. Sull, “Why Good Companies Go Bad,” Harvard Business Review 76 (1999): 42–52.

12. Negative emotional spirals can be attributed to reasons such as emotional contagion, feeling affect vicariously and behavioral entrainment; see J.R. Kelly and S.G. Barsade, “Moods and Emotions in Small Groups and Work Teams,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 86, no. 1 (2001): 99–130. The dynamic of collective emotion derives from imitating and exaggerating the emotions of others; see B. Parkinson, “Emotions Are Social,” British Journal of Psychology 87 (November 1996): 663–684. For a review, see D.C. Hambrick and R.A. D’Aveni, “Large Corporate Failures as Downward Spirals,” Administrative Science Quarterly 33, no. 1 (1988): 1–22.

13. The distinction between these two strategies for unleashing organizational energy mirrors the distinction between theories E and O of change. See M. Beer and N. Nohria, eds., “Breaking the Code of Change” (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000). Consider also the distinction between top-down, programmatic change and emergent change: M. Beer, R.A. Eisenstat and B.A. Spector, “The Critical Path to Corporate Renewal” (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1990).

14. In his article “Effective Change Begins at the Top” in Beer and Nohria’s “Breaking the Code of Change,” J. Conger uses the metaphor of the CEO as a general, which mirrors the role of leaders in executing the slaying-the-dragon strategy.

15. A key challenge for top management is that a profound trauma must take place in the company before it becomes aware of the threat and is willing to change. This idea goes back to the process model of unfreezing-refreezing introduced in K. Lewin, “Frontiers in Group Dynamics,” Human Relations 1 (1947): 5–41. For a more recent description of this approach, see M. Tushman and C.A. O’Reilly III, “The Ambidextrous Organization: Managing Evolutionary and Revolutionary Change,” California Management Review 38, no. 4 (1996): 8–30.

16. See A. Wrzesniewski and J.E. Dutton, “Crafting a Job: Revisioning Employees as Active Crafters of Their Work,” Academy of Management Review 26, no. 2 (2001): 179–201.

17. VAIO stands for “Video Audio Integrated Operations” to represent the challenge of integrating all of Sony’s different product and service offerings. It also symbolizes the need for combining analog (the wave of VA) and digital (IO) technologies.

18. In Beer and Nohria’s “Breaking the Code of Change,” this model of leadership is recommended by both W. Bennis in the chapter titled “Leadership of Change” and by K. Weick in his chapter, “Emergent Change as a Universal in Organizations.”

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