OCI #14: Human Energy is the Currency of Change
Managing your most important asset while leading change.
A Finite Supply
When we initiate organizational change, we are asking people to move from one way of thinking and behaving to another. This process of transition calls on people to expend energy. I think of this energy as falling into four general categories:1
Some changes include physical demands—exerting ourselves, enduring physical discomfort, doing things that disrupt sleep and health routines, and any other activity that affects our bodies in some way.
Some changes include mental demands—learning new things, solving problems, analyzing information, concentrating deeply, and anything else that calls on our cognitive capabilities.
Some changes include emotional demands—working with difficult feelings (our own and others) such as fear, anger, sadness, or grief; managing tough interpersonal situations; expending emotional labor, and anything else that affects our feelings.
Some changes include spiritual demands—testing our sense of meaning and purpose, asking us to make moral or ethical choices, questioning or challenging our values, and anything else relating to our connection to our deepest selves.
These are not four separate sources of energy, but are interconnected and draw from a common core. For example, being physically exhausted can affect mental clarity. Emotional strain can affect our sense of connection and meaning.
Energy can be built and replenished2. We renew ourselves continually, making room for new challenges. However, energy can also be depleted by multiple, overlapping sources of demand. When we encounter more demands than we have energy for, we automatically begin to prioritize our efforts based on what we see as most important. If a constant stream of demands depletes our energy, we can begin to experience symptoms of stress and reduced well-being, and our ability to be productive and deliver results is compromised.
Implications for Change
The central role of energy has important implications for the success of change initiatives. If people don’t apply the energy required to participate in change-related activities and to shift their mindsets and behaviors—either because they are low on energy in general, or because the change initiative has a lower priority for them than other sources of demand—you will not get the results you expect. In particular, overloaded people are much less likely to invest discretionary effort—those actions that go above and beyond minimum requirements to add life and energy to a project.
We can’t control all the sources of demand people face, and we can’t fully control what they view as their highest priorities. So what can we do? Here are a few strategies for addressing situations where energy is low and demands are high:
1. Understand and manage the energy demands you are creating with your change initiative(s).
—Are you creating additional physical demands with long hours and activities that reduce opportunities for sleep, exercise, and healthy nutrition?
—To what extent will people need to master new knowledge and processes and solve challenging problems?
—Will people need to stay motivated in the face of feelings such as sadness, anger, fear, and confusion, and/or deal with others who are experiencing difficult emotions?
—Will they encounter ethical challenges or experience threats to meaningful aspects of their work?
See if there are ways to reduce any of these demands without compromising results.
2. Create opportunities to restore and replenish energy. Periodically plan activities that allow people to rest, move, engage in self-care, take a mental time-out, experience uplifting emotions, and/or reconnect with a sense of meaning and purpose. Pay attention to the ebbs and flows of energy and recognize when it’s time to pause. Look for opportunities to inject microboosts into the system.
3. Agree on a single set of organizational priorities and initiatives that is clearly communicated.
When people are experiencing competing demands on their energy, or when the message is “you just have to figure out how to get it all done,” the likelihood is that your change initiative will not receive the energy it needs. If you are working in a context where decision-makers recognize that human energy is finite and are willing to make tough choices about what not to do, you’re much more likely to be successful.
4. Increase the level of support and resources people are receiving from the surrounding environment. High levels of trust, effective leaders, a healthy workplace climate, collaborative co-workers, and meaningful work all help boost available energy. These things call for an investment of time and energy to build and enhance effective practices—but they increase human energy sustainability and organizational performance in the long run.
You’ll see more on this topic in future posts based on some recent work I’ve been doing in organizations. I’d love to hear your stories and strategies for managing human energy in organizations.
This framework and my thinking draws on a number of sources; one of my primary influences has been Loehr & Schwartz’s The Power of Full Engagement.