I love diving deep into how/when & why work is getting done. Into the differences between environments of high velocity & insane productivity VS ones where the air seems to have a consistency of a gel, slowing everything down to crawl ...

There are several factors that have various levels of impact on productivity & effectiveness, but there's one particular I didn't write much about (until now). I call it "energy (level) of a work environment".

It's not a great discovery that:

  • there are work environments buzzing with a positive vibe, with people smiling, beaming with confidence, enthusiasm & highly contagious positive energy
  • but there are also ones that seem to "suck" energy out of people - where no-one dares to be pro-active, it's better to follow than to lead, everyone appears burdened with negativity & constraints with no apparent belief in any positive change

What may be less obvious or even surprising: the higher energy doesn't necessarily always mean "the better" - the energy contained in a system has also to be well balanced. While too little energy means apathy, stagnation & limited creativity, too much energy disturbs focus, causes chaos & makes people tired (not immediately, but inevitably).

Energy manipulation

It's the role of a leader to "manage the (energy) dynamics" within the environment: to pump the energy in when it's needed or to drain it out when the overload is imminent (but before the severe damage is done). There's million ways/techniques to do that, e.g.:

  • how you speak: volume, tempo, length (verbosity level), softness VS hardness, pauses & suspense
  • what you speak: seriousness/humour, swearing, levels of expressiveness & passion, picturesque analogies & parallels, striking/mild rhetoric
  • body language, posture, gestures, smiling, even the way you walk or whether you're sitting or standing while talking
  • coming up with something unexpected VS well-known/soothing rituals
  • intimate gestures VS keep-the-distance behaviour

A skilful leader will quickly recognise when his team(s) starts falling into the negative effects of the Parkinson's Law or simply procrastinate and apply some energy to create a healthy sense of urgency, avoid the stagnation & hence spark real "let's-do-it" attitude (again).

On the other hand, even the most capable & knowledgeable leader will fail if (s)he puts his fellows to sleep during every interaction ...  (yes, I know such people!)

Understanding the (energy) flow

But the role of a leader is not just to adjust the energy by her/himself, but primarily to understand the innate "energy characteristics" of other co-workers/stakeholders:

  1. there are people who (by nature) add the energy to the system - e.g. because they are warm, naturally enthusiastic or strongly passionate about the topic they work on
  2. but there are also "energy vampires" with an insatiable appetite for sucking the energy out of the system (consciously or not) - e.g. egocentric individuals screaming for attention, sarcastic ones who manifest their displeasure or change-averse people with a strongly analytical or melancholic temperament

Understanding these characteristics, how they mix & how the particular individual will affect a energy flow (& balance) in a given work environment is crucial. The energy-starved system will lose any productivity it had before, while the over-heated one can get out of control: torn by conflicts, diverged priorities or battle of egos (and in the end - total exhaustion).

Contrary to the examples provided above, it's not always top contributors or people with the most highly-valued skills who bring the most energy in - sometimes it's an enthusiastic junior developer or just a person who fits in for the social reasons. And the other way around - the biggest energy "consumers" don't have to be pathological sociopaths: e.g. imagine a top-notch engineer (the most experience & skilful inter pares) who unknowingly weakens the confidence of team-mates (hence diminishing their energy).

Understanding & manipulating the work environment dynamics ain't easy. And some aspect of it can't be learned (IMHO) - they have to come as a natural talent, otherwise all the attempts are obviously artificial and can't succeed. Some would just call it "charisma" - personally I think it's related, but still a somehow separate discipline/characteristic.

Nevertheless, trust my words of a former consultant - I've visited many workplaces & I strongly believe that far more of them were constrained more with paralysing energy deficit than an accumulated technical debt.