Energy in the Workplace

How Energy Can Serve as a Resource to Enhance Engagement and Performance

The Law of Conservation of Energy states that energy cannot be created nor destroyed.  It can only be transferred from one form to the next or between objects.  We know this in the context of thermal or motion energy, but what about the energy we recognize as existing between two people?  This would suggest that individuals acquire energy and frequently exchange that energy between one another.  Owens, Baker, Sumpter, and Cameron (2016) refer to this as relational energy and argue that this form of energy comes from the interactions we have with those around us.  In the real world, this can exist in a multitude of contexts. Sport commentators may describe the energy of a crowd or a team that fueled them to victory.  A friend may describe the lack of energy they felt in respect to their first date.  In the organizational context, relational energy exists between coworkers and often serves as a mechanism that influences behavior, especially as it relates to doing work.  Owens and colleagues (2016) describe it as a resource for employees that motivates them towards performance.  

This form of energy is familiar to us. We can call to mind experiences in which we came away from a meeting feeling enthusiastic and inspired.  Or, on the contrary, perhaps we walked away feeling drained and averse to the work that was needed to be done.  In this light, when relational energy is abundant, employees are driven and have purpose.  When it is lacking, or potentially de-energizing, employees lack commitment to projects.  

For years, energy has been an elusive concept that has been difficult to pin down.  It is easy to conflate energy with other work experiences such as social support or positive leadership, but research has shown that relational energy is distinct from these other concepts and adds a unique contribution to the workplace and the employee experience (Owens et. al, 2016).  As previously mentioned, energy in organizations can be a resource for employees and offer a buffer to increased job demands and stress.  Other workplace resources include but are not limited to: compensation, necessary supplies, emotional support, and training.  All of these, in addition to energy, provide employees with what is needed to complete the work that is asked of them while also attempting to maintain employee satisfaction, engagement, and performance.

Considering this, it is no surprise that employees seek out relationships that provide this energy.  Individuals that are recognized by their coworkers as being energizing tend to be sought after in order to replenish energy that has been depleted (Hobfoll & Shirom, 2001).  This is in line with the conservation of resources theory, which is very similar to the law of conservation in that individuals garner and protect resources for their own use.  In relationships, these resources if garnered uni-directionally versus reciprocally, are also similar to the law of conservation.   

This exchange most often takes place between a leader and one of their followers (Owens et. al, 2016).  This is not because of a particular role of the leader, but on the contrary it is due to the likelihood of energizers being in leadership positions.  Although this is the case, relational energy is also distinct from what is know as Leader-Member Exchange, or the trust and understanding that exists between a leader and their follower.  Leaders are more likely to be energizers and therefore are expected to provide energy as a resource to subordinates.  Such leaders are seen as having positive affect, being cognitively stimulating, and modeling desired behavior.  From this, the recipients of the energy feel motivated, have increased stamina, and are more active with respect to work tasks.  Often, they can feel more efficacious and driven to perform well (Owens et al, 2016).  This is clearly beneficial for employees as it serves as another resource to utilize in response to job demands, but it is also beneficial for the energizer as those individuals have been found to also have high job performance (Baker, Cross, & Wooten, 2003).

Alternatively, people in organizations can be energy-sappers who seem to remove energy from work situations and relationships (Cross, Baker, & Parker, 2003).  Such people are avoided and therefore their talents can often go under-utilized within the organization, even in situations where they are considered to be the most knowledgeable.  

Effectively tapping into and capitalizing on energy in the workplace can have significant effects on positive organizational outcomes.  Without sufficient energy, employees can experience burnout, stress, and disengagement (Owens et. al, 2016). This ultimately results in turnover, which can be exceptionally costly for organizations.  On the flip-side, high energy leads to increased job performance due to the increases in engagement often seen.  Additionally, knowledge is shared more effectively in groups with high relational energy.  Such groups also experience greater loyalty, effort, and overall performance (Owens et. al, 2016).  As a resource, energy helps to buffer against negative outcomes that can be costly for organizations through improved coping and increased general well-being (Owens et. al, 2016).   

Applying the Concept Within Your Organization

In organizations, energizers should be identified through the organization and considered for roles that will capitalize on their energizing capabilities.  Identification of these energizers can be achieved through one’s own observation as an organizational leader, through a survey, or through a network analysis.  A network analysis on the energy network of the organization can be easily done by asking each employee to rate the other employees in regards to their level of energy.  Those rated highest in energy are likely to be the centers of that network, or if not, should be moved to a location or position that allows them to assume this role.  As mentioned, energizers tend to be leaders, so it appears that it is a core quality that contributes to the recognition of effective leadership.  

Hiring practices can also be altered in order to select for and hire energizers, or at the very least avoid hiring energy-sappers.  Cross, Baker, and Parker (2003) provide eight discussion questions that may illuminate one’s tendencies towards energy exchange and could guide your hiring decisions.  These include questions related to efforts towards relationship development, trust, integrity, conflict resolution, and engagement.  Lastly, these practices should be used in conjunction with employee wellness programs that may or may not already exist in the organization.  Such programs are another source of resources for employees that can be used to combat stress and burnout.  

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that energizers are not merely bottomless wells that can be endlessly tapped for the benefit of an organization and its members.  Although research is still limited, it is easy to imagine that the energy such people are able to share is also limited in nature.  They transfer that energy to others after receiving it themselves and therefore only can energize individuals for as long as their own resource needs are being met.

References

Baker, W., Cross, R., & Wooten, M. (2003). Positive organizational network analysis and energizing relationships. In K. S. Cameron, J. E. Dutton, & R. E. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline (pp. 328–342). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Cross, R., Baker, W., & Parker, A. (2003). What creates energy in organizations? MIT Sloan
Management Review
44, 51-57.

Hobfoll, S. E., & Shirom, A. (2001). Conservation of resources theory: Applications to stress and management in the workplace. In R. T. Golembiewski (Ed.), Handbook of organizational behavior (pp. 57–80). New York, NY: Marcel Dekker.

Owens, B. P., Baker, W. E., Sumpter, D. M., & Cameron, K. S. (2016). Relational energy at
work: Implications for job engagement and job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology101, 35.