Photo: Flickr, Stephen Heywood.
Dr Bernd Vogel and Professor Heike Bruch discuss the devastating effects of negative energy in an organisation and how leadership can turn it around and recharge the company batteries.
Organisations, departments and teams go through phases of real buzz. People, excited about the challenges at hand, get things done collectively way beyond expectation. This is productive energy. Likewise while, as managers or employees, we would not admit it wholeheartedly, we are aware they also experience anger, infighting, destructive conflict and a wealth of activities that focus on harming others inside the organisation. We call this corrosive energy. The leadership challenge is: how can organisations refocus this corrosive energy?
What is organisational energy?
Organisational energy captures the intangible but very powerful, so-called soft factors of human potential that lie at the core of company performance. Organisational energy is the extent an organisation has mobilised its emotional, cognitive and behavioural potential to pursue its goals. It comprises the organisations’ activated emotional, cognitive and behavioural potential (eg, shared enthusiasms, cognitive alertness or collective effort in shared initiatives). It considers the dynamics and interactions among people, their contagion processes and synergies – positive and negative. Energy is malleable; it can change quickly due to the actions of executives or alterations in environment.
Organisational energy appears in four energy states
At the heart of our work lies the energy matrix, a framework based on two dimensions: energy’s intensity and quality. Intensity reflects the degree a company has activated its emotional, cognitive and behavioural potential (high or low). The quality of organisational energy describes the extent the human forces are constructively aligned with the shared overall company goals – or not (positive and negative energy). Combining the two dimensions results in four different energy states: productive energy, comfortable energy, resigned inertia and corrosive energy (see Figure 1). Companies typically experience all four different energy states simultaneously.
- Productive energy (high positive energy): High emotional involvement and mental alertness along with high activity levels, speed, stamina and productivity.
- Comfortable energy (low positive energy): High shared satisfaction and identification coupled with low activity levels and inertia.
- Resigned inertia (low negative energy): High levels of frustration, mental withdrawal, cynicism and low collective engagement.
- Corrosive energy (high negative energy): Corrosive energy captures the collective aggression and destructive behaviour, high levels of anger and fury, for example, towards a comprehensive change project; destructive conflicts and micropolitics; high alertness and creativity to harm others inside the organisation in favour of maximising own interest. Corrosive energy can emerge throughout your organisation – including the top. When you read deeply conflicting statements of board members in the financial press, this is an indicator that a boardroom has become corrosive. This will quickly infect the senior managers and their collaboration across business units and ultimately hit performance.
The challenge of rebuilding corrosion into positive energy
The leadership challenge at hand is to refocus corrosive energy before it escalates further. What starts as relatively small negative events can quickly spread like a disease and become a negative downward spiral which may rapidly impair corporate values, culture and mutual support, causing long-term damage.
However, executives often neglect or consciously deny the corrosion around them, distancing themselves from negative events that affect lower-level employees. Vice versa, executives at times create an atmosphere that makes people actively filter or polish ‘bad news’ before it reaches top management. Some executives also neglect the destructive dynamics because they could be one of the reasons for the destructive energy. They fear acknowledging negative forces in the company will shed negative light on their standing and competence.
How organisations can overcome destructive and toxic energy
Refocusing corrosive energy includes a sequence of distinct leadership tasks: detecting corrosive forces; cleaning up corrosive energy; recharging the organisation with a strong identity.
Detecting corrosive forces. Managers have to accept there is some level of destructive forces in the company and have to look for aggression, constant conflicts and fighting, or early warning signs thereof. For instance, in 2001 Lufthansa experienced a pilot strike and were surprised at the level of aggression in the organisation. Management had not fully realised pilots had, for quite a while, felt they were unfairly treated; this had never really surfaced to the executives.
Face conflict head-on. Corrosion quickly destroys trust or mutual support. Thus, leadership has to act swiftly upon low levels of aggression, infighting or misalignment.
Assess and measure negative energy in its earliest stages. One way of surfacing the negative forces is an assessment of your organisation’s energy. This precisely locates the negative forces in specific departments or business units, and provides a report of the energy experiences of all managers and employees involved. This measurement can be based on the Organisational Energy Questionnaire (OEQ). The OEQ includes a specific battery of items for each of the four energy states. The result is a profile that allows you to communicate with employees about the energy in your unit – including the corrosive forces.
Cleaning up corrosive energy. It is highly unlikely to transfer corrosive energy directly into productive energy because of the betrayal that might have taken place and high levels of distrust. Executives need first to ‘phase down’ negativity, and second, ‘charge up’ the company again. Leadership for ‘phasing down’ can include the following crucial instruments: create ‘release valves’ for letting off steam and instigate emotional shakeups.
Creating ‘release valves’ for letting off steam. Leaders can facilitate events where employees can express their anger, aggression or frustration. We call these occasions ‘release valves for negativity’. To have a calming effect, the process should take place in a protected environment. The corrosive forces can then be refocused or abolished. For instance, ABB, a company renowned for their leadership capability, had huge issues with exactly that – leadership concerning a former CEO. They introduced specific people to work with the negative emotions of its employees and established a short-term hotline to field questions regarding the incident.
One company works with an instrument called the ‘Pussycat and Tiger’ to identify and manage opposition and aggressive forces early. The management team holds a meeting where they divide themselves in ‘pussycats’ who instantly identify the positive aspects of a new initiative and the ‘tigers’ who search for negative arguments. For a few days each team gathers further information and presents arguments in a new meeting. Only then the final decision about the new idea is made. This process surfaces the underlying dissent and corrosive forces, and results in more unanimously accepted decisions.
Instigating emotional shakeups. Creating emotional shakeups and shock experiences helps open up people. One way is to candidly confront the organisation about its corrosive energy. Use the ‘surprise’ to create a window of opportunity where people might be willing to let go of their learnt path of aggression. Leaders can also work jointly with the conflicting parties to develop worst case scenarios for the organisation – highlighting the consequences of continued destructive behaviour. One form is ‘destructive brainstorming’. Managers ask employees in a corrosive team to brainstorm ideas for the question: “How can we drive the company into bankruptcy as soon as possible?” This somewhat ironic, even humorous approach helps dissolve mental and emotional blockages. The group examines every idea and inverses them to come up with concrete productive actions. The effects? The collectively developed worst case scenario shows participants plainly what direction they are moving with their corrosive behaviour. They experience positive interactions with former ‘enemies’ and start to develop joint activities.
Recharging the organisation with a strong identity
Only when corrosion has calmed down can executives start to charge up the organisation again. This needs an explicit investment in positive behavioural norms and attitudes – for instance, with a strong organisational identity – or people fall back in old patterns and negativity will re-surface. Organisations with a robust shared identity, including a shared perspective for the organisation’s future and high levels of organisational pride, develop a sense of ‘we’ deriving from past achievements. They aspire to the same goals, which helps build a fruitful collaboration after times of destructive activities and allow an organisation to refocus on its productive forces.
Once organisations have mastered this task of refocusing corrosive energy, a very different leadership challenge lays ahead for executives: to sustain energy, stay agile and keep growing or changing. Sustaining energy refers to leadership that facilitates a proactive sense of urgency among all people in a company and helps organisations to maintain high levels of activity, alertness, and emotional involvement for performance over the long haul.
Originally published in Talent Engagement Review