For quite a long time the thinking and practice of management was dominated by a rather rationalist approach. The feelings and energies of individuals and teams were by far left aside. The professional behaviour was one of emotional self-control and composure. The humanist approaches of 1960s, including Human Relations and Organizational Development, brought the human motivations back into the managerial consideration. More recently, the concept of the organizational energy was pioneered by Bernd Vogel (University of Reading, UK) and Heike Bruch (University of St. Gallen, Switzerland). In their take, organizational energy is the driving force behind all business actives that involve individuals and teams. Positive energy will take organizations to the peaks of success. Negative energy will eventually burn an organization inside out.

The authors of AXELOS Management of Portfolios have ingeniously integrated the organizational energy into the MoP framework, so it is useful to take a look at that framework as a possible way of putting the concept into practice. But the idea and the toolkit is useful across all project management.

Emotional states and energy levels

We can all follow our own emotional states and energy levels throughout the working day. Hopefully, though probably it is not the case for everyone, we can come to work energized, excited and ready to contribute what we have. That attitude may of course change either way during the day, to even greater motivation or conversely, to an upset or even frustration.

What if those energies and emotions become permanent and determine the culture, the activities, the relations and the feeling of the organization. It is great if the positive emotions are prevalent and it is definitely not great of the negative emotions are dominant.

Slaying the dragon and winning the princess

In their book, Fully Charged: How Great Leaders Boost Their Organization’s Energy and Ignite High Performance, Vogel and Bruch put forward a model of organizational energy that allows us to observe, categorize and influence the organizational energies. Their categorization is shown in Table 1.

Table 1. The model of organizational energy by Vogel and Bruch
Source: Heike Bruch, Bernd Vogel, Fully Charged: How Great Leaders Boost Their Organization’s Energy and Ignite High Performance, Harvard Business Review Press, 2011

While the productive and the comfortable energies are undersigned as positive, the attentive reader will notice that only the productive energy is really positive.

Therefore, it is a key challenge for an organization to recognize its prevailing type of energy and then to take steps to bring all – or most of it – to the productive zone. What seems most important is to build a mechanism that corrects the energy. Upsetting and frustrating situation are bound to happen, but if an organization is capable of clearing them off, rather than entrenching them, there is a good foundation of an emotional health.

How can this be done? The most negative is the corrosive energy. It carries strongly negative emotions of anger, caution, tension, with infighting, corporate politics, and attitudes and behaviours that hinder cooperation and innovation. Here is a good start to attempt to change the organizational energy. Once it is recognised, the first step is to refocus the energy. The reasons for the negative emotions should be found and ways to remove them should be identified. The organization’s identity should be reconstructed. The work environment and operations should be improved.

It may not be possible to jump straight from the corrosive to the productive zone. These are in fact the opposite poles in the organizational energy model. If needs be, an organization may first wish to reduce the intensity of the negative energy. It will go down from the corrosive to the resigned zone. Here the emotions and attitudes include: indifference, withdrawal, frustration, doing no more than is required. The is the sort of “not-my-circus” attitude. Here, it is useful to restate or define anew the organization’s vision and mission. Opportunities should be found and highlighted for all in the organization and the pursuit of those opportunities should become everyone’s driving force. Very importantly, the benefits from the opportunities should be fairly distributed. The drive to exploit the opportunities will supposedly bring the organization closer to the productive zone. The reach for opportunities can metaphorically be seen as “winning the princess”.

Bring it all to the productive zone

The comfortable energy is positive to only a point. There is a fundamental feeling of safety, appreciation of success that has brought us here, and the conviction of strong market position. But there is a threat in this sense of security, one of stagnation, and ensuing slow unnoticed death. That threat is key to the move of the comfortable zone. The threat must be seen by everyone, and everyone needs to be aware of it. This awareness can be a good starting point for action, for the search of new products and directions, so as to avoid the organizational atrophy. The fight against the threat can metaphorically be called “slaying the dragon”.

The aim is to bring the energy to the productive zone. Here two matters are important. First, the sources of energy. The model points to four sources of energy: connection, content, context, climate. The connection with the organization needs to be established and refreshed. The content needs to be satisfying and owned by employees. The context, with all infrastructures and processes, needs to be adequate. And last but not least the climate needs to be conducive to working and living together in the organisation.

The second key element is the mechanism to sustain the positive energy. The objective is not really to be in the productive zone only and all the time. This may be beyond what is possible. But it is more about renewing the energy and bringing it from the other zones after the times of trouble. This requires the time and space to recharge. This does not only means proper holidays but also such work and team management that that diversifies activities in term of content, difficulty and risk exposure. Above all, the management system should be so designed as to be vitalising and motivating.

Working with organizational energy

While this may sound like a nice set of postulates, this is a worthwhile model, and the authors took it further to include a set of measuring tools and complete set of practices to initiate the energy change process that includes organizational change projects and programmes.

Next time, then, why not take a look at the energy of your team or unit and think about what can be done to make it better.