How Leaders Generate Energy

October 18, 2022

The variety of shortages causing major disruptions are having rippling effects that seem to grow more consequential every day. Where is the pause button that allows everyone to catch up? How can leaders generate energy and help avoid burnout?

But the one shortage that is the most concerning to me, with an effect that could be even more consequential, is HUMAN ENERGY.

Languishing. The great resignation. The great re-evaluation. Quiet quitting. How many more movements do we need to recognize workforces are struggling to get back to “normal”?

A big part of moving forward is finding the momentum to focus and move through the same 24 hours given to all of us.

Popular author Seth Godin wrote, “There’s generally a gulf between what we say we did all day and what we actually did. And there’s an even bigger chasm between the urgencies and emotional moments and the ones we know actually pay off. When we give away our day, we give away our future.”

Are we concerned that people are giving their days away? In a Microsoft employee survey85% of leaders found the hybrid work shift made it harder to be confident in productivity.

In fact, Microsoft Chief People Officer Kathleen Hogan wrote in a recent LinkedIn article that “The Human Energy Crisis calls for a new kind of workplace sustainability that’s an imperative for every organization. Leaders, the task ahead of us is about regenerating energy for our employees at work and ensuring it’s renewable and sustainable.”

Leadership Behaviors that Generate Energy  

We looked through our data to find the leadership elements that would generate energy in direct reports. To discover these energizing capabilities, we analyzed data from direct reports of 73,503 leaders. In addition to the 60 measured behaviors, each direct report was asked about the extent to which they agreed with the following statement, “My work environment is a place where people want to go the extra mile.”

Six capabilities emerged from our analysis of the data. These are the top six capabilities that a leader can leverage to generate energy.

1. Inspires and Motivates Others

When we studied organizations during times of hardship, we asked the question, “Which leadership behaviors have become more important and now have a greater impact?” The answer we receive most frequently is a leader’s ability to bring a high level of energy, enthusiasm, and inspiration to others.

This ability to generate energy and inspire is relatively easy to identify in others. Still, most leaders are at a loss to know what they can do to develop this attribute within themselves. While it is initially overwhelming to figure out what a person can do to be more inspirational, our research identified specific, practical, and straightforward practices that all add to the inspiration that can reenergize others.

One thing leaders can do to be more inspiring is to develop others. 

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When a former Navy SEAL was asked what Navy SEALs have in common, his answer was, “when they are physically exhausted, somehow some way they’re able to dig down deep inside themselves to find the energy to help the person next to them.”

In a society that rewards individualism, we vastly underestimate the power of serving our team members and helping them accomplish their career aspirations. 

When it comes to igniting energy, the number one way to inspire is to help others discover what opportunities exist for growth. Knowing which skills and capabilities direct reports want to develop puts leaders in a position to help them learn new skills by selecting the right new job assignments.

2. Gets Others to Embrace Stretch Goals.  Helping a team identify and embrace a challenging goal and finding a way to achieve it breathes confidence and hope into everyone involved. Being able to exert greater control over their work makes everyone feel energized.

Listen to this Episode 18: Achieving Stretch Goals- Push, Pull, and Problem Solve (16 min.) of The 90th Percentile: An Unconventional Leadership Podcast for some valuable research on this topic. 

3. Helps Others Understand the Vision and Direction. Work is hard when you labor without a clear view of where you are going. People need to understand the destination to make their work meaningful.

The most energizing leaders repeat and reinforce where the organization needs to go and why their work is critical.

This keeps people energized because they are not simply doing a job. They are accomplishing an important objective.

4. Continuously Communicates.  Like taking young children on a long drive where you constantly hear, “Are we there yet!” Often long journeys require progress reports, and everyone needs to understand where they currently are and what they need to do next. Our research reveals that communication is the easiest skill to improve. But too often, leaders don’t communicate the what, where, why, and how.

5. Increases Cooperation and Collaboration. Leaders set the tone and create the conditions for teamwork and relationships to flourish or fail. Research shows that teams with close connections are happier, more productive, and have less burnout. Meaning they have more energy because instead of pulling separate loads, they found ways to yoke themselves together with the work.

6. Builds Trust.  Our extensive research on trust has shown that it is a small behavior with a huge impact. When team members question your motives or feel they are being abused, energy evaporates. Our research shows that increasing trust magnifies every other leadership competency. We also discovered that without trust, everything slows down. Trust reduces friction in the organization.

To test the impact of these six energizing behaviors, we analyzed data from 76,421 global leaders. In the graph below, the horizontal axis shows the leaders’ effectiveness on the six behaviors, and the bars represent the percentage of direct reports quietly quitting or willing to give extra effort and energy to get their work accomplished.

Note that the most effective leaders generate energy and have 69% of their direct reports giving extra effort and energy.

Zenger Folkman Study How leaders generate energy

The research is clear! Doing just a few of these six things can substantially increase a leader’s ability to energize others.

Find the two or three actions that you can take today. Keep track of your successes. We are confident that you will notice an increase in energy and engagement over the next week.

-Joe Folkman and Jack Zenger

Learn more about this topic in our upcoming webinar!

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