Energy at work

People have to come to work, but they don’t have to bring all of themselves to work and they don’t have to work all of the time. Work is contractual, energy is personal. Energy at work is discretionary.

What is it that motivates people to put in that bit extra?

Good leadership has a part to play, and a good leader will know what motivates every person in their team, at an individual level.

But a really good leader will get people to recognise and play to their strengths motivations; – a personal pride in doing a good job; working with good people,; growing their technical knowledge; making a difference – whatever puts a spring in their step.

“One of the best ways of spotting a toxic workplace is noticing the absence of this discretionary energy”

I can’t remember where I first heard the term “mobilising discretionary energy”, but I’ve used it a lot since, when talking about productivity and morale at work. It’s not about working harder or longer, it’s about levering goodwill and not getting in people’s way. One of the best ways of spotting a toxic workplace is noticing the absence of this discretionary energy. In the olden days it used to be called a “work to rule”, now it turns up as a passive aggressive response to poor management. Not that I blame people for reacting that way, I just think withdrawal of goodwill lessens their power even more than incompetent management.

Many modern organisations have concentrated on process improvements, using time and motion techniques to rationalise workflow and de-skill knowledge work. Then it’s not “my” work any more, effectively anyone could do it, you’re as easily replaced as a clapped-out machine on the production line.

Henry Ford brought this method to the motor industry by breaking down the manufacturing process, and getting people to do the same task repetitively, rather than build a whole car. Frederick Taylor widened this out to manufacturing in general, and is said to have been the first management consultant. He believed that a new class of “manager “was required. Workers being incapable of understanding what “work” was, by themselves:

 ‘I can say, without the slightest hesitation,’ Taylor told a congressional committee, ‘that the science of handling pig-iron is so great that the man who is … physically able to handle pig-iron and is sufficiently phlegmatic and stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron’

The eventual outcome was high output, but poor quality, as no one person could say “I built that car” and the craftsman status of a car builder was given over to unskilled labour. Build quality eventually improved when the Japanese car industry, and Toyota in particular, introduced quality circles, small teams and the concepts of pride, personal initiative and responsibility and craftsmanship.

These are old-fashioned sounding values, which are easy to forget about in the drive for progress, productivity and efficiency. But in the productivity equation, energy at work is a massive variable that will affect output just as much as streamlining systems, workflow and processes.