Chris’s product management team is faltering. Despite managing to hit their deadlines and churn out the basic product upgrades, sales are down, and it’s hard to remember the last time they had a breakthrough idea. They want to innovate, but can’t seem to muster the energy to do it.
Chris’s team is hardly alone. Business stressors like layoffs, economic headwinds, and geopolitical instability are depleting teams, causing one in four employees globally to feel burned out. These factors are compounded by the strains of hybrid working, which has made collaboration harder for teams that are increasingly siloed and fragmented.
Yet in this era of cutbacks and constraint, not only do we expect our teams to do more with less, but we need them to innovate — and quickly — to drive growth.
The blow to effective collaboration matters enormously. Smarter collaboration leads to higher revenue and profit, more comprehensive solutions, and deeper customer and employee satisfaction. But until these benefits start to flow in, collaboration is often seen as costly, risky, and time consuming. With a boost of energy, however, people are much more motivated to put their heads together and come up with novel solutions.
Leaders who promote positive energy are associated with stronger innovation and organizational performance as well as employees who are more engaged, productive, and satisfied with their jobs. These leaders are not necessarily charismatic or extroverted or any other specific personality type. Rather, research shows that leaders who are seen as energizing behave in certain ways, such as exhibiting compassion and humility and recognizing others’ efforts with generosity and gratitude.
Beyond that baseline, though, today’s complicated times require even more from leaders because teams need different approaches depending on why their energy is flagging. In our forthcoming research, my colleagues and I surveyed 3,000 employees and conducted in-depth interviews with leaders and working professionals. We discovered three different paths that successful, energizing leaders must take to harness positive energy for strong hybrid collaboration and its resulting performance outcomes: channeling, generating, and multiplying.
In some teams, the problem isn’t that individual team members lack energy, but rather that their efforts are scattered across too many different projects at once. A leader of this kind of team needs to channel energy by focusing everyone’s disparate attention and efforts in the same direction to become more collectively powerful.
Since the start of Covid-era hybrid working, time spent in virtual meetings has skyrocketed (one Microsoft study showed an increase of 252% since February 2020). Employees are increasingly pulled into back-to-back meetings, leaving them no time to even handle critical follow-up tasks, let alone recharge. In these situations, the problem is not only that people’s energy is sapped by the constant switching costs but also that their remaining energy is split across too many priorities. And at companies with recent layoffs, remaining employees may be tapped for even more tasks and projects.
Another insidious aspect for these teams is that managers may misinterpret team members’ divided energy and attention. For example, a manager of a hybrid team might jump to a conclusion that a person working from home is actually lazy, checked out, or otherwise unhelpful when the actual root cause of their low energy is overcommitment. This is a case of the fundamental attribution error, a common cognitive bias where people downplay situational factors and exaggerate personality-related ones. This faulty assumption leads to a fixation on monitoring inputs or micromanaging, which were cited in our research as some of the most common ways leaders deplete energy.
This joint problem of overstretched employees plus leaders who are under-empathetic about their situation is so prevalent in hybrid teams that leaders need to investigate why their team’s energy seems so low. Asking them directly is one approach (especially if it’s part of a naturally flowing conversation), but in certain cases — such as when trust or psychological safety is low — an anonymous, open-ended team survey could generate more candid feedback.
In either case, the leader of an overstretched team needs to channel the collective’s energy by focusing disparate energies toward common aims. They must:
Emphasize overarching goals — not missed opportunities.
Even if people have many responsibilities, it’s easier to cope when the objective is clear. During your meetings and in-person interactions, regularly reframe competing demands in this context. For example, emphasize how various initiatives come together to improve overall customer service, or visually chart out how different work streams merge into a single product-development roadmap.
On the flip side, don’t stew over the opportunity cost of this vision: Once you’ve made and communicated priorities, accept that your team needs to say no to some new opportunities that might arise. As one survey respondent put it, “Don’t expend your energy on what didn’t happen.” Workers are already on edge: Don’t make it worse by introducing unnecessary stressors.
Make overcommitment transparent — but don’t valorize busyness.
Great leaders create a forum for direct reports to share their priorities with peers so people can spot overlaps, competing demands, and ways to help each other. Because it’s easy to lose track of others’ work when they’re out of sight, holding this discussion frequently is especially important for hybrid teams. But make sure the focus is on problem-solving ways to channel employees’ attention, rather than on celebrating folks who are swamped with work.
Leaders who funnel brain power to a common goal make the difference. As you might recall from your introductory physics class, the first law of thermodynamics tells us that the total energy of systems remains constant. What matters is how that energy is directed.
Some teams are genuinely depleted overall. Groups of employees who survived the latest round of layoffs often experience a sense of exhaustion and emotional turmoil, having lost frequent contact with people who were not only coworkers but also friends. The hybrid or remote environment compounds feelings of isolation because in online meetings we typically have fewer shared sidebar conversations that build rapport and interpersonal trust.
To combat this problem, leaders need to generate energy — essentially building something from nothing. This approach is potentially the most well understood of the three outlined in this article and has been an area of focus of organizational leaders during the pandemic. That said, our research has surfaced three crucial actions for leaders to take to generate energy:
Co-create a sense of meaning — don’t force your own vision.
People often get caught up in the minutiae of their fields or customer engagements, but adopting a bigger-picture view of how they’re helping clients, patients, or other stakeholders has measurable and lasting effects on motivation and performance. Leaders trying to increase a group’s energy should work with employees to unearth these connections between their work and a greater purpose. Don’t make your own purpose something you force onto others (or even politely impose on them); this kind of egotistical or self-serving behavior is one of the biggest energy drains our survey respondents identified, whereas co-creation is respectful and empowering.
Elevate others’ dignity and worth — not just their utility.
Leaders need to treat their people as multifaceted individuals who are integral to the company’s success. Acknowledging their special attributes can fill them with a deeper sense of value and determination. As one survey taker noted, these leaders “ask how you are with a smile, listen to what you have to say, and make eye contact.”
The opposite behavior is using employees as a mere means to an end, which can be a bigger trap in a remote context — where email, efficiency, and the quantity of output tend to be overemphasized.
Focus on momentum — not only the end goal.
As shown by Teresa Amabile’s research, frequent progress in one’s work boosts positive emotions, motivation, and creative output, while setbacks of any size can have an outsize negative effect. So, while a group might not have the energy to take a big leap forward, small achievements can play a huge role in generating momentum and offsetting the energy loss associated with defeat. These wins shouldn’t occur haphazardly, but instead be grounded in a strategic goal that has been divided into short-term milestones.
Perhaps the most powerful of the three paths to boosting energy, leaders who are energy multipliers seek out and harness the seemingly unrelated variety of strengths, talents, and experiences of team members.
Back when I was leading teams at McKinsey & Company, it became clear that certain teams were fully tapping into each team member’s professional, cultural, and educational diversity, while others seemed to coast on common experiences, leading to far less innovative or insightful solutions.
In hybrid teams, the risk is that unique sources of strength are not even uncovered, let alone put to their full use. Remote work is associated with more siloed working, which limits people’s opportunity to understand not just others’ knowledge bases and perspectives, but potentially to uncover their own strengths as well.
Our research shows that energy multipliers:
Reveal their own idiosyncrasies — despite the vulnerability.
By speaking about the various aspects of their expertise, personality, and life experiences, leaders get others thinking and sharing about their own multidimensional profiles — which is generally a fun and exciting exercise for people to engage in.
One survey taker gave this advice to his manager as the single biggest energy booster: “Talk to me about what’s going on in your life and who you really are.” While this self-revelation might feel risky, it’s actually a low-cost, proven way of building trust that’s often lacking in hybrid teams.
Notice others’ different sides — not just your own.
Leaders shouldn’t talk about themselves too much. They must also show interest in their employees’ complex competencies and viewpoints. If asking people about themselves doesn’t get them energized, not much else will. And according to our research subjects, this interest can lead to a “morale boost,” “greater focus,” and “wanting to do more,” among countless other benefits.
Focus on learning and growth — and not so much on control.
Energy multipliers are not afraid of experimentation or losing control. They embolden others to use their individual strengths to make original and valuable contributions to the team’s strategic goals. If someone misses their target, the energy-multiplying leader doesn’t consider it a failure but rather an opportunity for growing skills and business sense. In a similar vein, energy multipliers don’t micromanage — they trust their people to do their best to improve and perform. But they also don’t leave them in the dark, especially if they need guidance working through an issue.
One example comes from Abigail Posner, director, creative works at Google. A creative team’s morale initially sank when its clients weren’t acting on the team’s written strategic recommendations for their advertising campaigns. The advertisers struggled to envision how the changes could help.
The team leader was known for celebrating differences, however, which opened up the opportunity for one person with a filmmaking background to jump in and create a mock YouTube ad that incorporated the recommended changes. Then a former journalist volunteered to craft sales materials for the new ad. Combining these talents allowed the team to present their recommendations in a way that was more resonant for their clients, which resulted in greater client value, increased sales, and a reenergized team.
. . .
Smarter collaboration requires infusions of energy. Leaders of collaborative teams have the opportunity to promote stronger results, faster innovation, and higher employee engagement when they generate, channel, or multiply employees’ energy. What we’ve seen from the recent upheavals brought by Covid, economic uncertainty, and global instability is that low or negative energy is a threat to business growth. And as this uncertainty still prevails, positive energy is no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have so that teams can focus, innovate, and ultimately grow their businesses.
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