Energizing Connections

Can you identify a time when you were energized at work? In other words, was there a time when you gave more effort than you would have expected to, in work that you wouldn’t have thought was particularly exciting, because someone infused the task with energy and spurred your enthusiasm?

Maybe a client visit you had been dreading turned into an inspiring interaction that led to great things. Or maybe you took on a sidetrack assignment to manage a team that was doing something mundane, yet the experience proved to be a milestone in your career. Or maybe you completed training in something seemingly dull, but the topic really came alive, and the next thing you knew you were the resident expert on it.

Maybe it wasn’t a particular event or task but rather a stretch of time when, overall, you felt energized—a time when you frequently woke up with a feeling of eagerness and showed up in your work fully engaged. Can you remember why you felt this way? What was happening? Can you sort out how much of the experience was about the nature of the work itself versus the ways you were collaborating with people around the work?

If you think about it, chances are it was less about the work and more about the interactions. The client visit became inspiring because your counterpart was so passionate and engaged. What you thought was going to be a mundane piece of work became a memorable experience because the team commitment and chemistry were so great. The topic of that training came alive because there was something special about the instructor or ways that colleagues in the program envisioned possible applications.

When I ask these questions, it’s always a joy to see people light up and to hear what made the difference for them during these moments or stretches of time. They talk about experiences such as latching onto a boss’s belief in inspiring goals, or of being motivated by a culture of co-creation, or by a sense of ownership, or by personal connections with teammates—or even by a colleague’s offbeat sense of humor. All of these are sources of energy. (See the sidebar “Discovering Energy.”)

Discovering Energy

One day I was walking down the hall in the Boston office of a Connected Commons member, a global consulting firm, and the head partner stopped dead in front of me. I thought I was in his path, so I tried to move aside, but he matched my step, which I guess was his particular way of saying, “Let’s talk.”

I looked up and he looked down, and he said, “Rob, we’re all smart here. We get really good talent.”

There was a weird, uncomfortable silence, like What am I supposed to say? I finally said, “Yes, you’re all very smart and talented.”

And they are. The firm is full of amazing people—people who are not just smart but have depth of perspective and worldview.

The reason for his comment about everyone being smart was that he had been wondering why some people in the firm were so much more successful than others. The conventional wisdom in the consulting world at the time was that one of the main keys was pure, raw intelligence: in order to be more successful than everyone else, it was assumed, you had to be that much smarter. The head partner rejected the conventional wisdom.

“I don’t think what distinguishes our high performers is a couple of points of IQ,” he said. “I don’t think it’s somebody who’s marginally smarter who’s winning this game.”

“So what is it?” I asked.

“They get the partners engaged in what they’re up to, their peers help them out, their teams give greater effort, and the client wants to buy more.”

Through network mapping, analysis, and interviews, I learned what the head partner was talking about. It was energy.

People sometimes think this topic is soft, too metaphysical or froofy, but it’s not. Energy is a down-to-earth, workaday thing. Energy is built through behaviors that people can learn. And it’s massively important for success today.

Consider Pauline, a corporate executive whose leadership was being put to the test.

Quiet but Energizing

Pauline was director of sustainability for the chocolate business of her global food company. Sustainability had become a critical factor in maintaining and increasing profit, but for many years the corporation had allowed each business unit to establish its own approach to it. Pauline’s assignment from the CEO was to create uniform policies and standards for the whole company—a big change that would potentially put her in conflict with the business-unit leaders.

Given her position, Pauline might have been expected to start issuing orders from on high, but that’s not how she approached the project. Instead she relied on relationships in her network that she had been building for years with the business-unit leaders. “She often came here and spent time with us to understand the details of our business and learn about everyone’s interests and aspirations,” one business-unit leader said. Pauline spoke quietly and wasn’t a flashy presenter or the center of attention—you could easily lose her in a crowd. But she was reflective and fully present in her interactions.

“We looked forward to her visits,” the unit leader said. “She was simpatico. And she could be very funny in her own way—we loved being with her. Also, it was obvious that she cared deeply. She was a great help; somehow we were always more able to come up with creative solutions when she asked us her pointed questions. She was generous about offering corporate resources, and she always followed through. How many people do that these days?”

Having established these relationships, Pauline was in a good position to go to the business units and make the case for unifying the approach to sustainability. Her trusted long-time deputy, whom she brought along, delivered crisp, compelling presentations detailing how worldwide overproduction had suppressed chocolate prices, put intense pressure on margins, and weakened sustainability initiatives. He showed that a unified approach would bring down costs and enable the company to be more proactive about reducing child labor and about improving agricultural practices.

He wrapped up with an inspiring vision: “In challenging times, our products give a vital lift to people all over the world, from small children to powerful leaders,” he said in a talk that Pauline had helped him write. “We are in the business of helping people find joy. But we must do more than this. We have a moral imperative to make our entire business more sustainable.”

The business-unit leaders were quick to respond. One of them reminded Pauline that a past quality issue with the parent company’s processing plant was the reason some of them had started buying cocoa butter from outside suppliers with questionable sustainability practices. But he said he was willing to go back to in-house supplies, which were produced in accordance with corporate policies, if Pauline could guarantee a certain quality level. He challenged the leaders of the other business units to make the same pledge, and they agreed.

Pauline and her deputy smiled at each other. It happened that Pauline had recently replaced the head of that Pennsylvania plant with a recognized master in the field whom she had serendipitously bumped into at a conference. The new manager was now settling into the job, and Pauline felt confident that he could achieve the quality turnaround that the business units demanded.

By the time Pauline and her deputy returned to headquarters, they had made significant headway on the project.

Following the Energizers’ Playbook

People usually assume that in order to be an energizer, you have to be outgoing or charismatic. But that’s wrong: neither extroversion nor charisma create energizers in and of themselves. Really strong energizers are just as likely to be understated, introverted, or low-key, like Pauline. You can be fully engaged and have a powerful impact without being a talker or demanding everyone’s attention. Conversely, we have all known highly charismatic and outgoing people who don’t create energy at all.

Organizations are often surprised to learn who their energizers are. When a colleague of mine did an analysis for the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, a biomedical research organization, the results were unexpected, said Kate O’Brien, the Broad’s director of people insights. Many of the scientists who turned out to be energizers were low-profile employees. They weren’t research stars, but they were connectors—they were the Kevin Bacons in the organization, touching many different areas. “They’re really essential people,” she said. “Should they decide to go somewhere else, we would start to feel enthusiasm and mission-focused collaboration falling off in the culture.” (See the Coaching Break, “Six Energy-Building Behaviors.”)


Six Energy-Building Behaviors


I assume that you engage in all six of these energy-generating behaviors whenever possible. The real question is: When and why do you let them slip? Ask yourself: Which one or two of these behaviors do I neglect when I am under stress or pressure? Once you have identified them, try to be more systematic about exhibiting these behaviors.

  1. In meetings and one-on-one conversations, I engage others in realistic possibilities that capture their imaginations and hearts.

    Why this matters. Stretch goals are exciting, but they need to be realistic in order to be embraced as feasible, without fear that they will generate an unreasonable workload.

    What you can do. In conversations, emphasize not only the value of an idea but also its achievability.

  2. I am typically fully engaged in meetings and one-on-one conversations, and I show my interest in others and their ideas.

    Why this matters. People need to know that you think they and their ideas are valuable.

    What you can do. Lean in, adopt an open stance, maintain eye contact, smile, nod, stay focused, listen actively, keep mental track of the conversation, use an engaging voice, ignore your ringing phone, and don’t get distracted thinking about what you’re going to say next.

  3. I create room for others to be meaningful contributors to conversations and make sure they see how their efforts become part of an evolving plan.

    Why this matters. Enthusiasm for a project increases if people believe that their efforts can have real impact.

    What you can do. Be humble. Acknowledge others’ ideas and perspectives. Create opportunities for them to participate in problem solving and feedback. Build on their ideas. Be appreciative. Be judicious in applying your own expertise. Don’t take yourself or your ideas too seriously.

  4. When I disagree with someone’s plan or a course of action, I focus on the issue at hand and not the individual.

    Why this matters. Focusing on the individual shuts down interest and progress.

    What you can do. When you criticize, stay centered on the idea, not the person. And, most importantly, offer your own thinking for exploration.

  5. I use humor, often at my own expense, to lighten tense moments or remove status or politics from interactions.

    Why this matters. Humor, especially the self-deprecating kind, can change the mood, reenergize people, remove tension, counteract unnecessary hierarchy in a group, encourage others to be authentic, and enable people to take risks with their ideas.

    What you can do. Look for opportunities to make light of yourself or a “common enemy,” such as a competitor. Don’t joke too much—be judicious. And don’t take risks joking at others’ expense unless you are sure of their reaction.

  6. I maintain an effective balance between pushing toward a goal and welcoming new ideas that can improve the project or the process for reaching the goal.

    Why this matters. People stay engaged when they are able to adjust the plan to make it better. Ideas from the group allow for progress in unexpected directions.

    What you can do. Be open and flexible about how to achieve goals. Ask for others’ opinions and reactions. But stay focused on solutions and make sure people leave meetings knowing what steps to take.

To look at Pauline, you would never have said she projected a “star” persona. Yet she was a classic energizer, following the playbook to a T. For one thing, she engaged people in realistic possibilities that captured their imaginations and hearts. Sourcing cocoa butter from the company’s own processing plant was a realistic option, and she and her deputy presented it as both a rational and an emotional win. Moreover, she was a frequent user of humor—often at her own expense—to lighten tense moments or remove unnecessary status or politics from interactions. She also maintained an effective balance between pushing toward a goal and welcoming new ideas. Witness how the solution was co-created with the business-unit leaders.

Energizers’ Performance Secret: Pull

Should you strive to be an energizer? Yes. Energizers are three to four times as likely as nonenergizers to achieve top performance ratings and get promoted, and they are two to three times as likely to successfully manage their career transitions. In fact, I have found that, statistically, being an energizer is the biggest predictor of individuals’ long-term success and well-being. Having a diverse network and making good use of it, which we explored in the previous chapter, is a big predictor of success too, but if you’re an energizer on top of that, it’s four times the predictor of high performance that network diversity alone is.

Think about this surprising finding for a minute. The biggest predictor of success isn’t network size, charisma, sociability, a big vocabulary, or a winning smile. It’s whether or not you’re an energizer. It’s whether people tend to walk away from you feeling more enthused, a little bit more excited about what you are up to (which is critical if they are your leaders or key stakeholders) and what they are up to (which is critical if they are your peers or people who report to you).

The reason energizers win is what I call pull. This is not “pull” in the sense of clout; it’s the ability to draw talent, ideas, and opportunities to you. If you have this quality, you are better than others at attracting and retaining great people. You get greater creativity out of the individuals around you. People are more willing to help you. You get better support for your ideas and projects. And you are better at making serendipity happen for you.

Pull was the key to Pauline’s success. Think about her deputy, Wilmer, known as Willy, who delivered the sustainability presentations. He was crucial to her, and he was unique. No other executive in the company had someone like Willy.

Because Pauline was an energizer, Willy was drawn to her. He wanted to work with her. Pauline reciprocated. From the time Willy came on board in the accounting department, she sought to understand not only his strengths and weaknesses, but also what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go in the company. She appreciated his alacrity in getting things done and his phenomenal attention to detail but sensed his discomfort with being in positions of independent authority. Over time, she came to see that he really aspired to become a top-notch number two, an aide-de-camp. Such a position didn’t exist, so she created it for him.

Willy and Pauline complemented each other; where Pauline faltered, as in public speaking, Willy excelled. They were better as a pair than either of them had been individually.

And then there was the new head of the plant Pauline had hired. True, she had randomly bumped into him at a conference, but then pull took over. This individual recognized Pauline’s energizing qualities and spent quite a bit of time with her at the conference. He was receptive as she recruited him for months afterward.

OK, you may be saying at this point, I get that there’s such a thing as energy, and that the performance advantages of energizers are all about pull. But these ideas are so abstract. How do I generate pull myself?

One manager pointed out to me that when a new project comes along—a project that is someone else’s idea—his team’s first reaction is to groan. “We almost never get excited about someone else’s ideas,” he said. “Typically, after the presentation, we’ll get together and commiserate. Our first impulse is to talk about how this is going to add to our workload and how we’re all going to end up getting screwed.” These kinds of apprehensions about new projects are common and understandable.

But, the manager told me, the team reacts very differently if it sees a valuable purpose in the work and if the idea comes from someone the team trusts. “Only in the context of purpose and trust do we let go of our reservations,” the manager said.

Purpose and trust are the foundations of creating energy and pull in networks.

Create Pull with Purpose

People tend to assume that a sense of purpose comes with an organization’s mission, that in order to feel a strong sense of purpose, you need to work for a company that is striving to find a cure for a dreaded disease, for example. And yes, company mission can be an important ingredient. Pauline worked with Willy to make sure that he instilled in the business units a clear sense that their work was helping people, emphasizing that the company was about enabling people to find joy. Other organizations center the “why” on meeting a mission or delivering financial results.

But less well appreciated is the importance of people in instilling purpose. You can actually map purpose in organizations. It can be done with organizational network analysis (ONA), a term that covers a range of tools from a number of vendors depicting the relationships within a given group.1 ONA can identify people who occupy a range of network roles, including collaboration builders, connectors, experts, brokers, energizers, de-energizers, and fearmongers. (See figure 7-1.)


Organizational network analysis: Creating a sense of purpose at an investment bank

The dots represent individuals in a group, with dark dots showing the top leaders. Lines reflect who felt a sense of purpose in their interactions with others. Throughout the entire network of close to four thousand, the top quartile of leaders created a sense of purpose for almost sixteen other people on average. The bottom quartile did not do that for even one person (again, on average).

While both groups of leaders were working hard, it was the top quartile that enjoyed benefits of scale: people gave more to their work, were more innovative in solutions and ideas, and stayed longer.


For example, when we asked the top six hundred leaders of an investment bank, “Who among you inspires a greater sense of purpose in your work after an interaction?” we could then use ONA to see how people connected. It showed us that at this bank, the top quartile of leaders created a sense of purpose for nearly sixteen other people, on average. The bottom quartile, in stark contrast, managed to generate a sense of purpose for less than one person.

It’s no surprise that the top quartile attracted higher performers and retained them longer. In essence, they obtained scale from their networks by enabling others to feel a sense of purpose in their work.

ONA suggests that interpersonal collaborations account for as much as half of employees’ sense of purpose. We also analyzed a retail chain. Although the company was essentially a sales platform—not the kind of organization that people are typically drawn to as a beacon of purpose—among the employees there existed a clear sense of purpose.

The leaders of the retailer diffuse ownership so that employees have a sense of a cooperative undertaking—their purpose is to help one another achieve. They invest in learning the backgrounds, interests, and aspirations of people in order to structure work to align with others’ career aspirations.

Purpose gives people a reason to commit greater effort. That’s why instilling a sense of purpose in others gives you greater pull; it motivates people to gravitate toward you and causes a flow of ideas and opportunities to come your way. Pull is a key part of being an energizer and of sparking people to bring their best in the moment. Through hundreds of interviews, my colleagues and I have identified eleven purpose-building behaviors that can be learned and applied. (See the Coaching Break, “Eleven Purpose-Building Behaviors.”)


Eleven Purpose-Building Behaviors

People often assume that a sense of purpose is always tied to a company’s mission, but interpersonal collaborations account for as much as half of employees’ sense of purpose. In the list, identify one or at most two behaviors that, if you focused on more, would generate a greater sense of purpose in those around you.

  1. I help people clarify and pursue meaningful career objectives.
  2. I help structure work to align with others’ career aspirations.
  3. I establish the importance of work (the “why”) before the tactics for accomplishing it (the “what” or the “how”).
  4. I co-create solutions and diffuse ownership early.
  5. I encourage people to be attuned to and synchronized with the demands their colleagues face.
  6. I show appreciation for others’ work.
  7. I encourage fun in work.
  8. I reframe negative interactions to focus on work worth doing.
  9. I encourage people to find purpose by helping others.
  10. I coach people to collaborate at a pace and in cycles that allow them to work at their best.
  11. I encourage people to find purpose in their work through networks inside and outside the organization.

Create Pull with Trust

The degree to which we engage with others in ways that rapidly create trust in us is a blind spot for most of us. Once, I was leading a conversation with roughly two hundred people, all of whom had decks of cards in front of them. The cards focused on behaviors that foster trust, purpose, and energy in interactions. I asked the participants to create three stacks of these cards—one stack of the trust behaviors, one of the purpose behaviors, and one of the energy behaviors—and then to select one card from whichever stack represented the area where they felt they most needed improvement. To my amazement, nearly all of them pulled cards from either the purpose or the energy stack. Just one person took a card from the trust stack.

The pattern repeated in other sessions, suggesting that the vast majority of us don’t feel we need to work on trust, or at least that building trust is not a priority for us. We trust ourselves to act in ways that we believe are right, and we simply assume that others will have the same trust in us. If we have a one-to-one meeting scheduled at 2 p.m., we trust ourselves to show up on time, and we assume that the other person will trust us equally, because we see ourselves as inherently trustworthy. It can be shocking to hear a colleague say that she came late to a meeting because she assumed that we wouldn’t be on time. We don’t think enough about whether our behaviors are actually trustworthy—whether our behaviors truly inspire others to trust us as we so readily trust ourselves.

Trust is a critical foundation for pull and for energy. The refreshingly candid manager who was quoted earlier in this chapter put it well: “We almost never get excited about someone else’s ideas” unless the ideas are presented in the context of purpose and trust. People just don’t get energized by ideas that are presented outside of a trusting relationship. If there’s a trust gap, people shy away from engaging with new ideas, no matter how elegantly they are presented.

The gap might have to do with benevolence-based trust, meaning that the person doubts we have her interests in mind (briefly discussed in chapter 2). Or the hesitation might have to do with competence-based trust, meaning that she senses that our project will ultimately fail because we don’t really know what we’re talking about. Or it might be a lack of integrity-based trust, which is based on the sense that we may not do what we say we’re going to do.

An individual who feels a lack of benevolence-based trust in her dealings with us will resist getting energized by our idea, because she doesn’t want to be a pawn in our game of personal strategy. If she feels a lack of competence-based trust, she will start looking for escape routes to avoid getting stuck with a project that she feels is likely to crash. If she feels a lack of integrity-based trust, then she will automatically go on defense to avoid getting buried under extra work.

In chapter 6, we saw that in order to innovate successfully, we need to capitalize rapidly on short-term opportunities while sculpting future possibilities through specific kinds of network initiation and development. In essence, we need to make a leap of faith, letting go of control, embracing ambiguity, and reaching out early to our networks. These kinds of network interactions, which generate significant exchanges of knowledge, can only take place in a context of well-developed trust. My research shows that benevolence-based and competence-based trust are critical to the success of knowledge exchange, particularly when the knowledge is tacit or the people exchanging information are new to the problem space, as is often the case in early-stage problem-solving.2

Building trust comes from engaging in behaviors that quickly enable others to trust you, which provides a critical foundation for energy. In most cases, the behaviors that build trust are small and easy. An executive who is a turnaround specialist told me that the first thing he does on joining a new organization is to initiate a discussion about people’s backgrounds and values and use that discussion to talk candidly about himself—a classic “soft and fuzzy” activity designed to put people at ease.

I saw the logic of this when I met him: He was a behemoth who had been an Olympic wrestler. He looked as though he could crush a brick. He knows how people react when they see him. “There are so many ways that people who don’t know me can infer poor intent,” he said with characteristic understatement. “And they can spread those inferences to others in interactions I don’t even see or hear about. So I have found that if I get out in front of this and give people a sense of who I am, how I am making decisions, where I am coming from, a lot of this misunderstanding never happens.”

Through the action of initiating a discussion, he intentionally creates benevolence-based trust. Similarly, simple behaviors can help build competence-based trust—for example, when you present a new-product idea, show instances of where analogous things have been successfully tried. And there are a million ways you can build integrity-based trust, such as by following through on all of your commitments, no matter how seemingly trivial.

Long before she needed to move the business units toward a new way of doing things, Pauline had established all three kinds of trust. For example, she offered the units her time, insights, and guidance, and provided resources where needed, all without expecting a quid pro quo, and she frequently connected with people off task, seeking to understand their backgrounds, interests, and aspirations. She made a new hire to improve the quality output of the company’s plant, demonstrating her competency. And as the business-unit leader pointed out, “she always followed through”—she demonstrated integrity by making good on her commitments.

My colleagues and I have identified ten trust-building behaviors that can be learned and applied. (See the Coaching Break, “Ten Trust-Building Behaviors.”)


Ten Trust-Building Behaviors

Instead of asking yourself how trustworthy you are, focus on behaviors: Do you engage in behaviors that rapidly create a foundation of trust? In the list, identify one or at most two behaviors that would create greater trust around you if you engaged in them more thoughtfully.

  1. I make others want to turn to me for transparent, credible expertise.
  2. I acknowledge areas in which I am not an expert.
  3. I create rich interactions at key points in projects.
  4. I encourage others to critique and improve my ideas.
  5. I offer time, resources, information, referrals, insights, and other assistance before I ask for help and without expectation of benefit.
  6. I connect with people off task, seeking to understand their backgrounds, interests, and aspirations.
  7. I am consistent in communicating my values and priorities.
  8. I do what I say I am going to do and follow through on commitments I make to people.
  9. I am committed to principles and goals that are larger than my own self-interest.
  10. I keep confidential or revealing information to myself.

The Outsized Impact of De-Energizers

Sadly, in the organizations I have studied, nonenergizers greatly outnumbered energizers. On the network map that I created for the consulting firm described in the sidebar “Discovering Energy,” as you progressed toward the edge, you could see the people who were less connected and less energizing. Way out on the fringe of the map, I found one partner who had very few connections and energized nobody.

There are also de-energizers who are the opposite of Pauline. De-energizers see obstacles or constraints at all turns, and they articulate flaws in plans before you can fully explain the plans. Rather than limiting themselves to criticizing ideas, they place blame on others and disagree personally. They’re like Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend Eeyore, sapping energy just by their presence. Even a small number of these people can have a deadening effect on a group. Statistically, in our models predicting performance, the de-energizers tend to have twice the negative impact that the energizers have on a positive front.

De-energizers can also be found in relationships and groups outside of work. One leader described a de-energizer in her cycling group: “Three or four of us would go cycling after work together, and while the exercise was great, it was almost counterproductive, because there was one woman who was stressing me out. She was constantly going on about how she hated her job, and her husband was so awful, and everything. In the end, I stopped cycling with them, and other people dropped out of the group for the same reason.”

One of the most pernicious effects of collaboration overload is that it undermines our capacity and motivation to be energizers. I used to assume that de-energizers were born, not made, that they were placed on this earth to make life unbearable for the rest of us. But a few years back, a grad student examined our longitudinal data and found that most people who were identified as de-energizers had not started out that way. Many of them had started out as energizers, but something slipped along the way.

In other words, we are all potential de-energizers. We might have started out as energizers, and we might still have the best intentions, but collaboration overload has turned us into the people we never wanted to be. One of the key things that slips if we don’t combat overload is ways of interacting that energize others. If we are overloaded, we come into interactions too focused on what we need to get done. We don’t take time to acknowledge others’ past efforts. We focus on the “what” and miss the importance of discussing the “why” to ensure that the work has purpose and meaning, and that we operate in a context of trust.

The behaviors underlying trust, purpose, and energy are not difficult to implement, but they do require us to be intentional. Intentionality is the crux of the next chapter, which pulls together everything we have seen in this book about overload, networks, and energy to create a path toward the ultimate goal: well-being.

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