Sustainable management: towards an optimization of human energy

Summary: The notion of human energy as a resource to be managed in a sustainable way is a rich concept for management. Such energy can be both exhaustible and infinitely renewable—and the principal task of the manager is to minimize sources of energy drain, and maximize the production of positive energy, so that the energies of the individuals in the team combine, not cancel each other out. Five key areas are addressed in the article: the role of the manager, the organization and motivation of the team, meeting planning, mentoring individuals’ development, and the development of shared collective goals. The approach transcends the classical dualities of human resource management—of reason/emotion, competence/experience, and expertise/management—to achieve the optimization of the energy of both individuals and the team.


Is it possible to apply the logic of sustainable development to human energy in order to improve current management practice?

The idea of illustrating my conception of management in this way came to mind during the course of a discussion with a business contact who was asking me about my experience in the field. It’s a question that has interested me considerably. Having had the opportunity of managing teams of various sizes in the relatively intense environments of consulting and communications agency work over recent years, my experience has shaped my approach to the question. It’s proved effective for me, and may be useful for others.

It can be summarized in one central idea: considering individuals and teams from the point of view of their energy, and managing them as both sources and consumers of that energy. The practice of management becomes the management of these different individual and collective energies, the challenge being to stoke each individual’s fire in such a way that the group is exponentially synergistic—not burning each other out.


First of all, why look at things in this way?

I do so because the settings that I have been brought in to manage were unstable, constantly changing, and, sometimes—in web agencies or start-ups—not even built. These high stress environments can quickly become physically, and above all, emotionally, exhausting. While the work is rather rewarding and varied, which generates enthusiasm and excitement, this excitement and the stress are two sides of the same coin, one positive, the other negative. Unfortunately in a communications agency, for example, this coin can flip very quickly. This is particularly damaging for service providers whose long term value is largely the sustained enthusiasm which is expected of them by demanding clients. From this enthusiasm, all else flows: the ability to believe, quality of service, new ideas, and the desire for teamwork. Finally, whatever way one looks at the problem, one only sees energy to be directed: positive energy to be maintained and nurtured despite the long hours of work, the failures, the daily grind. Negative energy that must be eliminated because at the heart of the team it spreads like a weed; group energy to be maximised because the positive energies of individuals do not necessarily summate, but can cancel each other out.

The concept of « management of human energy » is rich because it allows one to take into account both individual and collective factors, and the different psychological, emotional and physical factors that affect any given individual.

Unlike physical energy, human energy is ambivalent: it can be at once finite and inexhaustible. In fact its sustainability will depend on the way it is used: badly employed, it is quickly drained. Well managed, it is inexhaustible because it can be regenerated for ever. This approach is particularly adapted to current business environments, where well-defined hours of work, clear job descriptions, and promotion according to well-specified competencies are less and less the norm—and being replaced by shifting, unstable settings, which have many potential benefits—and stresses.

Collective and individual energies are not recharged in the same way, but their dynamics are linked. Both must be considered in order to have both a well-performing team and flourishing, successful individuals. In work environments heavily dependent on new technologies where the traditional boundaries between professional and personal time become blurred, an energy-based approach allows individuals to take different approaches to the team’s work, which augments motivation and enthusiasm. Just considering things in this way enables the positive aspects of this to be appreciated, rather than passing judgement according to sometimes outmoded criteria, though its impact on the team must not be ignored—jealousies, slippage in customary practices or performance, etc.


How should a team be motivated and its practices organized according to this principle?

The idea is very easy to state in practical terms: the manager must identify the tasks and practices which consume energy unproductively in order to limit them to a minimum, and maximize tasks and practices which generate positive energy, in order to develop them to the utmost. The difficulty is in the « classification » of the different tasks between « negative » and « positive, »and subsequently in the implementation, as that depends on the general operation of each business and the room for manoeuvre that managers have with their teams.

My personal experience has led me to the following guiding principles, which are not necessarily exhaustive, or applicable as such for everybody, so each manager must find his or her own solution. The first three points discussed below allow one to build a well-functioning organization, and to track down the « energy drains. » This is necessary, but not sufficient. The last two points seek to address the enhancement of collective and individual motivation for the sustainable generation of positive energy.


The manager’s role: Start with yourself first. You need a vision of how an energy-based approach affects the role of the manager. Before tackling the problems of the organisation and the workings of the team, better first make sure that you’re not an energy drain yourself!

My personal vision of the manager is essentially that of a trailblazer, someone who is guiding the future direction of the team but who is also clearing the ground on a daily basis to allow the team to progress. It is very important to combine these two elements of management to implement the idea being developed here. When one considers only the hierarchical element of management—the boss who limits the horizon—one becomes oneself a potential drain on the energy of the team, just another factor that they have to deal with in the daily routine. For example, nothing is more tiring that the constant requirement to fit one’s timetable around a disorganized, unpredictable manager or one who does not delegate. From my point of view, good managers are above all at the service of their teams (and not the other way round), in the sense of taking the necessary decisions to help the team achieve their goals. This simple difference in vision considerably changes the impact of organizational decisions that are made. For example, the organization of meetings and the planning of schedules depends directly on the manner in which the manager conceives his or her role.


Team organization: a team is not organized according to the current customs of the business in order to perpetuate job titles or traditions—but to put the principle of effectiveness first. It’s one of the most important roles of a manager, and tackling this is my first priority each time I enter a new management role. With the objectives of my job clearly in my mind, the organization of the team is my first tool for achieving them. Individual interviews with each member allow the actual functioning of the team to be placed in perspective with its ultimate objectives. Each time we’ve gone back to basics, often abolishing intermediate levels in the hierarchy. I can testify that there is often a gap between the rhetoric of the manager that I have been brought in to replace, and the actual reality of the team’s performance of their tasks and responsibilities, a gap that I would never have identified had I not conducted the individual interviews with each team member. I cannot commend this action too highly to managers each time they take a new job. This doesn’t mean that the outgoing manager is incompetent, but that management is about people not conventions. The team’s organization is optimal for each given manager, because each manager has their own style, strengths and weaknesses, and must therefore organize the team to draw the best from the strengths, weaknesses and motivations of each person—including themselves.


The planning of meetings and the motivation of the team: an effective organization only finds its direction as it works. Finding that direction requires conscious thought about the way in which the team is motivated. The pattern of the team’s various meetings is fundamental—that which is not anticipated, is subjected to. One of the biggest energy drains in business is poor time management in meetings, so finding a solution to this is therefore a priority for the manager responsible. In doing so, the manager gives the team a distinct luxury: greater room for manoeuvre in the management of their own time. The sensation of not being master of your own time, uncertainty, and unpredictable meetings or management requests are among the biggest energy drains in business.

Reducing this uncertainty as much as possible does not mean being rigid or unable to adapt; it means maximal control of the predictable, precisely so as to have enough positive energy to deal with the unexpected, and to dedicate oneself to tasks that add value, rather than exhausting energy in endless meetings.

Thus it is important to manage both the time of groups and individuals, work meetings and shared informal moments.

To illustrate these principles in practice, here’s how I organized the meetings when I supervised about thirty or so people in three different agencies at two or three levels in the skill hierarchy. Each kind of meeting followed a precise agenda that was determined in advance, and was itself based on the annual objectives of the team and the client:

– a weekly « worklist » meeting with my immediate subordinates, to direct the work and objectives underway, and to assess their progress in relation to projects with parallel objectives, and those of the overall team;

– each of my immediate subordinates managed a team of project leaders, managing their own teams on a weekly or daily basis according to their own personal preference, and equally linked weekly with their respective direct clients;

– a monthly meeting, principally facilitated by myself, attended by all levels of the organisation, where our co-ordinator and all of the different team managers presented on topics arranged in advance. The purpose of this meeting was not to organise the work, but to share interesting cases, lessons from experience, and the important news and announcements of the agency and its principal accounts between all of our main projects;

– about once every three months, we organised a team dinner outside the office, and throughout the year, drinks parties, more or less improvised at the end of the day, for example on the occasion of the birthday of each member of the team, etc.;

– twice a year—at Christmas, and before the summer holidays—we had a meeting that was part business, part pleasure, in which the whole team, all of the agency’s contributors, and all of the client teams, were invited to share recent achievements, followed by drinks or a buffet.

It goes without saying that such a pattern of meetings can only function effectively if their agendas and schedules are planned and adhered to. Without such planning, the benefits rapidly evaporate. The quality of implementation depends on the manager, because it is the manager who sets the example. There’s no point in asking your team to be punctual if you yourself are always 10 minutes late, or to be well prepared for the meeting if you are not yourself so prepared. Iron self-discipline is advised if you are to be credible in this respect, at least if you want to apply these principles!

One trap to avoid is to fall into an extreme implementation of « process, » that buzzword of contemporary business, and it’s worth dwelling on this a little. What is the difference between a smoothly run organisation, and a « process »? On paper, not a lot. In reality, it all depends to what, and to whom, the process is applied. And it is there that the distinction generally resides. If the process is used to minimize energy-consuming tasks that add little value (or are repetitive or routine) it is welcome, as illustrated by the example of the agency meetings outlined above, or staging the management of a project. If, on the other hand, process begins to interfere with tasks that are supposed to lead to added value, there is a category error, and that rarely results in quality content—rather, it flattens the input. Finding good solutions for a creative brief is not about sticking to a process, but in knowing how to think and to pose good questions that will find good answers! It has rather more to do with the transmission of experience and knowhow—and therefore with human management.


Once the sources of « energy pollution » are eliminated or at least reduced to the minimum, and the organization and working of the team are optimized, does one now have a close team and a fantastic manager on parade every morning? Not necessarily, because it is equally possible for the principles outlined above to produce a sterile, robotic work environment. Human energy is only positively and sustainably renewed through motivational factors that transcend the daily routine, that allow one to see further and higher, individually and collectively. How can managers cook up this « food for the soul »?

Two paths to explore, both equally important, are at the level of the individual, and at the level of the group. Whatever the seniority of an employee in the business, a sustainable positive contribution is impossible without individual personal goals that are allied to those of the business. In today’s job market, if employees cannot plant their own seeds in order to harvest the recognition they desire, disillusion is much more likely than fulfillment. And without a collective goal, a shared linkage point, how does one prevent the goals and individual « agendas » from colliding in opposition rather than combining synergistically?


Mentoring the individual’s goals: in the structure of the business, a manager is theoretically a link between the upper and lower ranks, between the aspirations of the team, and the development of the business. This link is notably expressed through mentoring and support for the goals of each member of the team. The key expectations should be summarized in an annual appraisal. If it is the responsibility of the employee to achieve these objectives (if this is possible), it is the responsibility of the manager to allow him or her to do it. The challenge for the manager is therefore to transform this « static » plan into goals that can be allied to those of the team, and which will achieve traction on the multiple tasks, goals and plans that the employee in question is charged with accomplishing throughout the year. What that means, very practically, is using the « action plans » derived from the annual appraisal interview, to make the link between the objectives to be achieved, and the means at their disposal to do it. This requires regular followup and at least one intermediate appraisal half way through the year between each employee and their manager. Without investment of time, there can be no effective management.

Well-implemented, this adds an interesting logic to evolving professional environments, because it permits a shift towards an inversion of roles. The traditional view is that the goals of the individual should be to serve the business. A shift in management perspective towards the goals of the business being to serve the individual’s goals balances the power relation between employers and employees—and management becomes more sound and effective. In real terms, this can be summarized as follows: traditionally, when an employee joins a business to develop his or her career there, and stays for ten or twenty years, the employee’s individual goals merge with those of the development within the business, and the shape of any given job doesn’t really matter with respect to the big picture. Whereas when employees join a business in order to do a particular job for a particular length of time, they know that the post is only a stepping stone towards another job or company. The job and the company become a stage in the individual’s own personal development, which are not subsumed in the overall development of the business, but can contribute to it, and develop with it. From this perspective, the manager becomes a triangulation point in a more equal dynamic between the business and the employee. The relationship is a better creator of value because it is more of a partnership than a dependence.


Collective goals: taking the individual aspirations and goals of the members of the team as a starting point allows a range of « possibles » which are rich pastures for the attentive and committed manager to explore. From the perspective of the annual mission of the team, or the overall goals of the business, the combination of these individual aspirations can give rise to small parallel projects inside the team, for example, or the emergence of new ideas and solutions to problems presented to the team. That can create a sort of « incubator » of individual volunteer initiatives over and above each strict job description, which allows each individual to develop new competencies, and enriches the collective spirit of interchange and participation in the team. Obviously, to get to this stage, you must develop a certain level of mutual trust within the team, so that the employees understand that these « intrapreneurial » mini-goals are enriching their individual progress, and not an additional burden—for the same salary—to be completely avoided. It is also important in practice to first accomplish the primary stage of a shared team « vision » and a collective state of mind. It is only by generating a relationship of reciprocal trust that the initiative becomes possible—but that is also the most difficult thing! The practical benefits flow naturally from this, and step by step, a much wider canvas of shared vision will appear.


In conclusion, the practice of management is an ongoing balancing act, where the « butterfly effect » is ever present. Managers make the weather for their teams, and the less they are aware of their actions and attitudes, the more their influence can prove destructive. Conversely, by taking these issues on board, even where the scope for intervention is limited by, for example, the company hierarchy, it is possible to create a management « protected space » for ideas and initiatives. Capilliary diffusion of these ideas between employees in various teams can result in rich possibilities for individuals and the group. The reality is never idyllic. The ideas in this article are neither naive nor theoretical but extremely pragmatic, because the real difference is made by the people who create that reality—and they often do so, not through revolutionary projects, but by their attitudes and actions in the daily routine. A management approach with an « energetic » perspective enables you to surmount the dualities of reason/emotion, competence/experience, expertise/management, and achieve a vision of management that is at once practical and aspirational.


Translated from French by Douglas Carnall, Cabinet Beezer.

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