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Leadership Development

Creating Good Energy

The Natural Laws of Business is a concept that we’ve had at Zingerman’s for about 15 years. It’s also the title of an essay that I wrote for a previous issue of Specialty Food Magazine and stuck into Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 1, which was published last year. Basically, they are about operating in a financially sound, supportive, sustainable and evolving way that offers clear direction to employees and provides a compelling reason for customers to shop with you. I am convinced that these Laws are part and parcel of having a successful business.

What’s become equally clear to me lately is that not following these Natural Laws can seriously screw up a company—and with it, all the people who are part of it and the community in which they work. While I’m shy about making bold statements like this, I’m going say it: By operating in violation of the Natural Laws of Business, the country’s workplaces are suffering a serious energy crisis—positive energy is way down and negative energy is on the rise.

Defining “Energy”

I’ve become increasingly conscious of energy in the workplace in recent years, in large part thanks to Anese Cavanaugh, founder of the California company Dare to Engage, who does an amazing job of teaching and coaching on the subject. Anese describes energy as the way everyone feels and the feeling we get from being around it, in this case at work.

Here’s an example of what we think of when we talk about bad energy. Walk into most any mall or call most any mail-order business and the place is likely to feel flat. We can see, hear and feel the lack of liveliness in the faces of too many hard-working people all over the country. Quite simply, and sadly, vast amounts of available energy are being wasted.

Is Your Company at Risk for an Energy Crisis?

How do you know if your company is suffering from low or negative energy? One way is if you find yourself asking these questions over and over again: What’s wrong with all my employees? Why don’t they get it? Why don’t more people start to innovate? What’s keeping employees from being more creative? What’s wrong with the economy? What’s keeping things from getting going?

We’ve all turned to the easy answers—“Creativity is being killed by texting and video games,” “People’s work ethic isn’t what it used to be,”—but the truth is that the issue starts with us as managers and owners. And, therefore, the solution starts with us: the people in leadership roles in any business, organization or, for that matter, country.

Key Points

1. When energy is low, so too is creativity, innovation, engagement and almost everything else. But it is fairly easily repaired.
With low energy, employees’ eyes are dull, their voices fall flat. Though their work is good enough to get by, it’s clearly neither exceptional nor overly inspiring. I don’t mean that they hate their jobs or that they’re not trying or don’t care at all. But they’re watching the clock more than they’re watching the bottom line.

However, when leaders inspire and institute a positive level of emotional energy by adhering to the Natural Laws, the effect on the rest of the team is immediate. With positive energy comes talent, intellectual ability, innovation, creativity, caring, generosity of spirit, belief, big ideas and doing all that extra-effort stuff that so often makes the difference between winning and losing.

If you are in an organization that is extremely high energy, I would bet that you are living nearly all of those 12 Natural Laws. You can usually see the impact of their harmonious relationship with the world by observing your employees. They are excited—their heads and hearts are all in the game. People look happy. They’re smiling, laughing and learning.

2. A key to good energy is that people are actually supposed to like what they’re doing and be informed about what is driving the company.

In his book, Using the Power of Purpose, Dean Tucker cites data from a Harris Poll. Of those surveyed:

  • Only 37 percent of employees clearly knew the company’s goals;
  • Only 20 percent were enthusiastic about those goals;
  • Only 20 percent saw how they could support those goals;
  • Only 15 percent felt like they were enabled to work toward the goals;
  • Only 20 percent fully trusted the company that employed them.

Pretty dismal, don’t you think? And thanks to Tucker’s data, I realized the issue was worse than I first thought. He had the deft wisdom and wit to suggest that one translate that workplace data into what it would mean for a football team. Of the 11 players who get sent out onto the field:

  • Only four know which goal they’re going toward;
  • Even more depressing, only two of them care;
  • Only two know which position they’re supposed to be playing when they get on the field;
  • Only two team members believe that their efforts on the field could make a difference;
  • And all but two players would be just as likely to be rooting for the other team as their own.

Hello! Insert all the expletives you’re comfortable composing, and then add a couple more for good luck. Is that an energy crisis or what? Remember, this isn’t just me making stuff up while holed away in the slightly strange version of reality that is Zingerman’s here in Ann Arbor. This is Data with a serious, corporate, official “D.” American business is paying people (often with lots of benefits) to work at somewhere between 15 and 37 percent of capacity. They show up. They do work. They get paid. But the truth is, they’re operating as if their batteries were on low or they were trying to speed down a highway in a low gear.

Conversely, the energy level here at Zingerman’s is high, as are our sales. Bottom-line results and savings levels are also healthy. I’m getting similar reports from friends and colleagues across the country. The headlines are still horrific and I know many people are still suffering, but the companies that are living the Natural Laws are doing pretty well.

Our job, the way I see it, is to help raise energy even higher regardless of which direction others’ economic winds are blowing. Energy is so important at Zingerman’s that we are now formally defining “fun”—in the professional sense of the word—as “positive energy.” We’ve even begun to draft a recipe and a more detailed definition to use in our training. (I’m happy to send copies on request — send me an email at ari at zingermans dot com.) The concept of energy has pretty quickly become a big part of our culture; most everyone here can, and will, talk about energy, and it’s being built into our training and operating systems.

3. To combat this prevalent workplace fatigue, it’s time to mindfully live the Natural Laws of Business.

It does seem a bit odd, I guess, to “give away” our natural advantage in the marketplace. If everyone else in our area starts to live and lead according to the Natural Laws of Business, that will, I suppose, make it harder for Zingerman’s to stay successful. But that would be a good problem to have. As a big believer in sustainable business, it’s clear to me that the better everyone around us does, the better our town’s going to do and the better we’re going to do too. So please, go for it—eat away at our current natural advantage by living the Natural Laws for yourself.

Starting to live the Natural Laws might be easier said than done. But emotionally challenging as it may be, I believe this is the solution to the energy crisis in the workplace. Anyone who’s interested, who’s ready to do some reflection and willing to change the way they lead and run their organizations can get the work going in the right direction. And so, too, can anyone else—leadership work isn’t limited to people whose names show up at the top of organizational charts.

4. By living the Natural Laws we develop a different—and radically more rewarding—way of relating to work, the world, our organizations and ourselves.

If that sounds grandiose, maybe it is. What I think starts to happen when people begin living the Natural Laws of Business is that they make the transition that one of my favorite writers, Wendell Berry, describes as going from “bad work” to “good work.” Good work leads to good energy. Berry argues eloquently that: “The old and honorable idea of vocation is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of good work for which we are particularly fitted.” Implicit in this idea, he adds, “is the evidently startling possibility that we might work willingly, and that there is no necessary contradiction between work and happiness or satisfaction.”

Raise the quality of people’s work experience by living the Natural Laws, and we raise their energy. Raise their energy and we raise the quality of their work. Raise the quality of their work and we raise their energy again. You get the idea. If you think that won’t impact GNP, product quality, service scores, fun factors and a million other things, think again. The energy with which we emerge from our workplace is going to impact the way we deal with our kids, our companions, other service providers when we’re customers and pretty much everything else.