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The Powerful Impact of Positive Energy

What if energy output was a main measure of our organizational health?

Over all these years, I’ve been fortunate to connect—either directly, or indirectly through their books and teachings—with so many terrifically creative thinkers. People who have impacted my worldviews in meaningful ways, and given me insights that led to significant shifts in beliefs. Each has taught me new tools and approaches that have helped enormously in my efforts to be a better coworker, community member, leader, and life partner. There’s Ron Lippitt, from whom we learned visioning (through the teaching of Stas’ Kazmierski), and Peter Block, who got us thinking about Stewardship. Emma Goldman’s insights about anarchism, as you know, have been huge, as were Robert Greenleaf’s work on Servant Leadership and Maggie Bayless’ teachings about progressive training techniques. Prominent on that list as well would be Anese Cavanaugh, whose insights about energy management have, like what I learned from the others, changed my life and our organization for the better.

Here’s a bit of what I wrote about Anese in Part 2:

It was at [an] Inc. magazine conference, this one in the fall of 2009, that I heard Anese share her strongly held views about energy and the essential role it plays in the workplace… Once I heard Anese talk about energy I couldn’t believe I hadn’t paid attention to it years earlier. Literally, what I learned from her has changed the way I—and our entire organization—work every day.

So, what do I mean by energy? While I’m interested in global warming and alternative fuel sources… what I’m talking about here—what I learned from Anese—is that I need to pay very close attention to the energy that I bring with me to any interaction I have. To become mindful as well of the energy level that every person in our organization brings with them every day to their work; the impact that that energy—high, low, upbeat, angry, flat, furious, or fantastic—has on their co-workers, customers, and everyone else they come into contact with; the energy that one can sense—for better or for worse—within a minute and a half of walking into a business. Good energy, I realized after meeting Anese, is a hallmark of good leadership. You can feel its presence almost immediately in any well-run organization.

Mindful energy management is about helping all of us, as Anese says, to constantly check our “intentions, energy, and presence.” To remember, as she points out, to begin each day and each interaction we have at work by reminding ourselves “I am the culture.” On a personal level, paying attention to energy pushed me to improve the effectiveness of my presence. It helped me learn to recover more quickly when I slipped, and to develop tools that I could use (and share) on a daily basis—things like “3 and Out,” “Stop, Breath, Appreciate,” and calling friends on the phone—to aid me in staying centered in the inevitable emotional ups and downs of daily life. Organizationally, we have adapted Anese’s approaches to what we do here at Zingerman’s in a range of helpful ways. First, we formally defined “fun” on a professional level at Zingerman’s as “positive energy.” We then went further and defined what energy is (we look at the three parts: physical, mental/emotional/spiritual/intellectual, and vibrational—a reference to the energy others pick up from us). As pretty much everyone at Zingerman’s, and many of you, already know, we have “Four Steps to Effective Energy Management”:

Read it — We use a 0 (terrible) to 10 (terrific) scale to measure it.

Vision it — Where do you want to be at the end of the day (or conversation, etc.)?

Manage it — Knowing ourselves, what do we need to do to get there?

Repeat it — Since the world is happening around us all the time, often in unexpected ways, we need to constantly recenter ourselves to get back to where we want to be.

(You can read all about the recipe and much more about our energy work in Secrets #20 and #21 which Jenny Tubbs turned into a terrific little single pamphlet that’s like an upside down book. The pamphlet also has a form for an exercise you can use to track your energy inputs… it’s simple, but it works well.)

Over the years, we have done a pretty decent job of building energy into our organizational culture (see Secret #19 for more on those). We teach it, we’ve defined it, we’ve tried to live it (we all fall short regularly), we measure it, and through feedback to each other hopefully we recognize and reward it. Energy comes up regularly in classes (I teach it in the Welcome to ZCoB new-staff orientation class, it gets written into job descriptions and shift notes, and it’s a commonly used organizational icebreaker at huddles and meetings (one of the best ways to get people’s voices into the room, which in turn is likely to raise their energy). This focus on energy has had, I believe, a very big impact. Here’s what Bethany Zinger, a manager at the Roadhouse, shared on the subject:

I think it’s easy as managers, and ZCoBbers to forget just how much energy management we do in a day and how much it has become second nature. This year everyone has had immense challenges and we have all in some way or another have had to deal with trauma and grief, whether it’s grief for the way things were, or trauma over having our year and day-to-day life ripped away. For me this year I was faced with the sudden loss of my Father. Throughout the whole thing, I continued to find myself surprised by my own actions and energy management throughout that process. So often we think of energy management as needing to be happy and positive all the time, but I don’t think that’s true necessarily—sometimes energy management is remaining calm so others can break down. I know I used the ‘3 and Out’ method a lot in the weeks following his passing. Anytime I was on the brink of falling apart (at an inopportune time, because let’s be real, sometimes we should fall apart), I would appreciate a family member or friend for something they were doing for my family, and I would keep doing it until I felt in control of my emotions and energy again.

Bethany’s write-up is a lovely testimony to how teaching energy management can make a difference in all parts of our lives. The impact it has on each of us as individuals, on our co-workers, on our customers, and our friends and family is huge. In nature, energy never goes away. As the U.S. Energy Information Administration says, “Energy is neither created nor destroyed. When people use energy, it doesn’t disappear. Energy changes from one form of energy into another form of energy.” Which means that what we put into our organizational ecosystems every minute of every day will be with us, in one form or another, for the rest of our lives. That energy may show up in our service, our food, our connection with our coworkers; it can come home with us, and we may pass it on to the clerk at the convenience store after we leave work. Whether we realize it or not, energy is in the art we’re making, it’s in the food we’re cooking, it’s in our emails. It lives. Energy is everywhere. Our organizational ecosystems, when it comes down to it, are all about energy. As with love, I want to suggest that you can feel the successes and the struggles of our organizations in the energy you experience every time you come to work, come to shop, or get a catalog or an email.

Energy, I’ve come to realize, is as much an indicator of our collective health as any economic metric we might study. In What’s Your Story, authors Rebecca Walker and Lily Diamond point out, “Every moment brings the opportunity to awaken and to put ourselves, and our stories, together in a new way.” What follows is, perhaps, a different way to put our stories together, to understand and assess our organizational lives through a different lens. What, I began to wonder, if we were to begin measuring our organizational effectiveness by focusing as much on energy as we do on economics? What if our organizations had an “energy statement” each month to show the net loss or gain of human energy in the ecosystem? What if we had a “balance sheet” that showed our energy contribution to our greater ecosystem over time? What if each person in the organization did the same—they didn’t just check their paycheck each week, they also measured their energy and their impact? What if then, taking that further, the ecosystems that are our towns, communities, neighborhoods, and families were made up of organizations that all had net positive outputs of human energy? And just like with financial statements, when things are off course (as they will inevitably be at times), we could work collaboratively to correct our course?

Changing our stories, the way we tell them and remember them, can make a big difference. If energy were to be considered an essential metric of our organizational health, all sorts of good things might well follow. In their book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write, “Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities.” How we perceive energy, how much we value it, how much work we do to make it better, how we appreciate it when it’s really good, can make a big difference in our organizations and our communities. As Toni Morrison says, “I am a teller of stories and therefore an optimist, a believer in the ethical bend of the human heart, a believer in the mind’s disgust with fraud and its appetite for truth, a believer in the ferocity of beauty… I see your life as already artful, waiting, just waiting and ready for you to make it art.” How we put energy to work in our organizations is one of those ways. And how to use it is up to us. As Morrison reminds us: “You are your own stories.”

(Please know, I’m not suggesting we just pretend there are no problems, or that we don’t feel pain, grief, anger, sadness, or a sense of loss. As Bethany described so beautifully above, acknowledging and accepting things as they are, can be difficult, and actually improves energy. I was recently part of a difficult but meaningful meeting that reminded me of that point—acknowledgement, and taking responsibility for our roles, are prerequisites for making things better. Please know too that nothing about taking responsibility for our energy implies blame for those who have been so unfairly pushed out and left behind by society for having “bad energy.” It’s hard to keep your energy grounded when so many things are against you before you even begin.)

Anese has told me many times: “Where attention goes, energy flows.” The inverse is also true. Where energy flows, attention goes. If we focus only on what’s wrong, talk behind each other’s backs or place blame, we’re going to create energetically negative nightmares for ourselves. If you think—as I have been—of organizations as ecosystems and maybe frame our work as farmers, then the question I ask myself here is, ‘How can we create the organizational equivalent of what’s come to be called ‘regenerative agriculture?’” Here’s what the highly-esteemed Rodale Institute, founded in 1947, says about it:

Robert Rodale, J.I. Rodale’s son, coined the term “regenerative organic” to distinguish a kind of farming that goes beyond sustainable. Regenerative organic agriculture not only maintains resources but improves them… The idea is to create farm systems that work in harmony with nature to improve quality of life for every creature involved.

David Bronner adds, “Regenerative organic agriculture is just the name for taking responsibility to grow your materials in a way that respects the soil, rewards farmers, and makes sure everyone is winning.” To illustrate the point, Indian farmer Pawan Kumar shares, “The land that my father has given me, I hope to be able to pass on to my children in good condition, so that they can pass it on to future generations and that for them it will be even better than when I received it.” I will say the same for us in terms of our organization. Anese teaches that one of the most important elements of effective energy management is to clearly set our intention. So, what if we adapt this holistic philosophy of farming to what we do at work by developing regenerative organizational ecosystems?

Keeping track of our energy outputs might be one of the most effective ways we can do that. All organizations emit energy into their ecosystems. Healthy organizations radiate positive energy; unhealthy organizations do the opposite. The latter may be financially profitable, but they often make money by extracting energy from staff and suppliers and “reallocating” it to those at the top of their own hierarchy. Conversely, if we’re thinking in terms of regenerative work as I’m writing about here, we would consistently impart more positive energy—to each other, customers, vendors, neighbors, in our social media and our marketing, etc.—than we take in. In the process we would move way past the neutrality of “zero-footprint,” and instead actively work to make meaningful positive impacts on our communities.

Shifting from the macro to the micro… while our organizations emit a collective, ecosystem-wide energy, each of us as individuals has the ability and responsibility to manage our own energy as well. The more positive energy we each bring, the better our work is likely to go. In the process we can make our lives regenerative as well! There are a range of things that generally increase our energy. You have seen many of them in what I write, and you will likely know all of them from your own life experiences. Like the spiritual stimulus of generosity that I wrote about last week, these have little or really no financial cost. They do though, I believe, have economic impact—the better our energy, the better our work will be. And as author Sarah Lewis says, “No object is immune from deriving some energy from its surroundings.” In no particular order then, here’s a list of things that I think improve my energy and may help yours as well.

Vision — seeing a positive future, seeing how we’re part of something greater than ourselves, seeing how our individual work contributes to collective creativity.

Purpose — knowing that what we do makes a positive difference for others is huge. In the ecosystem metaphor, purpose is air, and as Toni Morrison writes, “If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it.”

Hope — being able to imagine a better tomorrow always boosts our spirit. As philosopher Gabriel Marcel said, “Hope is a memory of the future”

Spirit of generosity — I shared a whole program for spiritual stimulus led by generosity last week. It waters our spiritual garden.

Financial safety — if we can’t pay bills, we’re going to be hard pressed to hold the course with positive energy. This correlation is part of what made me wonder if energy metrics wouldn’t be a really good way to measure our organizational health.

Positive beliefs — positive beliefs, I learned in working on Part 4, lead to positive outcomes; negative beliefs lead to negative outcomes. And yes, we absolutely can have positive, hopeful beliefs about problems that we need to address.

Laughing —not at someone but with someone.

Being true to ourselves and being honored as such — As John O’Donohue said, “An awful lot of people put a whole lot of energy into being something they aren’t.

Having your voice count — we all want to make a difference.

Authenticity — being able to be real, to be who you really are, to share concerns in constructive ways, and to have your anxieties acknowledged.

Acceptance ( I don’t mean passivity) — being in denial (I’ve done it) is not helpful. Owning the realities of our situation, imperfect as it is, honoring our shortfalls, fears, frustrations, and limitations is often hard to do, but is ultimately a boost for our energy.

Beauty —I’ve written a lot about this already so I’m not going repeat it all here. We have two directions to turn and both are terrific: Creating more beauty, or noticing the beauty in what’s all around us already. Andy Warhol wrote, “You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.”

Breathing — as ZCoBber Zach Milner reminds me, “Breathing is the cornerstone of energy management.”

Being in nature — getting outside, breathing fresh air, appreciating natural beauty all help.

Vocation — another way to say, “good work.” As Sam Keen says, “A voice from my future, an in-dwelling impulse that draws me forward, a love song calling me to fulfill the promise of my life.”

Learning — active learning is like “working out for our brains.”

Solitude and connection — some like seeking solitude, others strive to socialize. Both have value.

Freedom to — making conscious choices to pursue our path, and owning those decisions makes a big energetic difference.

Diversity — different perspectives and diversity lead to health and energetic wealth.

Self-awareness — Arianna Téllez León, trainer at ZingTrain shared, “Learning energy management has taught me that I get ‘hangry.’ And that other people do too! It’s not a bad thing, just a clue that I need to change my behavior (eat a meal or a snack) so I can give better service to my coworkers and customers. Even better, it gives me an opportunity to let my coworkers know about this idiosyncrasy so they can help me too.”

There’s so much more: Collaboration, Physical health, Connection, Dignity, Music, Hydration, Singing, Dancing, Cooking, Eating food that nourishes us, Meditation, Mindfulness, Exercise, Care, Connection, Friendship, Humbleness, Art, Being around the right people, and Creative engagement of our abilities (physical, intellectual, and emotional)…

There are, unfortunately, an equal number of things that will reduce energy. It’s not something to brag about, but I‘ve unintentionally done them all over the years. My apologies to those I’ve let down, on whom I’ve unwittingly inflicted pain, or for whom I’ve caused problems. Again, in no particular order:

Inequity, Exclusion, Egotism (when we choose ego over ecosystem we extract energy instead of enhance it), Humiliation, Cynicism, Gossip , Drama, Negative beliefs, Stereotyping, Freezing people in time, Complaining without constructive approaches to improve, Blaming, Victim mindsets, Pursuing only freedom from (when we’re pushing away only in reaction), Being out of alignment, Not speaking our truth, Not speaking our minds in constructive ways, and Doing work we don’t believe in (see Secret #40 in Part 4)…

To be clear, none of us get this right every day. We make mistakes, we forget, we fall short. One key to good energy management is to breathe, get grounded, and return to a centered state of humbleness even when we’ve gone awry. Another key is learning to accept a compliment with grace. (It took me years of therapy!) And one of the nicest compliments I believe we get is about energy. When a coworker shares something like: “You know, when I came to work today, my energy wasn’t that great. But I’m going home now feeling much better than when I got here!” That, at its most down to earth, grass roots level, is what this idea of regenerative business is about. We leave feeling better than we did when we arrived. We can see—and say—the same for the broader ecosystem as well. While I was working on this piece I got a lovely note from Christy McKenzie, who owns Pasture and Plate in Madison. She wrote that, thanks to what she’d read in the Guide to Good Leading books and pamphlets, her business and her leadership were in a much better place: “Well,” she shared enthusiastically, “we did it. It only took a year and a half and a pandemic, but we have effectively made the energy shift in our business!!” She shared some of the details of what that had meant, and then closed with, “So, all that to say, THANK YOU! The words seem too simple to encompass the gratitude and support I feel from all you do. I hope the Zingerman’s team is well, and that your energy is a ten today.”

Poet Gary Snyder says, “With no surroundings there can be no path, and with no path one cannot become free.” We are all part of greater ecosystems than ourselves; the effective energy management and measurement we learned from Anese gives us a productive and positive path forward. When we follow that path, each in our own unique ways—with kindness, humility, generosity, love, compassion, and care—we can and will contribute greatly to the world around us and everyone and everything who’s in it. As Anese says, “Let’s do what we need to do, and become who we need to become, to make more good in the world and unlock what’s possible together.”

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!