My wife has an old friend from college who would rally the gang together to go out to the bar on a regular basis. He was a few years older than her, tireless in his pursuit of fun, and infectious in his enthusiasm. "It's the 15th to last Tuesday of my college career! You have to come out with me!"
This made his call to arms every Tuesday until he graduated, and in the years followingprogressed from corporate high-riser to building his own marketing business. After growing that business to over $40 million in revenue, he moved on to be the executive director of a theater company. Through it all - college shenanigans, corporate life, entrepreneurship and the arts, he maintained that same infectious energy that made him the Pied Piper of Durham, NC.
This kind of energy is something most of us have experienced. A person comes along and you find yourself wanting to work with them, or just be around them while they do their magic. It's an experience that feels good but impossible to nail down in order to replicate. Except someone has.
Rob Cross is a professor at The Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. His research expertise is in organizational network analysis - the application of social network analysis to improve organizational effectiveness. Cross and some colleagues examined several organizations to find out more about energizing encounters at work, and they found that energizers have some common traits and some common experiences.
Along with Andrew Parker and Wayne Baker, Cross found that there are certain people in organizations that increase the feeling of energy for everyone they encounter. When you engage with an energizer, you feelmore motivated, more valued and just generally better than before. Along with the upside for everyone who interacts with him, there is a clear benefit to being an energizer. Cross, Baker and Parker note that:
Energizers are more likely to have their ideas considered and put into action.
They motivate others to act.
People devote themselves more fully to interactions with an energizer.
Energizers also attract the commitment of other high performers.
People position themselves to work for these engaging colleagues.
The energizer doesn't reach out to cultivate a network. People reach out to him - they want him as part of their developmental and operational networks. The energizer cultivates his network by being attractive - not physically, but relationally. So what makes these people a fountain of energy? Cross, Baker and Parker found five things.
1. Energizers focus on possibilities.
When talking with an energizer, they focus on what can happen, rather than focusing on what is impossible. More specifically, the energizer focuses on the possibilities that can make their goals and plans come to fruition, rather than fixating on problems and negative externalities. This often shows up as having a vision and leading toward it. It's a standard requirement for work leaders. However, even outside of work, a vision has value. Our Pied Piper had a vision in college of his buddies out enjoying a Tuesday night, celebrating their youth and friendship. He focused on the possibilities instead of worrying about problems (homework) and a clear vision of what college should be.
2. Energizers create space for others to contribute in meaningful ways.
Sometimes a visionary can feel like a taskmaster. They share the idea of a better future, but make it clear that you are merely an instrument in creating that future, instead of a participant. Energizers create participation. Cathy Salit, author of Performance Breakthrough, calls this building your ensemble: bringing together people who will improve your performance while you improve theirs. The ensemble is different from the team – in the ensemble, the audience applauds all the players, not just the stars.
3. Energizers are fully engaged when they connect with you.
At any given restaurant, at this very minute, a table full of people are sitting together, each staring at their individual phone. This has become an epidemic in our culture to the point that 'texting neck' is now a condition doctors see. Being with someone when their intention and attention are somewhere else is de-energizing. Energizers engage fully when they are with people. To connect with people, they use body language, eye contact, and a conversation style that that make you feel heard. Whether they are the loud, central storyteller or the quiet, introverted listener, thisengagement makes people feel energized after communicating with them.
4. Energizers engage and help people see progress.
Through engaging their ensemble fully, the energizer moves towards their vision. They may not progress the way that they expect or want, but they celebrate wins where they are and have the flexibility to see wins that they hadn't anticipated. Finding 'wins', even small ones, is a key motivator according to Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School and consultant Steven J. Kramer. In their book The Progress Principle they describe key ways to motivate employees. It turns out that the biggest influence of creating a positive, motivated inner work life is making progress - even small, noticeable progress - towards meaningful goals.
5. Energizers foster belief in the goal.
When you work with an energizer, you not only see the vision and feel like you contribute to it, but you believe that it is worthwhile and important. Cross, Baker and Parker found that this belief was created by one key factor: integrity.
An energizer’s integrity has an impact on energy creation in two important ways. First, energizers speak their minds rather than harbor hidden agendas…Second, integrity between words and action is critical.
Energizers avoid politics and are reliable contributors. They demonstrate their belief in the goal through working on it and staying focused on the vision instead of politics.
In reading this, you may recognize your own Pied Piper: someone you know who rallies people around a vision and ideal, who motivates and engages. However, it may not be clear how to be that person yourself, or even if it's possible to be that person. So what's the benefit of knowing about energizers?
Going back to Salit's book Breakthrough Performance, the benefit of knowing this is that you can perform your way into being an energizer.
While it may seem a daunting performance, try these small steps first:
Focus on the positive and the possible - Emphasizing aches, pains and problem points drains energy. While problems need to be acknowledged, use them as stepping points to discuss possibilities and your future vision.
Put your phone down - Engage with the people who are with you, physically, right now. Make eye contact, ignore the countless screens clamoring for your attention, and let people know they are important.
Solicit input - the easiest way to make people feel like they are contributing meaningfully is to ask them for their contribution. As Ben Franklin said, "Nothing makes someone think you are wise more than asking them for their opinion on a matter."
Be reliable - Doing what you say you will builds energy simply and effectively.
Celebrate wins, big or small - look for the progress towards your goals, and celebrate them with the people who have helped you achieve them.