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fracking the human being

2018.05.19

Discretionary energy is a term used to describe optional effort that an employee might put into their job. An employee who's coasting is spending no discretionary energy. Someone who consistently goes "above and beyond" is expending a good deal of it. Mountains can be moved if you can harness your team's discretionary energy.

It can be done when the work and the environment appeals to the worker. Because such an environment is itself energizing, the extra energy extracted comes at no cost to the employee. It's a virtuous circle.

Achieving this sort of higher effort from your people is not easy, but it is effective and the principles aren't hard to understand. It involves building an environment in which contributors can experience the results of their work, can feel supported and respected, and know that their efforts will be reciprocated through like contribution from their colleagues. It takes a steady hand both with your staff and with any counter-parties with whom they might have to work.

I'll explore this further in a moment, but first I want to look at a different approach, which is the high-pressure extraction of energy from staff who aren't energized and aren't expending the energy at their discretion.

fracking for discretionary energy

Extracting discretionary energy–that is, pushing people to give more than they can sustain–can happen incidentally through negligence. I've also experience environments where it happens by design. It's a sort of "fracking" of humans for discretionary energy.

Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) is an oil industry technique for extracting residual oil and gas reserves from a region with insufficient natural flow. It involves injecting a gritty fluid under high pressure deep into the target rock strata to force open fractures in the rock and keep them open – grains of grit (say, a fine sand) are left in the fractures. It's a practice that has been said to lead to a wide array of issues. And those fractures remain, permanently.

Even if well-intentioned, we "frack" people when we push upon them too much work or too much chaos. Or when we create situations where the work is disconnected from any sense of purpose. Or when there's no effort made to instill a sense of ownership. These situations leads to exhaustion, confusion, frustration, and mistrust. And these cause a great deal of stress and inevitably leads to greatly reduced energy output–either through exhaustion or departure of the "fracked".

The symptoms of a coercive environment aren't hard to spot:

+ Teamwork is poor if it exists at all. This can be because individuals within a team are given incompatible instruction, or are given shifting priorities.

+ Work loads are distributed very unevenly. A small number of people seem to be carrying the organization while the majority is not in a position to help.

+ Crucial information is routinely withheld from those who need it.

+ In some coercive environments, decisions can't be made without the boss. The refusal to delegate causes impacts engagement through things like lost time, lost opportunity, rework, and so on. But it also causes the team to wonder if there's a lack of trust on the part of the leadership. In other coercive environments, decisions are routinely made without input from the people doing the work. This destroys any sense of ownership by the team. And finally, decisions are being made in the absence of authority. This can result when decision processes and authorization have not been established and communicated, and can also result when those in authority habitually leave those doing the work to make do.

+ Support tends to vanish at crucial times for the people doing the work.

+ Mistakes and cut corners become the norm. Harried staff will make errors, and anyone that's under sustained pressure will look for the relief of short cuts. Short cuts can bring short-term relief but damage the company or the product in the long term.

don't be a fracker

My guide to capturing discretionary energy without fracking the human being is this:

1. Communicate goals and expectations regularly. Live up to those expectations yourself–there can't be a separate standard for anyone in charge. Impossible expectations have to be identified as such at the earliest possible time. At the same time, those setting the expectations must be ready to accept such feedback. Promote the ideas of the team and ensure that they are heard. Draw everyone into the planning process.

2. Ensure the development of teamwork and reciprocity within the team by making roles clear, by publicly celebrating success, and making every member's contributions understood across the team. If someone's not working out, recognize it in a timely fashion and act. Value the contributions people make by letting them stand, even if things weren't done the way you would do them. A sense of accomplishment–especially team accomplishment–cannot be acquired any other way.

3. Be honest with your team. Make sure they hear news from you before it becomes a surprise learned through the grapevine in an uncontrolled fashion. Share your concerns about problems and encourage your team-mates to participate in their resolution. You can't be genuine with people without being honest, and that requires a great deal of candor.

4. Relentlessly support your people, especially those who are being put upon. Your own work's not done until everyone's work is done. If someone's suffering sustained overwork, helping them is a priority task. If anyone seeks advice on work-related things like careers, give it. I find it enormously helpful if people can find purpose in their work, and for many people in any organization that purpose is lacking. Because we all have to work, and because our personal fortunes are tied directly to the sort of work we do, this connection can be a strong link to getting people more engaged. Respect the time people have committed to your meetings and share the news of absences as early as possible. Be present, and be on time. Being present fosters a sense of your commitment and returns the commitment made by the others who are present.

5. Fix the broken things that frustrate people about their work. Saddling people with frustrating and irritating processes and tools will put the lie to all the good things you might say or do. Encourage the development of strong ties across the organization to foster inter-team collaboration and break down inter-departmental obstructions.

I don't know if it's possible to consciously plan on generating truly discretionary energy, but these were the habits I've tried to pursue as obviously good practice, and I've noticed the engagement of staff improve as a result. It's got to be an organic process–as I say, the relationships have to be genuine.

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