When Intelligent Management first started working with American firms over 15 years ago we couldn’t help noticing differences in working habits. We were impressed by the dedication and work ethic, but it quickly became apparent that those 6am meetings meant that by 4pm people were fried. However, when the CEO goes to the gym at 5am to be ready for the day ahead, inevitably others feel the pressure to keep up.
It also became clear that without a systemic approach to management, a huge amount of energy was wasted due to lack of a clear strategy and synchronized method to roll out goals. People’s time and energy went into fighting fires and dealing with symptoms instead of root causes. Meetings were scheduled and cancelled, as were international travel plans, resulting in not a little chaos, not to mention added cost.
So I have to take issue with a recent article in the HBR, ‘Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time‘, where the authors describe helping executives ‘manage their energy’ better. While it is quite laudable to help people improve their working lives, there are several flaws in the reasoning behind this article. Increasing wellbeing and productivity has to be an organizational effort, and that cannot simply mean the leadership investing in a program to teach people techniques. Individuals can only do so much, no matter how well they are coached, because they are part of a bigger picture.
The authors of the HBR article point out, quite rightly, that time is a finite resource. People push themselves to put in more hours and reach breaking point. The authors suggest that people need to ‘recognize the cost of energy-depleting behaviours and then take responsibility for changing them, regardless of the circumstances they’re facing.’
The advice they give is common sense – eating more nourishing food, cutting back on alcohol, going to bed earlier, getting exercise, taking breaks, managing conflicts and negative emotions etc. They describe the case of one executive who still puts in long hours but ‘renews himself regularly along the way.’ The problem is, no matter how well-meaning a corporation might be in introducing this kind of initiative to the workplace, from a systemic perspective it is still completely missing the point. If you want to increase your energy level at work there is something else you need to know.
Complexity and interdependencies exist
The thinking behind the HBR article is still rooted in a mechanistic model, overlooking the existence of complexity. (I would say this is true of many of the HBR articles). The authors imply that by optimizing every individual element of something the whole thing improves. So by that reasoning, teaching everyone to manage their individual energy levels better increases productivity. But it just doesn’t work that way. Organizations are not machines, they are whole, complex systems, so the only way to improve productivity and wellbeing is to address the whole system. It can’t just be about the willpower of individuals because you can’t superimpose behaviours and techniques if the way the work is organized is flawed. If you want to really optimize productivity and energy use, you have to shift the entire way the organization thinks and works.
More than rituals
Work can be organized into much fewer hours when it is addressed systemically. To achieve that, leaders and managers need to adopt a helicopter view of their organization and redesign the interdependencies to create a synchronized system.
It is possible to create a flow of work that uses all the resources of the organization in an intelligent way. In other words, by not asking people to do things that don’t make sense the quality of their lives improves radically and work becomes less stressful and more meaningful. By adopting systemic thinking, conflicts can be resolved as an ongoing process of continuous improvement and innovation. Intelligent emotions can be cultivated through this kind of thinking. Assumptions can be challenged, for example, how much work really needs to be done at the workplace and within certain hours? When are meetings really necessary and can they be done via Skype?
Trying to combat stress and burnout by adopting certain techniques or ‘rituals’ as the authors of the HBR article call them, remains at the level of technique. Meaningfulness needs to be embedded in the very structure of the organization, eliminating silos and unnecessary barriers, as well as redesigning the way the work is carried out to optimize quality and flow. This will not only create more satisfaction for employees, it will also release the highest amount of throughput, i.e. the ‘energy’ of the organization.
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About the Author
Angela Montgomery Ph.D. is Partner and Co-founder of Intelligent Management and author of the business novel+ website The Human Constraint . This downloadable novel uses narrative to look at how the Deming approach and the Theory of Constraints can create the organization of the future, based on collaboration, network and social innovation. She is co-author with Dr. Domenico Lepore, founder, and Dr. Giovanni Siepe of ‘Quality, Involvement, Flow: The Systemic Organization’ from CRC Press, New York.