Energy Areyouadonororadrainer?

Energy – Are you a donor or a drainer?

The importance of engaging team members and the organisation more broadly has been written about extensively and few would argue the merits of this argument – however common sense does not always equal common practice.


Energy can be a useful lens to look at how we engage others (and ourselves). In physics, energy is an indirectly observed quantity that is often understood as the ability of a physical system to do work on other physical systems. In a general sense, a system can transfer energy to another system, however when energy is transferred, the transfer produces changes in the second system. In all such energy transformation processes, the total energy remains the same. Although the total energy of a system does not change with time, its value may depend on the frame of reference. We don’t have to make a big leap to see how ‘energy’ is an excellent real-world metaphor for the realities of organisational life.

The Illusive Factor in Teams

People exchange ‘energy’ constantly. You will be all-too familiar with those who seem to be able to add energy to a team or system (donors) and those who are equally skilled at taking energy away (drainers). However, there are subtleties that remain a blind spot for many. In a piece of research that may change how we think about teams (reported in HBR April 2012) , Alex Pentland and his colleagues at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory have developed a way to measure the contribution or withdrawal of energy in teams. They claim to have found the most important factor of a team’s success – communication. But not any communication, more specifically they found that the pattern of communication is the key differentiator. Using electronic badges worn by study participants, they were able to measure tone of voice, how much team members faced each other, the amount of gestures, how much they talk, listen and display empathy among other things. They were able to map energy (individual contribution), engagement (how team members communicate with one another) and exploration (how teams communicate with one another as a whole). Figure 1 shows these three areas visually.

Source: Pentland, Alex, “The New Science of Building Great Teams”, Harvard Business Review, April 2012

What is the illusive difference that makes a team high performing?

At a higher level, the data reveals that successful teams share several defining characteristics:

  1. Everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet.
  2. Members face one another, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
  3. Members connect directly with one another—not just with the team leader.
  4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.
  5. Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back.

In summary, the best way to build a great team is not to select individuals for their smarts or accomplishments but to learn how they communicate and to shape and guide the team so that it follows successful communication patterns.

It will be no surprise to some that the key differences identified that makes a team high performing are what I consider to be the fundamentals of communication such as listening, keeping their conversations short and sweet and connecting directly with each other rather than just through the leader (see sidebar for more). Here is the paradox – for most of our professional lives we take listening for granted and instead try to be more articulate so we can get our point across more effectively. Instead, senior executives should focus on learning to listen to engage and energise others.

Select team members based on communication, not skill or talent

Perhaps a challenging thought, but what if we were to select people on their ability to communicate in the ways described above and in similar patterns? The researchers found that that the patterns of communication played a critical role in building successful teams. In fact, they found patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success – as significant as all the other factors like individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions – combined.

Finally, who is responsible for engaging and energising?

The simple and most predictable answer is the ‘leader’. I don’t believe the answer is so straight-forward. In a traditional, hierarchical organisation, organisational members tend to look to those with authority to provide guidance and to keep us motivated and focussed on the job at hand. While it is true that senior people have a disproportionate impact on the levels of engagement and energy of others, if we left it just to authority figures (e.g. team leaders, managers, directors, the CEO, etc.) then we are likely to fall very short of the mark. If we were to extrapolate the MIT research discussed earlier, the role of engaging and managing energy is everyone’s responsibility – leaders can’t do it alone.

We often think that we should be ‘up’ all the time – and that we need to keep people happy. While we need to create more humanistic workplaces where people are valued for their contribution and treated with respect, this should not be mistaken for leaders being ‘happy pill’ dispensers. On the contrary, in order to create meaningful change and make progress on organisational challenges, we all need to become adept at creating disequilibrium between the status quo and espoused goals – otherwise, why bother? So the skill then becomes to engage, energise and mobile the workforce around a common purpose.


This discussion was not meant to try to cover how to engage organisational members in a holistic way, but instead was to look at it through the lens of energy. There are many areas to be explored that contribute to engaging others such as storytelling, purpose, and providing meaningful work. While the notion of energy in social systems can be complex, new research and insights point to some surprisingly simple strategies around the patterns of communication. More specifically, we need to be mindful to recruit people who are able to demonstrate the type and pattern of communication so necessary for team success. These patterns include short bursts of communication, equal doses of talking and listening, communicating with each other rather than always through the team leader, and perhaps most importantly, taking full responsibility for the impact we each have on the energy of our colleagues.

So, one question remains – are you a donor or a drainer? Why not ask your colleagues?

The Leadership Sphere is the trusted business partner to many of Australia’s largest and most respected companies across a range of industries. We specialise in Leadership Development, Corporate Team Development and Culture Change.