Disengaged at the Top: Leaders are Unrecognized Victims of the Recession

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Mar 3, 2011

There’s a lot of talk about employee disengagement, with reports coming out on the high percent of workers who are disengaged and ready to leave when unemployment numbers start to decline.

However, what about leaders? How are they doing? Are they ready to walk too? Are leaders disengaged? What about middle managers who lead their people day to day?

This should be a call to action to any organization with leaders, because the latest data show that leaders are at risk. They have been suffering from suboptimal energy for some time, and they continue to report energy levels that should be disconcerting to everyone reading this report. Leaders are the unrecognized victims of the recession.

Leadership Pulse results

The most recent Leadership Pulse, which ran in January 2011, shows leaders reporting lost productivity and lower than ideal energy. The figure below shows trend data from September 2007 to January 2011. Ideal energy exists when energy is “in the zone.”

Leader Energy and Zone Status from September 2007 to January 2011
Leader Energy and Zone Status from September 2007 to January 2011

Looking at firm performance data, very high performing firms have an energy zone status (the amount of points they are below their ideal productivity zone) of .49, while the high performing firms are 1.38 points below their zone. Firms rated average or below average on performance are 1.50 points below their productivity zone.

The more a company is below the zone, the lower their potential and performance. Energy predicts performance at the individual, team and firm performance levels. Thus, energy below the productivity zone, unchecked, is a bad thing for organizations.

What respondents are saying

In order to get a better sense of what’s happening, in the next section a sampling of comments are listed.

Some “Overly Energized” sample comments (from red part of the energy scale):

  • Increased stress at work related to ongoing employee relations issues.”
  • “I give 110 percent all the time and just feel sometimes it’s not worth it and being burnt out. I love what I do, so I continue work at maximum.”
  • “Long hours, enormous workload, daily deadlines.”
  • “Being able to push my ideas through until successful execution positively affects my energy.”
  • “Too much work with no end in sight; unclear goals; working with people that are not passionate about their work is sapping the energy out of me.”
  • I have been a burnout risk early in the year. While energized by projects and deadlines, our lean staff resulted in an incredible amount of hours worked for me personally to achieve our targets.”

Sample comments from the “Very Energized” category (green – yellow on energy scale):

  • Teamwork and synergy create energy for me. Supporting each other and open communications reduce surprises and help keep us focused.”
  • “I like meaty projects where I feel I can make a difference. We currently have a number of those kinds of projects going which keeps me energized. I welcome challenge.”
  • “Measured progress against improved results. Good working relationships. Lower stress and rest when off the job. Taking care of and maintaining personal health. Balanced spiritual life.”
  • “There is a lot of BRAIN energy when we are discussing Strategic drivers of the business. This tends to slow as we discuss the implementation or the actions to drive this strategy forward.”
  • “Working with superb – knowledgeable, committed and responsible colleagues; Clarity on what needs to be accomplished; Active support and necessary resources from top of the organization.”
  • “I’m energized by challenges and opportunities to be involved in decisions that affect the future.”
  • “Alignment of company goals with my integrity and authenticity.”

Sample comments from the no energy or somewhat energized respondents (blue part of scale):

  • Fatigue from the efforts at finding work in 2010.”
  • “Under appreciated at times.”
  • “Too many responsibilities without time to address them. Lack of consideration by management for the need to focus. Too many meetings.”
  • “Lack of interesting work and mundane tasks. The freedom to make decisions adds to the energy level. Work that is more interesting creates high energy.”
  • “Work content. Family issues. Amount of work.”

Observations and learning

The comments above are very similar to data from other Leadership Pulse reports and from clients using energy pulse. The comments from the energy work done within specific organizations are more detailed and focused on the business, with specific ideas about what to change in order to optimize energy in specific situations. However, the themes that come out from the leadership pulse data and clients are similar and discussed next.

Relational capital and the variance story: A large number of comments focus on relationships at work. Energy is catchy; if you are working with a passionate, upbeat person, it rubs off on you.

Although low energy also affects others, the data show that the worst person to work with is an unpredictable, moody individual. We find that is because employees do not know how to “get ready” for their interactions with the highly variable individual.

Although no one particularly likes the consistently grouchy or low-energy persons, employees tell us that at least they can prepare for those encounters. Moodiness is about lack of predictability and high variance. In the world of energy, the data show variance in energy and relationships causes negative outcomes.

If you want to reduce variance and improve energy, improve relationships between people at work.

We are not advocating that everyone at work become friends and hang out during off hours. What the data show is important, however, is that employees are treated with dignity and respect.

This is not about doing a major cultural overall; it’s about weeding out the bad habits and creating better replacement habits. When working within an organization doing regular energy pulse work, clients quickly find out what habits are having the most negative outcomes, work on changing them, and continually track energy to measure results of their efforts. And as new bad habits arise, or positive habits are learned, the organization can be responsive in swift and proactive responses.

Direction and its many related issues

A large percentage of data focus on what we call direction. Employees want to be part of the strategic decisions, are asking more information about how they fit into the organization, and they ask for help when overloaded.

Direction is about clear sight to what’s next, knowing how one fits into the company’s future, and engaging in dialogue when things change, which now happens at a much more frequent rate than in the past.

The answer to direction problems is dialogue. Bring employees along for the journey; we find that employees understand the need for a detour if there is a major problem ahead.

In the energy pulse work, organizations are able to use data to engage in a regular dialogue about the drivers of energy, which in many cases is direction. The ability to see when employees need the conversation is powerful in learning how to manage in the new high-change business world.

If you want to improve direction, engage in more dialogue; use energy data to enable the dialogue.

Along with direction dialogue comes the employee desire to get going — to start running to win. People don’t want to be constrained; they want freedom to go forward. However, employees also need the regular check in or and “health check up.”

In the energy pulse work, employees learn to monitor their own energy and keep track of what is energizing or de-energizing them. By reviewing personal reports that show their energy trend compared to their ideal and tracking events via an event log (journal), employees start to see patterns that allow them to be the person who proactively seeks out the health check or “tune up.”

Give employees the power to track their own energy and learn how to optimize it.

Personal and home issues affect energy

We are often asked about the validity of energy — if personal issues affect energy. Yes, personal issues including health, family, vacation and other factors affect energy at work, and that means people will be more or less productive based on things outside of the manager’s control.

That’s the way it is, and the ability of a manager to understand how personal energy affects performance provides a manager with a proactive way of managing their department.

People come with a personal life, and although the energy metric does not ask about personal issues, the comment data over the years clearly show that employees understand and try to manage the impact of non-work factors on work.

Do you know where your leaders are?

If, as our research tells us and as the CEOs and others report, energy is contagious, then the question I have for all of you is “do you know what leaders’ energy is today?”

Leaders’ energy affects the energy of their subordinates, which also affects the energy of others. Energy creates a virtuous cycle where energy can help or harm an organization. The problem we see today is that many leaders cannot themselves count on a long-term strategy; they know direction will change, and they find it “de-energizing’ that they can’t help their employees provide one concrete, accurate answer to direction.

What we have seen is that dialogue about direction on a more frequent basis, being honest and open about the unknown, is the best strategy. Leaders need to learn how to do this because frequent, ongoing dialogue about direction and redirection are not part of the traditional leadership training manual that taught 5-year strategy planning.

If energy is not ideal in your organization, then it’s time to do something about it. This trend of lower leader energy is something we should not accept. The intervention is not that difficult to implement.

  1. Find out what the energy level is of your leaders and managers.
  2. Share the information with them and facilitate a dialogue about energy enablers and drainers.
  3. Change habits; take on three tactical pieces of work to improve energy.
  4. Continue to track energy.
  5. Continue to talk about it; integrate energy data into the way you do business.
  6. Improve energy ongoing by positively affecting relationships and direction.

The energy checking process gives leaders a tool to dialogue about the key issues facing the organization. It is one legitimate way to make change part of the organization’s DNA. Employees and leaders learn that direction changes, and as long as the dialogue goes along with it, relationships will be positively impacted.

We have been very fortunate to witness and be involved in a number of energy recovery programs. Energy management is done best when regular energy measurement and discussions match the rhythm of the business. Energy optimization makes for better leadership decisions, innovation, and higher performance.

Help your leaders today

We are hoping that the next leadership pulse shows a dramatic change in energy because when energy is in the zone, it means that productivity loss is zero. Leaders are the unrecognized victims of the recession, and they need help, today.

Higher productivity from optimally energized leaders leads to higher energy for all employees and then to optimal and improved firm performance. Improvement for leaders, then managers and all employees means better business for everyone.

Editor’s Note: What are the Energy Files? Over 1 million data points on employee energy at work and open-ended comment data on what is making energy increase and decrease. The raw data, the research studies, and case studies make up the Energy Files. To learn more, keep reading From the Energy Files or go to or