Employees Need to Renew the Energy They Use: Q&A with Tony Schwartz

All day at work, employees are actively expending energy. But are they properly renewing it? According to Tony Schwartz, energy isn’t something we simply spend every day, it’s something we must also cultivate.

An expert on sustainable high performance and building more human workplaces, Tony is the CEO and founder of The Energy Project, a consulting firm that helps individuals uncover the internal roadblocks that keep them from performing at their best, and organizations to build cultures of continuous feedback, learning and growth. Tony is a former New York Times reporter and has written five books, including the bestsellers “The Power of Full Engagement” and “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working.” He’s also delivered keynotes and trainings to leaders of companies around the world, from Google to the National Security Agency.

Tony will lead a session in a track specifically focused on the human workplace at WorkHuman in Austin, Texas, April 2-5

We recently sat down with him for a sneak preview of his talk and discussed how to effectively manage energy, rather than time. Read the interview or listen to the podcast below.

Globoforce: Tell us a little bit about your background. What brought you to where you are today as the Founder and CEO of The Energy Project?

Tony Schwartz: I was a journalist for 20-plus years. But I was always interested in human development, performance, what stood in people’s ways, and what made greatness possible. Even as a teenager, I was interested in the parts of people that you don’t see – what’s going on inside each of us that’s influencing how we show up in the world and perform. Often, we don’t see these things in ourselves.

As a journalist, I wrote a lot about these subjects, and ultimately, I wrote a book in the mid-1990s, called “What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America.” I set out on a long journey to talk to people who had expertise or insight about what makes it possible to more fully realize our potential.

I spoke with all kinds of people – meditators and psychologists, scientists and body workers. When I finished, I realized that each of those I spoke with believed that they had the ultimate answer to life’s big questions. My experience was that even the best of them had partial answers. Something more integrated was necessary to really live a whole life. And I didn’t see anybody out there who was providing it.

That became, in many ways, the inspiration for The Energy Project. It was my desire to both create a practice for my own development, but also to be able to share it with other people. I began doing this work with a partner in 1998. My partner was a sports psychologist who was working at that time mostly with athletes. Together, we took some of those ideas – and some of my ideas – and created something for people in the corporate world. We did this for five years, and then we decided to go our own separate ways.

I founded The Energy Project in 2003 with the idea that we would help people manage their energy rather than their time. The notion was that time is a finite resource, and people don’t have any left to invest. But demand is still increasing in a relentless way in their lives. Energy is something that you can expand, regularly renew, and use more efficiently.

Unlike machines, human beings require four separate sources of energy to operate at their best. Those four are: physical energy, or the foundation, the quantity of energy available to you; emotional energy, which is the quality from positive to negative; mental energy, or the focus of energy, because the ability to focus on one thing at a time is a powerful way to get things done more efficiently; and spiritual energy, or the energy we derive from the experience that what we’re doing really matters. Because when something really matters to you, you bring a lot more energy to it.

We began to look at the research to understand the key factors that drive each of those four sources of energy. And into the science of sleep and rest – because you can’t just keep spending energy indefinitely. We realized that it was critical to ennoble renewal as a critical component of sustainable high performance.

How do you instill more energy in your own life? What are some of the small changes that employees can make to their daily habits to re-energize themselves?

I do all kinds of things to move between spending and recovering energy. And by the way, you need to renew not just physically, but also emotionally, and mentally, and even spiritually.

Habit is very important. The only changes that last are ones that you turn into habits, or what we call rituals. A ritual is something you do in the same way, at the same time, on the same days. So, for example, when I wake up in the morning, the very first thing I do is to take a run.  Running is something that fuels mental and emotional energy once you’ve cultivated a certain level of aerobic capacity.

I take intermittent breaks during the day. Everybody here at The Energy Project has access to two Renewal Rooms, where they can take a nap or meditate. Other people find it very relaxing and renewing to listen to music – and different kinds of music work for different kinds of people. Others take a walk in the middle of the day, or call a loved one. There is no absolute answer about what renewal works best for any given person. Anything that gives you a sense of being refueled, we consider renewal.

By contrast, if you simply spend energy all day without renewing you’ll be a lot less effective at noon than you were at 9, and at 3 than you were at noon. By the time you head home at 6, or 7, or 8, you’ll have very little left in the tank. So, this notion of renewal needs to be built into your life in all different kinds of ways, in all kinds of ways.

Basically, find something that is going to help you clear your mind for a little bit and relax.

There are at least three different things you need from renewal.  Ideally, you want to, clear your mind. So, something that’s very physically challenging, or occupies your mind, or a disciplined practice such as meditation, will quiet your mind. You also want to quiet your physiology, which is a way of saying quiet your emotions. When you get upset, triggered, frustrated, angry, anxious, or fearful, you move into fight or flight, and your pre-frontal cortex begins to shut down. You don’t think very well, your perspective narrows, and your ability to make reasoned, reflective choices is diminished.  So, quieting your physiology puts you in a better emotional state. And then physically, if you are sedentary, it’s good to move. If you are moving a lot, it’s good to rest. All of these are important components of renewal.

How would you get this in front of a company, and what would you tell their CEO that they could do to build a better workplace?

We have a very systematic way of doing that. We have worked with a significant percentage of the world’s biggest companies over the last 15 years. Usually, we’re brought in with the support of the CEO, or the CHRO, or both.

We intervene in at three different levels. At the individual level, we have a program we call People Fuel, in which we the principles and strategies of managing your own energy. In Leader Fuel, we help leaders manage the energy of those they lead, by becoming more effective Chief Energy Officers.

Finally, we work at the organizational level. As we’ve evolved, we’ve evolved from a training organization into a consultancy. We help organizations create workplace that support a healthy way of working, and fuel high-performance cultures. We’ve learned that if we don’t intervene at all three of those levels, the likelihood is we won’t have nearly as much impact, and it won’t be as sustaining.

What role does appreciation fit into all of this? How can managers and HR professionals effectively bring that appreciation into the workplace?

Well, machines don’t require appreciation, and historically companies have treated people much the way they do machines. This may help explain why appreciation and gratitude have not historically been a big part of the work experience. One of the things we know about people is that, other than food and perhaps shelter, there’s nothing more important than the experience of feeling valued, worthy, and respected.

Appreciation is one obvious and a critical way of letting people know that you value them. It shows that you don’t take them for granted, that you not only notice their accomplishments and their successes, but also recognize their individuality – their uniqueness.

This is a critical piece of the performance puzzle, but it’s not the only piece. Too much praise can create the same problem as too much criticism. When praise is rote and excessive, people stop believing it. What we teach leaders to do is to move between challenge and nurture. That’s the dynamic balance a great leader learns to strike. There are times when it makes sense to push people beyond their comfort zones, and even to be very frank about ways in which they have fallen short. The trick is to provide feedback in a way that encourages their growth rather than simply pointing out their deficits – in short to be honest and caring at the same time.

Any strength that you overuse eventually becomes a liability. Too much honesty turns into cruelty, too much confidence becomes arrogance. It’s a much more complex skill to be both honest and compassionate, confident and humble. That’s a more nuanced way of thinking about great leadership.

This is a question that we ask everybody that is speaking at WorkHuman: What does working human mean to you?

It’s been the core of my life and thinking for the last two decades, so it means a lot to me. A workplace can be, in my mind, a place in which human beings can grow, develop, learn, and evolve.  The value exchange between an organization or a company and an individual ought not to be just time for money.

To me, “work human” means to understand that when you meet people’s core needs, you free them and fuel them to show up with more of the best of themselves at work every day – and in the rest of their lives. That’s a great value exchange for the organization. Meet your people’s needs and they’ll meet your needs. It’s a virtuous circle.


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Emily Payne Emily Payne (20 Posts)

Emily is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York.