Over the past year I have worked with hundreds of leaders across a range of industries. And the most common question they have asked is “How do I sustain the energy levels of my people?”.

This year, more than any other in recent memory, has taxed the energy reserves of even the most resilient teams. Hugely disruptive changes, prolonged periods of uncertainty and the blurring of work and home have drained people’s batteries and made it difficult to recharge.

When leaders try to step in and fill the energy gap, it’s not long before they find themselves starting to run out of gas. The key is to take on the challenge, without trying to do it all on your own.

A team’s energy comes from within

A few months back I was leading a Self-Aware Team program for the coaches and support staff of a team that will be representing Canada in the upcoming Winter Games in Beijing. An important part the program is an exercise in which team members create “player cards” containing key insights they’ve learned about themselves through the program. The group then comes together in a Zoom call to share those insights and give and get feedback.

Like so many others, this group had been through an incredibly taxing year. Because of the pandemic, the team had to expend significantly more energy than it ordinarily would to create effective training opportunities for the athletes. Quarantines and “bubbling” rules had forced individuals to spend months at a time on the road, adapting to new routines and away from their families. And uncertainty over everything from health and testing to the potential fate of the games loomed over it all.

“The ways they brought energy were as diverse as the people themselves.”

As the group shared their player cards, it quickly came to light that a number of different members of this team had been significant “energy givers” through this difficult time. And the ways they brought energy were as diverse as the people themselves.

  • One senior leader on the team created energy in the more traditional way that many leaders do: by envisioning a compelling opportunity, mapping out a plan to get there and leading the charge towards it.
  • Another team member helped bring lightness to the daily grind by noticing and pointing out funny moments, breathtaking views, or interesting aspects of their surroundings. These moments created mini-breaks that relieved tension and reminded the team of the unique and special journey they were on together.
  • Another contributor was celebrated for their “can-do attitude.” This individual had a “big personality” with a healthy dose of confidence who led by example and encouragement. Their jokes, positive energy and infectious smile helped the team forge ahead with a belief that they could prevail when they were hit with a setback or success seemed a long way off.
  • Yet another had taken on the role of a confidante and created a safe, non-judgmental space for people to bounce ideas, vent frustrations and seek advice when they needed to gain perspective on a situation (or person) that was creating challenges.

Three energizing principles

In listening to the group share their feedback, I was struck by three things:

Energy is found in diversity. During the discussion I heard multiple different ways that multiple different people infused the group with energy. Some provided big boosts, other provided steady nudges. Some energized all team members. Others were more critical in sustaining a handful of specific individuals. Some were helpful at the start to get the flywheel moving forward. Others stepped in during negative moments to break tension and redirect focus when forward movement was stalled. Each team member’s contribution could stand on its own, but put together they added up to more than the sum of their parts.

Energizing the team is everyone’s responsibility. No single contributor can create enough energy on their own to sustain a team; the demands are simply too vast. Everyone on the team shares some responsibility for energizing their teammates. The team leader’s job is to create the conditions that allow it to happen.

Feedback is of key importance. In many cases, the “energy givers” were surprised to learn the value of what they provided. In fact, some had mistakenly believed that the very behaviours that others found energizing were irrelevant or a distraction. If not for the reinforcement they received during the session, many had been planning to curtail some of those behaviours moving forward. And, if that had taken place, then valuable sources of positive energy would have simply faded away because people were unaware.

Energize your team

Every leader needs to create an environment that enables their people to perform. And energy is a critical part of that environment. But it’s not the leader’s role to provide that energy all on their own. Instead, the best leaders create the conditions for “energy givers” to thrive.

“Create a clear image of what it looks like to be an energy giver.”

Start by setting the expectation that energy is a team responsibility. Work with your people to create a clear image of what it looks like to be an “energy giver” and what behaviors will move the team’s energy level in a positive direction.

Help your team surface the different ways “energy givers” sustain the team in tough moments. Make it a part of your regular check-ins to ask people what’s contributed to their energy over the past week and encourage open discussion when appropriate.

Finally, provide opportunities for regular feedback and recognition so that each “energy giver” knows what to keep doing. This feedback can come from you as a leader, but people should also hear from their peers. Effective feedback recognizes the behaviour, communicates its impact, and encourages the person to continue.

With this approach, a leader can create more energy on their team than they could ever hope to do alone, while at the same time helping their people to stay engaged and motivated through whatever may come.