I recently read a blog post on the Chief Learning Officer website on the subject of energy in the workplace, that I feel is worthy of reposting. Written by Kate Everson, it features a light-hearted reference to the animated minions featured in the Dreamworks Animation movies. In this post, Kate quotes Brady Wilson, author of “Beyond Engagement,” who suggests that rather than focus on engagement scores, employers should encourage employees to instead be more energetic. Because how engaged can anyone be when they’re exhausted, right?

Brady says that better communication and demonstrating greater appreciation to employees increases their energy, and that is absolutely true from my experience! Another way to increase energy is to make sure employees are doing work that actually energizes them–a key focus of the work Forte does.

Here’s the post!

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Harness Minion-Style Energy, Not Engagement

Looking for the best example of an engaged, energetic employee? Consider the minion.

Created by Dreamworks Animation for the “Despicable Me” series, these round, yellow creatures now have their own origin story movie coming out on Friday. Jon Stewart put it perfectly: These banana-craving beings are the equivalent of “children’s crack” — appealing to the point of addiction.

But for learning leaders, they can also be model employees, energetic, engaged and committed to their leader, the not-so-villainous Gru. Sure they’re just cartoon characters, but they have a sense of palpable excitement that they apply to their employer’s missions. They assemble for meetings with motivated and filled with curiosity. When there’s no money to build a rocket for stealing the moon, they pool their resources because they’ve developed a deep loyalty to their boss and the work that’s to be done.

The amount of marketing around them — “children’s crack” is as profitable as the real stuff — makes it impossible not to have minions on the mind. This is especially the case after I talked with Brady Wilson, author of “Beyond Engagement” and co-founder of corporate training organization Juice Inc.

Wilson said instead of focusing on engagement scores, which seems to be today’s “HR leader crack,” employers should push employees to be more energetic instead.

“Typically people see engagement as dedication, commitment, saying good things about the organization, coming in early and staying late,” he said. “What’s missing are the things associated with energy: focus, passion, that sense of zest and vibrancy. When it’s there, it makes the engagement sustainable. When it’s not there, it produces the perfect ecosystem for depletion.”

Depletion is serious business, particularly since the American workforce is currently in the grips of an energy crisis.  Newsweek published a cover story in January that reported the average adult gets 6.1 hours of sleep a night — an hour less than in the 1970s. Combine this with the need to take work home or be on call at all times to be considered an “engaged employee,” and you’ve got a workforce on the verge of burnout.

When the brain is exhausted, executive functions cease working. Employees lose their ability to predict outcomes, analyze information, regulate emotions and make smart decisions. They might act engaged, but really they’re just surviving until the weekend, Wilson said.

Promoting energy not only extends the shelf life for engagement but also makes employees feel like the company cares about their well-being outside the office — that they’re not just an army of minions being used for a villainous mission.

That’s probably the wrong way to reincorporate the minions, however. These yellow guys are such great employees partly because they have a great boss. Gru knows all their individual names, asks them about their families and is honest with them when a plan starts failing.

This ties into Wilson’s advice for learning leaders hoping to ramp up the energy in their organizations. Start by teaching managers how to communicate with employees. Step one: Approach low energy as a problem because it puts employees on defense, like they’re being reprimanded.

“Our brains are incredibly sensitive to tension,” Wilson said. “If a manager can learn to step in, they can stay right in that tension and not overpower the employee.”

One of the best ways to do this is by balancing the rational part of the brain — the one that drives analytical thinking and focus — with the emotional brain, which includes our social radar, empathy, trust and gut-level intuition.

When working in harmony, rational and emotional thinking can help managers talk to employees about their personal energy. Sleep, diet and exercise are a few obvious energy boosters, but there’s another, less-explored way.

Tapping into gratitude increases the brain’s dopamine and serotonin, which are responsible for flushing cortisol out of our prefrontal cortex, Wilson said. This allows us to be more creative and less stressed during difficult interactions. All it takes is the right outlet.

For a minion, that could be giving thanks over a freshly peeled banana. For your employees, it might be a kind word from the boss given at the right moment — even more of a reason to teach managers how to identify opportunities to express those magic words of “thank you.” But once that energy gets a boost, the moon’s the limit.

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