michael werneburg

fracking the human being

Discretionary energy is a term used to describe optional effort that an employee might put into their job. Someone who's coasting is spending no discretionary energy, while someone who consistently goes "above and beyond" is expending a good deal of it. Mountains can be moved if you can harness your team's discretionary energy.

It can be done when the work and the environment appeals to the worker. Because such an environment is itself energizing, the extra energy extracted comes at no cost to the employee. It's a virtuous circle.

Achieving this sort of higher effort is not easy, but it is effective and the principles aren't hard to understand. It involves building an environment in which contributors can experience the results of their work, can feel supported and respected, and know that their efforts will be reciprocated through like contribution from their colleagues. It takes a steady hand both with your staff and with any counter-parties with whom they might have to work.

I'll explore this further in a moment, but first I want to look at a different approach, which is the high-pressure extraction of energy from staff who aren't energized and aren't expending the energy at their discretion.

fracking for discretionary energy

Extracting discretionary energy–that is, pushing people to give more than they can sustain–can happen incidentally through negligence. I've also experience environments where it happens by design. It's a sort of "fracking" of humans for discretionary energy.

Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) is an oil industry technique for extracting residual oil and gas reserves from a region with insufficient natural flow. It involves injecting a gritty fluid under high pressure deep into the target rock strata to force open fractures in the rock and keep them open – grains of grit (say, a fine sand) are left in the fractures. It's a practice that has been said to lead to a wide array of issues. And those fractures remain, permanently.

Even if well-intentioned, we "frack" people when we push upon them too much work or too much chaos. Or when we create situations where the work is disconnected from any sense of purpose. Or when there's no effort made to instill a sense of ownership. These situations leads to exhaustion, confusion, frustration, and mistrust. And these cause a great deal of stress and inevitably leads to greatly reduced energy output–either through exhaustion or departure of the "fracked".

The symptoms of a coercive environment aren't hard to spot:

don't be a fracker

My guide to capturing discretionary energy without fracking the human being is this:

I don't know if it's possible to consciously plan on generating truly discretionary energy, but these were the habits I've tried to pursue as obviously good practice, and I've noticed the engagement of staff improve as a result. It's got to be an organic process–as I say, the relationships have to be genuine.

Thanks for reading.

TL:DR; Don't treat people like they're expendable, treat them like you want to be treated–with respect and dignity.