Every day, humans choose how they want to show up at work. We can bring positive, neutral, or negative energy to our workplaces.

Human energy is an intangible asset that organizations rarely see or optimize. When employees bring positive energy with them to work, everything changes. There is more cooperation, creativity, productivity, and active support for colleagues. And when people bring negative energy with them to work, everything is more difficult, and it drains the energy of others. Nature has a lesson for us to help us think about human energy and how to unleash it in our workplaces.

Nature runs on sunlight – a free, life-giving resource like human energy. However, sunlight needs to be partnered with leaves, grass, and green algae etc. to photosynthesize the sun’s energy into nutrients that animals, humans, and plants need. The sun shines on the moon and the earth. Because there are no trees and plant life on the moon, the sun’s energy can’t be turned into life-giving nutrients. On earth, the sun’s rays become something more when paired with photosynthesis.

This lesson from nature has caused me to ask:

  • Is there an organizational version of sunlight?
  • If so, what is the organizational process of photosynthesis?

Recognizing Energy in an Organization

I believe human energy powers a lot of things in living organizations. Creativity, innovation, and change are just a few things that require energy. For me, the energy that each individual employee brings to work is the organizational version of sunlight. The goal of an organization is to create conditions that will cause people to choose to bring positive energy to their workplaces.

Organizational photosynthesis is the process that elicits positive energy instead of neutral or negative energy. In my consulting practice, I help organizations transform their culture. As part of that process, I do qualitative interviews with individual staff members in key positions at all levels of the organization. In these interviews, I have asked over a thousand people these two questions:

  • What generates positive energy for you at work?
  • What drains your energy at work?

Their answers are unique to them, but the patterns are very similar. Positive energy is generated when people feel their work is meaningful, serving a higher purpose, and when they have good relationships with the colleagues they work with. Positive energy is generated when they accomplish something that is challenging and believe their work makes a difference in the lives of the people they serve.

When asked what drains their energy, they say conflict between co-workers, their supervisor, or tensions between others. Doing tasks that don’t seem to have any meaning except to waste their time is a drain of their energy. The experience of being treated as a second-class citizen by their boss, other departments, or colleagues also drains energy.

Because of these interviews, I have found that the quality of energy in an organization to be a significant diagnostic for the health of the organization. If an organization is healthy, positive energy is a tangible thing you can feel in the workplace or on a team. Both the polarity (positive/negative) and the quantity of energy is experienced when you enter an organization. Leadership is in part, setting the conditions conducive to generating positive energy at work.

Discovering Organizational Photosynthesis

Human energy is free – like the sun’s energy and needs to be partnered with certain conditions for positive energy to become a life-giving resource for an organization. There are three key conditions that contribute to people being willing to bring positive energy to their workplaces.  They are authentic relationships, reciprocity, and having a shared higher purpose.

Positive energy flows through lines of connection and relationships. If our organizations invite our authentic selves to work, it creates the possibility of building and maintaining authentic relationships with each other. When we authentically engage with each other, we see each other. When we feel we need to hide what we are thinking or feeling, we diminish the authenticity in our relationships at work. Authentic relationships are one ingredient of organizational photosynthesis.

The second form of organizational photosynthesis is reciprocity. I define reciprocity as equity and respect. It is found in relationships that are more horizontal instead of hierarchical. When we have reciprocity with others, we see their needs and perspectives from the framework of equity. We all know when someone is behaving as if they have power over us or see us as not their equal. This diminishes both authenticity and reciprocity. It also causes us to protect or defend ourselves. Because we need to consume our energy in protection, we don’t bring positive energy to these kinds of relationships.

Having a Shared higher purpose is the third element of organizational photosynthesis. Often, we assume our mission or vision is our purpose. I believe that higher purpose is deeper and transcends the boundaries of the organization. Organizations can confuse making money with shared higher purpose; it isn’t the same thing. Higher purpose is found in two ways. The first way is in the meaning employees create about why their work matters. The story about three bricklayers illustrates how meaning can differ by individual.

Three bricklayers are laying brick. When asked what they are doing, the first bricklayer says he is laying brick. When the second bricklayer is asked, he says he is building a wall. The third bricklayer has a higher meaning that they see in their work. When asked, the third bricklayer says he is building a cathedral.

If our employees think they are laying brick, they don’t bring positive energy to work with them. Only the third bricklayer will bring positive energy to their work because they have a connection and relationship to the larger purpose of their work.

The second way we can identify higher purpose in our organization is to ask What is the deep need in our community or world that this organization was created to meet? This a deceptively hard question because some of our organizations have lost their connection to the need they were designed to fill. When a higher purpose is identified, articulated, and becomes shared by others, positive energy is the result.

Leadership is what happens in the space between us. When leaders model and expect authenticity, reciprocity, and articulate the organization’s shared higher purpose, they create the conditions conducive to the rise of positive energy. This organizational asset is less tangible than capital and yet it is a very powerful resource that contributes to productivity, innovation, and the attraction of talent. It also doesn’t cost the organization any money to create!


Dr. Kathleen E. Allen writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems. She is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (available for pre-order on Amazon) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. You can sign up for her blog on her website: www.kathleenallen.net