Have you ever worked with someone who sucked the life out of the room as soon as they entered it? Then you might benefit from these tips for dealing with energy drainers.
Energy drainers roam the halls of every organisation. These are people who, often without realising, strip away the fun, energy or buzz (sometimes all three) in a work environment.
These energy vampires can be chronic complainers, hectic hyperactives or negative nancies. While their behaviours may differ, the results are almost always the same: lowered morale, less productivity and increased team friction.
Shelley Johnson, People and Culture consultant and founder of Boldside HR, offers some tips for managing these behaviours, and prompts us to consider the ways in which we may be draining energy from others ourselves.
Five types of energy drainers
There are myriad ways to drain someone’s energy, but Johnson has narrowed the list down to five common types she’s encountered.
“Each of these people drain energy in different ways,” she says.
1. The pessimist – This is someone who consistently has a cynical air to their commentary and demeanor. They’re the first person to poke a hole in your idea or to tell you something will be ‘too hard’.“They’re a blocker of ideas. They have a long list of why something can’t be done, but don’t suggest ways to improve. They whinge, complain or stifle solutions,” says Johnson.”Say you’re in a meeting talking about a new project and most people are really excited, but there’s one person who’s like: ‘This will never work. It’s going to break. It isn’t possible.’ Within a moment everyone is deflated. The energy has dissipated, and the creative ideas have gone with it.”
2. The egotist – These people tend to be self-absorbed, sensitive and have an inclination to be defensive when challenged. They’re often the people who boast about how busy they are.
“They think their time is more precious than yours – they’re seen running from meeting to meeting. And they think their work is more important than yours. An egotist has a ‘know it all’ vibe. They are unlikely to admit when they are wrong, and quickly shift the blame onto others.“The egotist feels entitled to the focus and attention of their team. But they fail to replenish the energy of others. They rarely give back to the team, unless it serves to benefit them.”
3. The perfectionist – These people get so caught up in the detail that they prevent others’ work from progressing.
“The perfectionist holds unreasonably high standards of themselves and others. It can drain energy and leave people feeling as though they don’t measure up.“At worst, a perfectionist can be controlling and stop a team from taking good risks due to fear of failure. Their desire to achieve flawlessness can stall the team’s overall performance.”
4. The oversharer – This is the person who buries you in a mountain of gossip or elaborate stories from their weekend.
“Some of the worst energy drainers are oversharers. These are people who drag you into their chaotic personal lives. They pop up at your desk, and suddenly you’ve lost half of your morning while they recount their drama-fuelled weekend in vivid detail.“The oversharer can also be an emotional hijacker. They deplete the team’s emotional energy reserves. Think about one of those meetings where the oversharer goes into overdrive. Watch the body language. Shoulders start to slump. Someone rolls their eyes. [People] avoid eye contact in hope they get the message and wrap it up.”
5. The keen bean. These are individuals who are constantly bubbling with enthusiasm. It takes very little for them to become overly excited, making it hard for others to keep up or get a word in.“When the keen bean’s passion takes over, they can miss the signals of people they are engaging with. As they eagerly promote a new initiative, and can have their blinkers on to the perspectives of others.”
Behaviour is contagious
Psychologists have found that one person in a negative mood transmits their angst to others nearby within five minutes – even when they aren’t speaking to each other or directly working together. So when someone else comes into the room with a grey cloud over their head, or in a frenetic mood, we all feel it.
“How we show up is going to impact other people,” says Johnson. “Just like if we show up to work sick, other people will get sick. It’s the same concept with how we show up emotionally.”
Read HRM’s article on emotional contagion to learn more.
“The negative emotions you bring to work are more powerful than the positive ones,” she adds. “You might have a positive interaction with someone that feels nice at the time, but if you encounter someone who’s in a negative mood, that’s the interaction you’re going to remember.”
To avoid emotions spreading like wildfire, Johnson says it’s best for us to own them – and encourage others to do the same. Perhaps at the start of team meetings, you could normalise people saying things like, ‘I’m feeling a little lackluster today, so if I don’t bring my usual energy to the brainstorming meeting, it’s nothing about you all. That’s just where I’m at today.’
“It’s not about being fake – toxic positivity is so unhelpful for teams. But if you notice you’re in a bit of a funk in a meeting, call attention to it and say something like, ‘I’m having a bit of a down day’. Then everyone can breathe a sigh of relief because you’ve acknowledged the elephant in the room. It disarms some of that energy.”
Use people’s energies to your advantage
Often, people’s energy-draining tendencies simply come down to their personality. Perhaps they don’t stand out as being overly agreeable or enthusiastic because everyone else around them is on the total opposite end of the spectrum.
In this instance, it’s important for HR not to consider this to be a performance or cultural issue. You don’t want to inadvertently discriminate against someone simply because they’re an introvert, for example.
“What we don’t want is conformity on teams. Let’s say everyone is bright and bubbly and one person is more skeptical, for example. We need those traits because if everyone’s super excited, they might not challenge ideas.”
It’s about understanding people’s natural inclinations and then giving them guidance on when to highlight or soften them.
Johnson suggests considering which of the five types of energy drainers might pertain to the people in your team, then mapping out the strengths they might bring to certain circumstances.
For example, you might rely on a ‘keen bean’ to get people excited about a new initiative that requires collective buy-in, or perhaps the ‘pessimist’ can offer value when you need someone to cast a critical eye over an idea or product before you take it to market.
If you were in a brainstorming session, however, a pessimist might be a barrier. In this instance, Johnson suggests saying something like, ‘We really value your contributions and a little further down the line we’re going to need your analytical eye, but for now we need to encourage everyone to share their big ideas without shooting them down.’
“It’s all about saying, ‘We need your skill and here’s when we need it.’ So they’re giving them space to play in the role they need to play in. It brings the value of their thinking to life.”
If a person isn’t getting to use their strengths in their role, then unhelpful behaviours can emerge, she adds.
“Often we see pessimism or negativity come out because that person isn’t working in a role that energises them. That might be where HR gets brought in – to help a manager assess role alignment. If they’re depleting the energy of others, it could be that they themselves aren’t energised in the work they’re doing, so we need to reassess if the role needs to be tweaked or adjusted.”
You may also need to clarify your organisation’s cultural expectations, she adds.
“People may have come from a culture where chit-chat is seen as important because it’s relational, but in a new organisation it’s seen as a time-waster. So you might just need to reset the expectations and behaviours that align with ‘how things are done around here.'”
Refiling other people’s cups
We all drain people’s energy to some extent, says Johnson.
“No one is energy neutral. At different points in time, we all err towards one of the five energy drainer types. Some of us are just less aware of it than others,” she says.
“The negative emotions that you bring to work are more powerful than the positive ones.” – Shelley Johnson, Founder, Boldside HR
“We need to learn and become aware of how we drain our team’s energy and therefore what we need to do to proactively refuel our team’s energy.
“For me, I can be a pessimist, so I get really intentional about being strategic with my encouragement. My natural inclination might be to say something like, ‘We need to do better than that’, so I need to counteract that by being really intentional with my encouragement of other people’s ideas.”
Here are some other suggestions for replenishing energy levels in a team:
- Build up energy awareness in teams, says Johnson.
“Ask people about their energy levels in regular team meetings. Invite team members to share what depletes their energy and how they re-energise. By sharing this insight, the team can better understand each other and create a more energising environment.”
- Give people space and look for energy cues. Has a colleague come out of an hour-long meeting? Maybe now isn’t the time to go and tell them about your weekend or to spam them with Slack messages.
- Create a standard approach to how you conduct meetings or brainstorming sessions, which includes agreed-upon rules such as: ‘There’s no such thing as a bad idea’ or ‘Everyone’s voice will be heard’. When employees have agreed to a set of norms, it’s much easier to enforce them.
- Cultivate a culture of psychological safety so people feel they can speak out.
We all have a responsibility to re-energise other people, says Johnson.
“When you get a hire car, you’re responsible for refilling it at the end,” she says. “We’re all getting something out of our teammates, so we all need to contribute back into the health of the team by filling them back up.”
Part of managing difficult personalities is learning now to have tough conversations. AHRI’s short course will equip you with the skills to make these conversations a little easier. Sign up for the next session on 18 October 2022.