10/18/2012 02:43 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2012

The Truth About Energy and Work

I was sitting in my car at a red light today, and a flurry of dry yellow leaves sprang up in front of me. Through the whole red light a whirlpool of yellow leaves spun and danced at eye level, feet away from my bumper. My gosh, I thought, the leaves show the wind whorl I would never have known was there. We have to thank the dry leaves for showing us where the energy is moving.

We wouldn't know the spiral vortex of wind existed if there weren't dry leaves handy to show it to us. At work, we walk into all kinds of energy vortices and currents that affect us in a hundred ways, but like the invisible wind whorl, we act like the energy waves don't exist. We talk about forecasts and budgets and marketing campaign launch dates and so on, but we don't talk about the good and bad energy swirling around us. It's the one thing that never gets on the agenda at a staff meeting, even (maybe especially) when it's the only topic worth discussing.

I used to work in technology, and I loved it. It must be said, though, that the macho energy in the place was comically overwhelming at times. Three women and 12 guys would sit in a meeting talking about whatever whatever, and the women would be looking at each other as the guys were talking, and all of us women were thinking the same thing and smiling at each other. The ostensible conversation among the guys was about some topic, but the topic would not be the point. The point of the conversation was a kind of jockeying thing like what the elk do in Colorado this time of year, jousting and posturing to see who was Top Elk and Next to Top Elk and so on. It was cool with me.

I love working with guys. I'm just saying that the social and cultural function of the conversation often consumed three-quarters of the available time and emotional energy. If there was any whiff of status or power associated with the topic, it was Watch Out, Brother. Articulate, polished verbal knives could come out and start slicing. It was something to watch -- terrifying, at times.

After a certain threshold amount of macho posturing and Great Ape-type chest-pounding (and these are very nice guys I'm talking about, not the horrible competitive toads who spend most of their mojo trying to squash other people) you tune it out. I stopped noticing when a high-performing employee was called a stud, or when every situation got its own archetypal equivalent (pulling from the Business Jargon Archetype Categories list, where the only items on the list are auto racing, sports, war, and cowboys-and-Indians:

Fire one across the bow
Blocking and tackling
Pedal to the medal
Where the rubber meets the road
Kick ass and take names
End run
Pull the trigger [on that deal, e.g.]
Bring the hammer down
Locked and loaded
Score a touchdown
Storm the beaches

You get the idea. I don't know jack about sports or war or cars, but I learned all the business analogies (and what they mean in context) and sadly, still use them on a regular basis today. I came to the whole business-jargon thing as would a non-native English speaker, because the underlying sports, auto racing, war and cowboys-and-Indians terms aren't cultural for me (even though I have little brothers). I learned them in the business frame, and only there.

Why does business, a matter of orders and customers and paper, steel and glass, get tagged as a combination of auto racing, sports, war and cowboys and Indians? Because business is a wonderful, messy, creative, eight-year-old boy's fantasy playground. It was built on a male model (I should say traditionally male-associated model: hierarchical, data-driven, unemotional, linear and analytical). I'm not dissing business. I'm saying that it doesn't reflect life on earth in any meaningful way. We don't use our full brains at work in the business world. We play a part and leave a big part of ourselves at home. We stay inside a box, to such an extreme degree that many working people can't even perceive the box until someone points it out to them. We don't even question the degree to which the role constrains our creativity, curiosity, humor, expression and inspiration.

A lot of guys have bought into the idea of a business career as a mythic struggle, and the macho jargon and the underlying archetypes bolster that view of the world. That's fine, and it's theater, so it's fun for me, but it's unhealthy and energy-crushing if those mythic ideas and archetypes push us to not be ourselves at work. I always look at business guys and wonder "Can that guy totally be himself at work, and tell the truth, and say when he's burnt or upset about something, or does he have to keep the mask on no matter what?" I feel bad for guys who have to act that macho-business-dude part. I feel bad for people who have to act any part, unless they get an Actor's Equity card and an awesome NYC apartment.

Energy is swirling around us at work, and in those currents and pressure drops are all the opportunities we get to do what people do best -- to figure ourselves and one another out and get great things out of the exploration and collaboration. That's what is possible, if we can step out of the frame and the fear of showing up completely to work and being ourselves.

The mojo at work is the only thing that fuels whatever goals we have in business. Those numbers don't move into the cells on the spreadsheets by themselves. Whatever sales target or new-product development schedule or customer service smiletude we might want are all powered by the same fuel source, the plugged-in-edness of the people on the team, the degree to which they give a shiz. It's extremely easy to get people to care about what they do at work. We just have to let them bring themselves there and tell the truth, and follow their energy. We have to trust them do all that. That means we have to trust ourselves to hire people who are worthy of high trust. Wow! Got a little rhetorical leaf-swirl going there. Almost made myself dizzy!

It's the simplest thing in the world to go into new markets or get fantastic products out the door when the mojo is high in an organization. The whole world gets in line to support the forward energy. This is the ridiculously obvious Secret of Management that pretty much every management book misses. You can't be a boss. You have to be human.

It takes manliness or womanliness to talk about fear at work, though. For some folks it's easier to talk about football and change the subject.

Please don't hear me letting women off the hook. Fearful women are God's own manifestation of hate made human. They will rip you apart. I heard the expression one time "Men eat their weak, and women eat their strong." In fear, people become vampires and zombies. You can tell if you get within fifteen feet of them. That energy is oppressive, but people sit in meetings and don't say boo. We know better.

We evolved on this planet. We can read energy. We can tell the truth about it or put our fingers in our ears and say "La, la, la -- Why, what are you talking about? -- toxic noxious energy in the room, what?"

Here is the most important thing to remember at energy at work. You neutralize or lighten it whenever you acknowledge it. The worst thing you can do is stay silent if a disturbance in the Force is throwing the energy off, especially if it's designated a topic Not to Be Discussed.

You can shift that energy by talking about it all the time. You'll begin to find your voice. The better you get at reading energy and listening to your gut, the stronger your truth-telling muscles will become. Work is no less a place to be human than anywhere else you go. How could you help your employer if you didn't have your amazing energy available?