Energy inefficiency is not just for heating systems: investigating why our brains lose steam at work

Campus operators know when a heating system is inefficient. But what happens when we humans are inefficient? Here are four ways to address productivity challenges in the workplace.


I’m stuck.

It’s approaching 2 p.m. on a Tuesday and I have been writing and re-writing the same @#!$ paragraph over and over. This proposal is due at 4 p.m., before I need to pick up my daughters from daycare.

I have been stuck since I started working on this proposal at noon. What should have been a relatively easy one-hour start-to-finish project has turned into a writer’s block war zone. I’m two hours in and I have little progress to show.

At GreenerU, the majority of my colleagues are energy-efficiency professionals. If my proposal-writing process was a heating system and my co-workers audited my performance, they would give me a very low efficiency score. 

Let’s investigate why.

Your (inefficient) brain at work

What do most of us do when we feel stuck? Unsure of how to sort through our feelings, we waste time, energy, and resources thinking it’s better just to power through. But humans are complex, and team dynamics are even more complex. If we don’t trust the larger human system within the workplace, our efforts become inefficient.

When it comes to wasted human energy, we often wait for a meltdown before we investigate—and that’s if we investigate.

Most, if not all, of our human inefficiencies at work are tied to interpersonal relationships and interactions at our jobs—they’re tied to the collective culture of the organization. This is because, as neuroleadership expert David Rock puts in in Your Brain at Work, “We all have social needs. If we feel uncertain, or missing trust, we get consumed by it.”

It lowers the function of our brain. It devours the energy of the team.

Context and emotions are absolutely part of being human—even at work

Let’s go back to the situation above, where I was struggling with finishing a proposal. What was going on?

That day, I woke up overtired from a recent redeye, jetlagged, and achy with a cold I’d picked up from my toddler. I was in a meeting that felt unproductive to me—it felt like a waste of time. It also felt like a reminder of how behind I felt. I was annoyed at my colleague for “making” me feel this way. Then I was annoyed at myself for being annoyed. 

I was feeling defensive and my emotions started to flare up. And then there was this proposal to finish. I was running on empty.

The emotional labor of hiding

A whole host of interpersonal situations can decrease our work efficiency. Maybe you felt unheard in a meeting. Maybe you’re questioning the quality of your work because you didn’t get any feedback about it. Maybe your colleague submitted sub-par work. Maybe someone spoke to you in a tone that felt dismissive. Maybe you were late to a meeting and wonder if people think you’re unreliable. Maybe someone was late to your meeting and you wonder if they respect the group’s time. Maybe you asserted yourself too strongly in a meeting.

Maybe, maybe, maybe. Our minds can swirl with uncertainty. And all of this makes it hard for anyone to concentrate.

The book, An Everyone Culture, captures this dynamic well:

In an ordinary organization, most people are doing a second job no one is paying them for… Most people are spending time and energy covering up their weaknesses, managing other people’s impressions of them, showing themselves to their best advantage, playing politics, hiding their inadequacies, hiding their uncertainties, hiding their limitations.

So, what do we do about this wasted time and energy at work? How do we build resilience with our staff to weather the ups and downs of working with other complex humans who are weathering their own ups and downs?

Four key takeaways to get back to work

There are no manuals out there for each person you work with, but there are great books (see suggested reading below). And unlike inefficient heating systems, your colleagues can talk, giving you direct access to learning about what might be draining their performance.

Based on books and discussions that I have often with my colleagues, staff, clients, and friends, here are some key takeaways:

  1. Invest in understanding your staff and colleagues. As Brené Brown states in Dare to Lead, “Rather than spending a reasonable amount of time proactively acknowledging and addressing the fears and feelings that show up during change and upheaval, we spend an unreasonable amount of time managing problematic behaviors.” Don’t wait for a colossal breakdown in communication with your colleagues or a major conflict to start talking. Create safe spaces for people to express what’s going on beneath the surface.
  2. Build trust by creating psychological safety in your workplace. Psychological safety is when team members feel comfortable taking risks and being vulnerable in front of each other. Companies are adopting this as an important key to a successful team. In fact, Google found that psychological safety was far and away the most important dynamics found in making a team effective.  
  3. Create a feedback culture. A feedback culture is about developing positive human relations with each other and showing respect. Practice being kind and candid with your colleagues. Open the door for feedback from your team. You want your colleagues to succeed, you want your team to be high-functioning—and you want to express yourself, too. Instead of being consumed by feeling unheard in a meeting, work toward asking for and delivering specific, thoughtful feedback in the moment before things fester and become a distraction.
  4. Honor your relationships first. We all have social needs. We all have more complex emotions and lives than what others can see at the surface. Most of us started our careers being told that it’s not professional to bring these “things” to work. But the reality is that they are there with you whether you choose to acknowledge them or not.

Recognizing and naming miscommunication, uncertainty, and self-doubt and remembering that humans are beautifully complex could mean the difference between weeks or months of inefficiency…or just a couple hours.

Getting it out in the open

How did I increase my efficiency score? 

Once I saw an opening on my colleague’s calendar, I set up a quick check-in meeting. I expressed how the meeting impacted me and acknowledged that I was behind schedule on my tasks, and how that was likely impacting her work—an exercise that has been made easy because of our established feedback culture. She agreed that it wasn’t the most productive meeting, was thankful for the direct feedback, and was empathetic to my current state of feeling exhausted. We talked about how to support each other, recognizing our different priorities.

That conversation was just the reminder I needed that it’s okay to be human, and that I’m part of a team where I feel safe to express myself. Sure enough, my head was clean and clear after that—and I wrapped up that proposal in under an hour.

Learning how to get unstuck with the support of our teammates is key to advancing our work in sustainability. When we invest in our own working relationships, create psychological safety, and develop an organizational culture of thoughtful feedback, we find that both we and our teams support each other to get a lot done.

Because in our shared mission to mitigate climate change, it’s going to take all of our energy to make a difference.

Organizational and team development is a core part of our work as change management professionals at GreenerU. If you’re feeling stuck, or your team is struggling to gel, we can help—give us a shout! (P.S. We can help you with your inefficient boilers, too.)

Interpersonal relationships and feedback:

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen

Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen

Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott (check out the podcast, too!)

Culture and team dynamics:

An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization by Robert Kegan, Lisa Lahey, Andy Fleming, Matthew L. Miller, and Deborah Helsing

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni

The Culture Code: Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle

Personal growth and leadership:

Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long by David Rock

Dare to Lead by Brené Brown

Daring Greatly by Brené Brown

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Dr. Dan Siegel

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