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What is Catabolic Energy? – And Why Should You Care About It?

First, let’s define a few terms so that we’re “speaking the same language.”

Catabolism - can be simply summarized as the process the body uses to generate energy to counteract a stressor. Catabolic energy = draining, contracting, resisting energy (cat = down, against)

Anabolism – The opposite energy and process is anabolic. Anabolism is the process by which the body builds itself up and grows. Anabolic energy is constructive, expanding, rejuvenating, and sustainable. o Anabolic energy = constructive, expanding, fueling energy (ana = building, upward)

You may well be asking – what does this have to do with what’s going on in your corporation?

Fair question, and the answer may surprise you. Everything! More than likely, your organization is in the throes of Corporate Catabolism. A little like Game of Thrones but more subtle and more costly. The concept of corporate catabolism builds on the scientific principle of catabolic and anabolic chemical processes and reactions described above.

In the extreme or most stereotypical sense, this is the fight or flight response. Both fight and flight are aspects of corporate catabolism. Flight occurs when you believe you have no course of action that will bring a positive outcome. In the corporate arena, flight can be seen in avoidance of difficult issues, indecision, and lack of initiative – all resulting from feeling helpless to be able to make a difference in each situation or circumstance. In time, this leads to lethargy, inaction, and disengagement in the workplace.

Fight, on the other hand, occurs when you lean into a situation with force – either through action or emotional intensity. In a typical corporate scenario, it’s how the body gives you a boost of adrenaline to get through intense projects and meet deadlines. It’s also the process that’s triggered in response to conflict – whether in reaction to someone else, or internal conflict. This response has you “stand up for yourself,” “get your point across,” and defend your position. All seemingly positive attributes, but ones that are likely to introduce more conflict – especially when there are other options to both express yourself and do so in a manner that builds excitement and agreement, instead of division and derision.

People have extraordinary influence over each other – consciously and unconsciously.

One of the most influential pieces is our individual and collective energy. Einstein proved everything is energy, and it didn’t take us long to learn that energy is quite contagious. Whether from increasing job demands, lack of resources, the “always plugged in” pressure of technology, or the general uncertainty of economic and social times, the people that make up our organizations are surrounded by stressors, which trigger catabolic perceptions often.

As the contagious energy sets in, you (as well as your employees) begin to feel overwhelmed, frustrated by not having time to think quietly for a minute, and aggravated that the next person or situation has interrupted you before you could complete whatever you were working on. You’ve likely experienced the impact of an individual or leader with catabolic energy.

Let’s look at what happens when Carl, a leader with a history of insisting that it’s “his way or the highway,” walks into a meeting. When Carl enters the room, you can see those already seated tense up a bit. Anxiety shows on their faces as if to say, “I was hoping he wouldn’t show up today.” Carl has not even said a word yet, but the others can feel his energy, and it spreads. In the back of their minds, they’re remembering experiences when Carl’s views were forceful and inflexible, and he would speak over others and resist explanations that were not his own. When Carl appears, they unconsciously expect the same thing to happen. And so, the cycle goes on, catabolic energy and perceptions holding people firmly in place to repeat the same patterns over and over again. Let’s take a closer look at how catabolism manifests within corporations.

How does Catabolic Energy Show Up in Organizations?

The easiest way to know whether catabolic perceptions are at work in your organization is to think of one of the last challenges your team, division, or organization faced.

For this example, it does not need to be anything at crisis levels but is just something that created some significant challenges in the daily or weekly course of events. With this event in mind, think of the first and second reactions that were involved.

How much of this did you witness occurring: anxiety, high stress, a focus on what’s wrong or what’s broken, wanting to know who was responsible for the situation (i.e. who dropped the ball), individuals avoiding responsibility, lack of accountability, and lots of confusion, assumptions, and misinterpretations that added fuel to the issue. Perhaps lack of certainty and confidence abounded, and even once the challenge was solved, people were drained. These are typical symptoms of a catabolic response to challenges.

All these issues are effects or symptoms of Corporate Catabolism:

• Lack of engagement

• Lack of innovation

• Low motivation

• Low morale

• Poor performance (with little or no continuous improvement)

• Drop in product quality or service levels (e.g. increases in waste, recalls, defects, customer service calls)

• Increase in failed projects and projects that fall well short of expectations

• High turnover / Lower retention

• High absenteeism (sick days)

Employees and leadership who have a predominance of catabolic energy are likely to fall into one of two generalized profiles.


Profile 1 - “Victim” Vicki

· Not confident

· Avoids making decisions

· Apathetic

· Unproductive

· Uncommitted

· Low Energy

Profile 2 - “Angry” Angelo

· Confident, to a fault – comes across as argumentative, defensive, or controlling

· Thinks his way is the “right” way

· Low emotional intelligence

· Argumentative

· Suppresses creativity of those around him

· Doesn’t trust others


These two catabolic profiles make up significant portions of the 71% of all U.S. workers who are not engaged at work. And, to make matters worse, if Vicki or Angelo or people like them are in the position of manager, director, or executive within an organization, their catabolic disposition has an even greater ripple effect on those with whom they interact and lead.

Think back to Carl, whose appearance in the meeting room immediately changed the energy in the room. When Carl’s direct reports interact with him, they begin to behave the same way Carl does, engaging their reports with the same catabolic energy. Just one Carl can have an enormous impact on an organization, and chances are, there’s a Carl in your organization too. Leaders with significant catabolic tendencies tend to blame others for poor results, and these leaders often fail to link their own performance with business outcomes.

Team leaders and team members are unable to move forward because their stagnation is repeatedly reinforced by unresolved conflict. Misplaced blame creates distrust, anger, hostility, and stifles communication. There is a general lack of clarity, in part because there is a lack of sharing full information. Inevitably, productivity and innovation become mediocre at best, requiring constant management input.

People with predominant catabolic energy are highly judgmental (nearly everything and everyone is seen through labels, generalizations, and interpretations), have hidden agendas, are inflexible in their opinions and approaches, and may even deploy tactics that create a combative or at least a resistant environment. In organizations with a good deal of catabolic energy, special projects may begin but are rarely completed and, when they are, they often fall quite short of expectations. Even when goals are agreed on and buy-in appears to be present, the resulting plans are poorly executed; and, accountability is systemically deficient and/or met with conflict and perceived as a lack of focus, competencies and/or trust.

Shifting from Catabolic to Anabolic…

A leader who builds an anabolic organizational culture fuels growth. Anabolism thrives when organizations can create work environments that fully engage their employees – through emotionally connecting and motivating its employees through purpose and values, offering them sought-after mental challenge and growth opportunities, aligning work to strengths, and fostering a workplace culture that encourages curiosity, rewards openness to differing perspectives and new alternatives, and celebrates success as well as “noble” failure.

Anabolic leaders have high emotional intelligence, acknowledge, and seek to understand the perspectives of employees, and information flows freely and transparently in both directions (top-down, and bottom-up). Decisions – in strategy, in tactics, in policy, and even in daily work routines – receive real buy-in because the pros and cons, advantages/disadvantages are consciously reviewed; interpretations are willingly challenged; assumptions are examined; agendas are transparent; and multiple alternatives are proposed – even when a course of action seems obvious – to see what truly is best. Individuals advocate passionately for their ideas which they believe are right and listen intently when their views are challenged.

Corporate Catabolism is perception-driven – meaning that this depletion of useful energy is the result of the way that leaders and employees perceive their environment, each other, their interactions, and their work. These perceptions are internally created – created from our experiences, beliefs, values, principles, and purpose.

Corporate Catabolism is also stress-fed – the more that stress, which seems to be status quo for today’s workforce, enters the workplace, the more that catabolism takes hold and grows. Because catabolism starts with the way that we perceive circumstances as they unfold around us, it can be reversed by interrupting unproductive perceptual patterns that create catabolism and providing leaders and employees with new anabolic perceptions and options that they likely have never realized were available to them.

Leadership and Being a Leader Who Engages is Your Responsibility

Responsibility is a word that can make many people cringe, while others get excited. Let’s reframe it so that everyone gets excited. Situations – i.e., business as usual – will always unfold in unpredictable, changing manners. What “business as usual” can never take from you is your response-ability – your Ability to Respond.

As a leader, trying to drive engagement and an anabolic culture, all eyes are on you. The way that you respond to a situation, the way you interact in meetings, and the way you talk casually as you pass employees in the hallway will set the culture of your organization. Leaders who exude anabolic tendencies can be easily witnessed as the ones who are calm during stressful situations, and who don’t let the world around them dictate what they do or how they do it.

Anabolic leaders recognize they are not their circumstances, but they are their responses. This process of using your response-ability slows things down long enough, for you, as the leader to shift; to shift your perspective, to shift your energy, and to shift your team’s perspectives and energy. Leaders can re-engage their teams at critical moments by not allowing the team to get distracted or waste energy and time on feeling frustrated, aggravated, or powerless to change a given situation. Creating the shift, re-engaging your teams, and creating an anabolic culture are your responsibilities as a leader in the 21st century.

Shannon and her team at Endless Ocean Coaching wields a tool called Energy Leadership to shift patterns of catabolic energy to more anabolic both in leaders and whole organizations. We are skilled at transforming catabolic energy to anabolic! We love to create stress free work environments!

To learn more about our Energy Leadership trainings, our individual and group coaching systems, schedule a free, 30-minute consultation by contacting us today.

Copyright © 2011 Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC)


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