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Entropy and Negentropy

Entropy and Negentropy

Author: marlene johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand the concepts of entropy and negentropy and will understand that systems gradually move towards entropy unless additional energy is introduced to them

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Energy. We're certainly all familiar with the term, and we know what it feels like to be really energized. We also know what it feels like to have our energy drained from us. So I'm Marlene and today I want to talk with you about energy, and how it affects human groups and human systems. So all living things need energy to function. It's pretty obvious.

As humans, we get our energy from food, we get it from the air we breathe. Plants get energy from the soil, from the sun, from rain. Physical systems need energy we're constantly talking about more fuel efficient ways to run our cars, to heat our homes, to run our factories. We're looking for alternative sources of energy, because we know without those energies, we'll be at a loss.

Now, this is true within the human groups that we're a part of. For example, at work, we know what it's like when we are working with a team of people on a new project and we feel energized and we talk about it that way. I'm psyched to do this. It really gives me energy. And so we talk about energy this way in our work groups, so there's time when we can feel like we're all in sync. We're working on something, it's productive, we're energized.

By the same token, we sometimes will talk about feeling drained at work, stuck, dragging our feet. This is sapping my energy. So human groups talk about their interaction in terms of the energy flow, and it's just as real there as it is in any of these physical systems or in nature. So I'm going introduce you to a couple of terms here. They're on the whiteboard. Entropy and negentropy.

Now, these are terms that come from physics where they study the physical behavior. In this case, it's thermal energy in physical systems and how it behaves in terms of loss of energy and replenishing the energy. But these terms have been adapted to describe human systems. So entropy refers to disorder and loss of energy. It's breakdown. It's another way of saying that something's going to break down. There's chaos, disorder.

Within systems, it's the loss of energy. And in human systems that translates to less efficiency due to energy loss, and we might use words like it's breaking down, it's run down. So that's entropy. Now, negentropy is the opposite of this. It's where things are replaced. The energy drain is replaced. It's better organized. There's order. There's more efficiency. So with negentropy, you get new energy to replace the lost energy. So there's that change.

Now, there's another term here that I want to introduce to you. It's called homeostasis. You may have heard the term. Let me write it down. Homeostasis. Now, this refers to being balanced or stable, maintaining a system. So you want to maintain the energy in a system so it's balance so you're not losing it, as this refers to, entropy.

So how do these two terms relate to human systems and human groups? Let's go back and look at the examples that I brought up earlier about the living systems and physical systems that do need energy. I talked about all living things needing energy. A garden, plants, certainly need energy. They get the energy from the soil. They get it from the sun, from the rain. So what happens when say, there's soil erosion? And the nutrients in the soil are lost or there's a drought? Those plants are not getting the energy they need, and we know what happens. We either have to get out there and water or we have to replenish the soil. So that would be an example in nature here of entropy.

And of course, negentropy would be replacing that lost energy, which is what happens if we go out and we water the plants because of the drought or we replace the nutrients in the soil. So that's what happens in a living system such as a garden. In our homes, if there's a power outage, and you lose heat, and it's the winter, and it's Minnesota, if you have a fireplace you're going to go and put wood in the fire to try to replace that. That would be negentropy. Because you don't like the idea of remaining here without heat in the middle of a winter. That energy loss certainly is a breakdown.

So what about human groups? How does this work-- or applied to human groups? Well, if you can imagine being in a work group. Perhaps there's been layoffs. So now you have taken some of the energy out of that system. There are not enough components, people, here to do the work. So the remaining people have to do all of the work, expend all of the energy, and this begins to drain the energy of the people who are remaining or taking on extra tasks. And it may lead to some grumbling and complaining, so not only physically are people feeling over taxed and burdened and drained, but emotionally.

And this may come out in small conflicts just in the way people are interacting with one another. So that's loss from the system. In this case, a human group working together on a project in a work environment. Now, negentropy here would be to replacing that energy that's been lost through the layoffs. So perhaps management decides to bring in some temporary contract workers who can take some of the tasks and alleviate the burden here from people who were doing two jobs perhaps at this point. And in addition, they decided to give some bonuses to people for working so many hours.

Well, now you have replaced the energy by bringing in some additional people to give help, so that physical burden, and also there's been an input of energy in terms of appreciation, which is also the emotional level can be felt as something rewarding, as an additional input of energy. And it can change the work group. So that's an example of how these two concepts here can be applied to human systems and not just physical systems.

So what's important here is that systems replenish and renew themselves with new energy. Now, an open system-- there's a couple of other terms here, open systems and closed systems. As you can imagine, an open system will be a system where fresh air, so to speak, can come in, a new energy can come in to replace energy that's lost or that's just draining and breaking down in any particular system, whether it be a work group or it might be the furnace in your home which is too old.

So that's an open system. A closed system is a system where things just keep going round and round and the old energy stays stuck. We use that term stick. I just feel stuck. And there's no way for new energy to come in. That's a closed system. Kind of like being in your car, how you can turn on the air so it just circulates inside. You don't get any fresh air. So we want a system to be open so that it can take in new energy.

Now, conflict. Conflict is a very big drain on human groups and human systems, and conflict resolution can bring in that new energy. So if you have two people in conflict, that conflict between those two individuals is draining energy not only from them but because, as we know in a system there's a ripple effect, it can be draining energy from others in the group. So a conflict resolution process is a process that could come in and bring new energy with it by addressing the conflict between the two parties.

Not only is it a patch-- you can look at it as a patch, but it can ripple out and affect the entire group and serve as an energy source to the entire system because you are addressing what is draining energy in the system at this point with the conflict so the whole system will improve and function in efficiency. So that's a little bit about energy and how it affects human systems. Thank you for joining me. I look forward to next time.

Terms to Know
Closed System

A system which is unable to receive new energy from outside itself.


In science, a loss of energy; in human systems, the tendency of a system to become disorganized and less efficient due to gradual energy loss within the system.


The property of a system, which keeps it balanced, stable, or not subject to change.


In science, exported entropy from a system which keeps internal entropy low; in human systems, the tendency of a system to become better organized, improving or maintaining capacity and efficiency.

Open System

A system which is able to receive new energy from outside itself.