Alive at Work: A book review by Bob Morris

Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People to Love What They Do
Daniel Cable
Harvard Business Review Press (March 2018)

“I wonder what my soul does all day when I’m at work.” — Graffiti in London

Recent research studies by the Gallup Organization indicate that, on average, less than 30% of workers in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged; the others are either passively engaged (i.e. mailing it in) or actively disengaged (i.e. undermining the success of their company). The percentages in other industrialized countries are even worse.

In this book, Daniel Cable shares what he has learned from neuroscience that can help leaders to increase the percentage of workers who are alive, “who love what they are asked to do.” Consider this brief passage in the Introduction: “Here’s the best part: it may sound crazy, but finding ways to trigger employees’ seeking systems will do more than increase the enthusiasm, motivation, and innovation capabilities of your team. By improving people’s lives, your own work as a leader will become more meaningful, activate your own seeking system. Things will work better for you.”

As I worked my way through the book, I was again reminded of How We learn in which Benedict Carey explains that his book “is not about some golden future. The persistent, annoying, amusing, ear-scratching present is the space we want to occupy. The tools in this book are solid, they work in real time, and using them will bring you more in tune with the beautiful, if eccentric, learning machine that is your brain.”

Ironically, perhaps paradoxically, Carey invites his readers to think about their minds in bold but practical new ways. He examines an emerging theory that accounts for new ideas about when, where, and why learning happens: The New Theory of Disuse. “It’s an overhaul, recasting forgetting as the best friend of learning, rather than its rival.” There really is a “science of learning” and it requires the same rigor and focus that the study of physics or calculus does. His research and analysis of others’ research invalidate some assumptions about learning, validate others.

Cable urges supervisors to stop deactivating the seeking system in the brains of those entrusted to their care. Many of them have to activate their own so they will feel more motivated, purposeful, and zestful…in a word, more alive. I agree with him: “Exploring, experimenting, learning: this is the way we’re designed to live. And work, too. The problem is that our organizations weren’t designed to take advantage of people’s seeking systems.” That helps to explain why these organizations are so poorly prepared to compete successfully in a business world that is today more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than it was at any prior time that I can recall.

Seeking systems are essential to continuous improvement initiatives, to be sure, but what Gable has in mind involves a systematic approach that integrates relentless curiosity within order and structure. A great jazz group never plays a classic the same way twice. There is constant, unpredictable but subtle improvisation and yet the essence of the original creation remains. For example, “Take Five,” (Dave Brubeck), “So What” (Miles Davis), “Take The ‘A Train” (Duke Ellington), “Round Midnight” (Thelonious Monk), and “My Favorite Things” (John Coltrane). There is much of great value that supervisors can learn from the great jazz groups. Perhaps most important, how to have cohesive teamwork without compromising individuality.

If the results of the Gallup surveys are to be believed, more than 70% of employees can identify with the graffiti quoted earlier: “I wonder what my soul does all day when I’m at work.” Cable is well aware that most of the companies annually ranked among those that are most highly admired and best to work for are also annually ranked among those most profitable and with the greatest cap value in their industry segment. However different they may be in most respects, all of them have a workforce that is alive. Can the same be said of yours? If not, Daniel Cable offers about all the information, insights, and counsel needed to help more people in your organization love what they do.

Here is my favorite passage in Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know;
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”:

Does it describe the leadership now provided to workers at all levels and in all areas of your organization?

If not, it is only a matter of time before the workplace becomes a mausoleum.




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