Daniel Cable on being “alive at work”: An interview by Bob Morris

Dan Cable is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Busness School. Dan’s research and teaching focus on employee engagement, change, organizational culture, leadership mindset, and the linkage between brands and employee behaviors. Dan was selected for the 2018 Thinkers50 Radar List, The Academy of Management has twice honored Dan with “Best Article” awards, and The Academy of Management Perspectives ranked Dan in the “Top 25 most influential management scholars.” He earned his Ph.D. degree at Cornell University.

Dan’s latest book is Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do; his first book was Change to Strange. He has published two edited books and more than 50 articles in top scientific journals. His most recent research was published in Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review, Academy of Management Journal, and Administrative Science Quarterly. This research has been featured in the Economist, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, CNBC, New York Times, and BloombergBusinessWeek.

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Before discussing Alive at Work, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

In college at Penn State, Rick Jacobs essentially allowed me to become myself. He was my mentor and friend, and I have thanked him for this again and again. I was not sure what I wanted to be until I met Rick, and then I knew what I wanted to me. And then he helped me get there.

The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

First, Tim Judge, currently director of the Fisher Leadership Initiative at The Ohio State University. Tim gave me all the tools and knowledge and direction that I needed to be a good professor. He helped me understand the important of research to great teaching, and also helped me understand how to conduct research. We worked very closely in my early days at Cornell — from running analyses to creating surveys to writing introductions – and these were the lessons that I needed to begin my academic career and contribute something new to the literature that I could build on as a professor.

Second, Adam Grant, who currently is an important force in how we understand work and management. I helped hire Adam at the University of North Carolina back in 2006 or so, and he wasted no time helping me remember why I became a professor in the first place. He is not only inspirational to work with as a co-author, but he helped me break out of some ruts I had put myself into on my way to becoming a professor.

To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Getting a PhD, in particular working with Tim Judge as my chairperson, has been completely essential to my career and what I have been able to contribute so far.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from 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.”

Brilliant. This is the heart of servant leadership, and humble leadership, which is the leadership style that I describe in Alive at Work. This approach, while still ignored by many leaders, can activate employees’ seeking systems, generate enthusiasm and innovation, and make work feel like real life.

From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

I like this quote because it shows how science helps humans push through ignorance. The early sees really flat until someone realizes it’s not, but it takes a while to get the word out. Sometimes people get hurt during the move from “dangerous idea” to orthodoxy

From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

What I like about this is how experimentation can lead us to learning, not because we know how it will work out but because we don’t know how it will work out. Many leaders have the hardest time accepting that innovation and experimentation need to surprise us in order to learn from it, so they end up punishing experimentation and learning.

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

I like this quote because it reminds leaders that strategy is not important without the people volunteering to take it forward into reality.

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

I like this because it makes me think of the ‘addiction’ that many of us have around an achievement mindset. where we are drawn to keep doing the thing that we already know how to do well. To learn and stay relevant, we need to hold a learning mindset, where we take on new activities even though they don’t work perfectly at first.

Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Right…this is back to the Drucker quote earlier. It’s so easy to slip into a rut, as a person or as a company, where we like to efficiently do what we are used to but that isn’t solving a problem anymore. This is where I think the seeking system is so critical, so useful, because it urges us to play with new behaviors and learn new things and better understand our impact.

How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

As an individual, the trick is to get closer to the end user of your work, and understand what they want and need from your work. This not only increases your end of purpose and impact, it also allows you to see new ways to do old things, which lets you experiment and learn and try new things to see if you can solve problems better, More broadly, this means adopting and holding a learning mindset rather than an achievement mindset, because the call to do things the ways they have worked in the past is both loud and attractive!

As a leader, the goal is to help employees find the freedom within the frame. Organizations need employees to meet regulations, deliver on promises to customers, and not “break” the organization. This is the a frame. The freedom refers to the space where employees can experiment, try new things, express themselves, and play to their strengths. Some leaders refer to this as working on the airplane while you’re flying it. Of course, this is only possible when employees understand the big picture— the organizational frame— and the shared purpose of the work.

Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?

It helps to understand when we remember that management practices were invented during the industrial revolution. This is when old-school bureaucratic leadership relied on positional power, control, and certainty. This is a control-based approach to managing people. Now that organizations need enthusiasm, engagement, and innovation, a control-based approach is detrimental because it ramps up people’s fear —fear of not hitting targets, fear of losing bonuses, fear of humiliation.

Leaders today are starting to see that this old approach does not work, especially for the newest employees coming into the workforce. The best leaders are starting to see that in order to prompt employees’ curiosity, self expression, and learning through experimentation, they need to start with the humble purpose of serving others and being open to learning from employees. Research shows that when leaders express humility, and share their own developmental journeys, they end up encouraging a learning mindset in others. Ironically, humble leadership works not by demanding perfection, but its opposite— by showing that humans are never perfect and must explore, fail, and practice in order to learn and improve.

But, many powerful leaders do not want to give up their control. Part of this is because many leaders want to seem certain and confident, and they worry about coming off as vulnerable and uncertain. And, forty years of research on the psychology of power has revealed that high-power individuals are more likely to treat others as objects, and prefer maintaining social distance from others — especially subordinates. So, there are some psychological issues that keep many leaders from listening to and connecting with employees.

In your opinion, what specifically must be done immediately to increase the percentage of actively and productively engaged employees?

Leaders need to activate employees’ seeking systems, which releases dopamine and makes people feel enthused, excited, and creative doing what they we’re doing. When dopamine is not released, we feel bored and creatively bankrupt. This is our body’s way of reminding us that we are made for better things; of urging us to learn something new and contribute more.

There are three ways to activating our seeking systems. First is self-expression (expressing one’s own unique ideas and perspectives out to the world, and playing to strengths). Second is experimentation (playing with new ideas and trying new approaches to accomplish goals). Lastly is personalizing purpose (understanding our impact on the world and other people). Alive at Work is dedicated to helping us understand how to activate our seeking systems using these three levers.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

I think the biggest challenge facing leaders is moving the cultural norms, and human resource practices, away from fear/anxiety and toward excitement/curiosity. These are the new emotions of competitive advantage, because they produce the engagement, innovation, and enthusiasm that leaders need in order to stay relevant.

This is why I say it is a “golden age in human emotions.” Now that change demands frequent innovation, firms need employees to be creative and enthused rather than acting like robots and following details scripts.

Now that there are robots and AI to take on pre-scripted tasks that are mundane and boring, we can spend more of our time on the creative and innovative aspects of work. I see a chance for more people’s seeking systems to be lit up more than ever before. It’s a little like when we invented the printing press and people didn’t need to write everything out longhand. Or like when we invented the cotton gin and people didn’t need to spend all day picking out seeds from cotton.

Now please shift your attention to Alive at Work. For those who have not as yet read it, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP. First, when and why did you decided to write it?

There are two answers to that question. First, I watched my own enthusiasm and zest toward my own job as a professor slip into dull routine. Without realizing it, I nurtured an achievement mindset rather than a learning mindset. It’s not pretty, but it can happen to any of us…even if you have a good job with lots of autonomy.
Second, I was alarmed at how few people were enthused by what they do all day long, and how many leaders claimed that they wanted enthused employees. I work with thousands or leaders each year, and so many of them say they want engaged, innovative employees but many of them are using management practices that cause people to shut off at work. It just didn’t add up, and I want to try and help resolve the riddle.
Putting these together, I wanted to help organizations become more competitive and help put more living into work and life.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

The seeking system as the coolest thing that I learned about. When I was getting my degrees, I had never heard of it. It floored me that the seeking system is a real place in the brain — when activated with electrical impulses this system actually does “light up” in fMRI studies, showing the blood movement with the heightened activity.

The late neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp described the seeking system this way: “These circuits appear to be major contributors to our feelings of engagement and excitement as we seek the material resources needed for bodily survival, and also when we pursue the cognitive interests that bring positive existential meaning into our lives.”

To what extent does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally had in mind?

It stunned me when I realized that the seeking system was a ‘bug’ to the early industrialists in the 1900s, and they built management control systems to shut it off. But today the seeking system holds great promise for leaders in organizations who want to prompt innovation and enthusiasm—and make life more worth living for their employees.

Kevin Evers at Harvard Business School Press helped me craft the book into what it is today. Thank you Kevin!

What are the defining characteristics of someone who is “alive at work”?

Being “alive at work” means working with a sense of excitement, anticipation, and energy.” Feeling alive at work feels like the emotion of “zest.” This is a positive, invigorated feeling where we live work and life with as an adventure to enjoy, and not a hassle to “get through.” And we approach new situations and changes with enthusiasm and excitement instead of apprehension and anxiety.

The feeling of being alive at work is rooted in dopamine –this neurotransmitter delivers when the seeking system is activated, and it feels pleasurable and can be thrilling. Since dopamine regulates our perception of time, we experience time differently, so that when we are alive at work time flows by easily rather than dragging by painfully.

We are alive at work when we follow our body’s intrinsic urge to learn new things. The world feels like a better place to live, and we become more creative and productive.

What are the defining characteristics of a workplace environment within which employees are most likely to be “alive at work”?

Today, organizations face more competition and change than ever before. Great cultures are cultures that unite employees toward a shared purpose, and motivate them to bring the best of themselves to work (rather than shutting off). Thus, I think that great cultures are first defined by a strong sense of “why” that goes beyond the paycheck. Within this shared purpose, great cultures (a) give employees freedom to self express and play to their strengths; (b) encourage employees at all levels to experiment and learn, as they try to increase the relevance of their work outputs; and (c) help employees understand and personalize the impact of their own work activates. This is the culture that will activate employees’ seeking systems, leading to enthusiasm and innovation.

What specifically is a “seeking system”?

Most neuroscientists agree that one of the most basic emotional systems pertains to a “functionally identifiable neural circuit” that depends on dopamine, and that emotional system might be called interest, anticipation, or seeking.

What are the most valuable benefits  of having such a system?

Part of our brain prefers to learn new things and find new ways to use our unique skills, instead of performing monotonous generic tasks. And when we follow these urges of the seeking system, we get a dopamine release that not only feels good, it motivates us to explore more.

Just as the fear system helped our ancestors survive, it is easy to see why an emotional system that motivates exploration and learning would support survival. Across the ages, nature did not always provide the necessary resources for survival. The seeking system is the motivational engine that each day gets mammals to venture out into the world, even though they don’t know what they’ll find. Mammals whose brains motivated them to explore and learn about their environment were more likely to survive and have children.

What specifically can — and [begin italics] should [end italics] — supervisors do to help their direct reports become alive at work?

There are three triggers that appear to activate the seeking system— self- expression (e.g., best-self onboarding, team discussion of members’ strengths and interests, personalized job titles), experimentation (crafting jobs around personal strengths, learning new approaches to work in safe environments), and personalized purpose. That is, trying new ways to connect with customers, talking directly with customers about what they appreciate and need.

Alive at Work focuses on how leaders at all levels can increase employee zest and engagement through these triggers. Obviously, all this must be accomplished within the frame of an organization’s regulations, and promises to customers. In other words, leaders who help their organizations thrive will activate employees’ seeking systems, by finding ways to encourage employees to find the freedom within the frame.

Why is “fear” the kryptonite of of the active seeking system?

There appears to be an “inhibiting relationship” between the seeking system and the fear system. When one system is activated, the other shrinks back. This works like the accelerator and brakes on a car.
The accelerator- brakes analogy fits the evidence about human emotions, because we know that negative emotions dominate positive emotions. Losing money, being abandoned by friends, and receiving criticism all have a greater impact on people than winning money, gaining friends, and receiving praise. In all species that have been studied, playfulness is inhibited by negative emotions such as fear.

At one point in Chapter 2, you observe, “even though the business landscape has changed dramatically, organizational policies haven’t.” So what?

Anxiety, fear, and control were great for scientific management back in the 1900s. When the world doesn’t change too quickly, managers could teach employees what to do and tell them to follow orders. They did not want employees to play around or experiment.

So managers invented personnel policies that were very detailed in describing procedures and outcomes to be accomplished, by when. They set up careful measurements, and imposed punishments when specific expectations were not met

The speed of change has been accelerating. While the telephone took 75 years to reach 50 million users, TV took thirteen years, and the internet took four years. As environments change fast and faster, and innovations are copied more and more quickly, employer- imposed scripted and repetitive behaviors are no longer a way for leaders to gain a competitive advantage. Organizational survival today comes from employees using creativity and ingenuity to solve problems without waiting for instruction.

The concept of “best self” intrigues me and, in my opinion, is best viewed as a process, not as a destination. I am again reminded of one of Maya Angelou’s observations: “Do the best you can until you know better. When you know better, do better.” What are your own thoughts about all this?

I like this idea a lot, it is really important. There are three ways to think about “being your best self” and “playing to strengths.”

One is “playing not to lose” where people rotate on existing behaviors that reflect their strengths in order to not fail. The second is “playing to win” where people push hard to innovate around their strengths, in order to achieve greater outcomes such as pay and promotions. The third is “playing to keep playing” where people see the process of contributing with their strengths as the outcome. The impact can keep getting bigger are we improve and understand more.It is this third category that I think can help people live life with zest and see life as an adventure and not something to “get through.”

In your opinion, what specifically can supervisors do to help their direct reports bring their best selves to work each day?

Some approaches that I describe in the book include:

o Get new hires to reflect on who they are when they are at their best. They can write about times they have made their best contributions to their social network, and when they feel “most alive.” Then, they can discuss their best selves and their best contributions with their teams.

o Produce relational best- self activations – go to an employee’s friends, family, mentors, and coworkers and collect stories about times that individual made a distinct contribution.

o Encourage employees to personalize their job titles around their signature strengths, personal interests, and unique perspectives.

o Encourage job crafting, where employees customize their jobs around their signature strengths, personal interests, and unique perspectives.

What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within  which self-expression is most likely to thrive?

Some leaders view their role — and their mission – as helping employees become the best that they can be, and to be their best self on the job. These leaders will inevitably get the best out of their employees, who will not only bring their best to the job but also will feel gratitude toward those leaders who activated their seeking system. Gratitude will made them want to contribute even more to those leaders.

What is “serious play” and what is its unique value to personal growth and professional development?

For me, “serious play” refers to experimental “safe zones” includes play and supportive social bonding. Play is important because it recruits, or stimulates, the seeking system, which in turn attenuates activity in the negative emotion systems. This is why play promotes emotional resilience, and diminishes the negative affective consequences of stressful emotional experiences. It sounds a bit counterintuitive to many people, but play and experimentation are most important when things seem negative and threatening, such as learning new approaches at work. Experimental safe zones also create intrinsic motivation, which is much more powerful than extrinsic motivations because it unleashes creativity.

What seems to be the most effective approach when attempting to use experimentation and playing to personal strengths “as a way to switch on employees’ seeking systems within their organizational frame”?

I think the best place to use serious play is when it comes to organizational change, when employees need to learning new ways to work, So much of the success of a change comes down to employee curiosity. Curiosity is a potent emotion. When people on a team are curious, they are more likely to move away from their comfort zones and old habits, and work together in new ways. So, when leaders frame change as a chance to experiment, play, and learn without negative consequences, this activates the emotions of the seeking systems and the ideal emotions for learning.

What seem to be the most common misconceptions about “humble leadership” and what, in fact, true?

Many leaders see their job as the “emperor”—someone who rules above employees. This can give the illusion of control. Other leaders start with the humble purpose of serving others and being open to learning from employees. This can make leaders feel vulnerable. Ironically, however, humble leadership works not by demanding perfection, but its opposite— by showing that humans are never perfect and must explore, fail, and practice in order to learn and improve. For example, surgical teams that successfully learned how to conduct less- invasive heart surgery did not demand perfection immediately. Instead, the leaders stayed open to the team’s needs and focusing the team on learning and practice.

I agree with Simon Sinek that all human initiatives should begin with a “why.” What do you think?

I absolutely agree. For humans, there is a real power in “why.” We want to understand the purpose and the impact of our actions, and when we get this opportunity we experience enthusiasm and motivation. Alignment around purpose is the most important leadership duty, but as I describe in the book, purpose is personal. Leaders can help employees personalize purpose, but it can’t be handed out like playing cards.

In your opinion, what are the most important dos and dont’s to keep in mind when crafting a narrative with purpose?

Once leaders understand why purpose is important to people, the most important investment is to help employees personally experience the impact of their work. These personal experiences with the end product, and the end users, help people change their stories about work behaviors from “how I do my work” to “why I do my work.” So DON’T assume that employees will ‘buy into’ whatever purpose you talk about as a leader; DO create experiences where employees see how their work affects other people and the environment. Help employees experience purpose rather than trying to issue purpose.

Years ago while interviewing the CEO of a Fortune 50 company, I asked him if he had a primary purpose. He replied that he did: Helping as many people as possible to discover what their primary purpose in life is and then do all he could to help them serve it. Your response?

This, in my opinion, is spot on. This is a powerful new way to think about employment— as a chance to light up employees’ seeking systems instead of shutting them down.

In the end, I think that leaders have duties that are similar to religious figures. This is because they have such a direct effect on the purpose that people feel about their work and feel in their lives. And since employees’ sense of purpose directly affects their health and longevity, this means that leaders are a little like doctors, too.
So, leaders can get more meaning and health in their own lives when they help others find meaning in the place where they spend most of their waking hours!

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in Alive at Work will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

Listen to the urges of your seeking system, and when it starts sending you boredom signals “lean in” rather than disengage. Lean in to knowing the user of your work better, and what makes him or her happy about a job well done, and how she or he evaluates a job well done. Lean in to trying to use your unique strengths to do more for the customer of your work. Try new ways to accomplish things even if it means investing more time and energy.

To first-time supervisors? Please explain.

Remember to help people balance the free and the frame. Help employees understand what has to be accomplished on the job, and why? Then, help employees play to their personal strengths and interests to reach those outcomes. Make sure there is a personal connection between employees and the people who use their work.

To C-level executives?

Remember to balance quarterly efficiency with the need for learning and innovation over the next 3 years. Create a culture that balances efficiency and execution with experimentation and learning. Show visibly how learning and innovation don’t lead to punishment, even when things don’t go as planned.

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Dan cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link

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