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How leaders can engage employees (review of Alive at Work)

alive at workThis review first ran in the Nov. 10 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do

By Daniel Cable

Harvard Business Review Press

$39

Here’s a lesson for any leader who’s looking to leave a legacy.

Write down the names of your maternal and paternal grandparents. No checking Ancestry.com or calling your family’s resident genealogist.

Now write the names of your great-grandparents.

Don’t feel bad if you can’t name everyone. Lots of us draw blanks as we work our way down the family tree.

“And that’s the legacy for us: our own family isn’t going to remember our names in two generations,” says Daniel Cable, author of Alive at Work.

“Lots of leaders spend time thinking about their legacy but really all we have are the positive effects that we can have on each other today. As leaders, we have a chance to make life more meaningful, and more worth living, for the people we lead.”

engageSo how exactly do you make that happen? Focus on firing up the seeker system that’s hardwired into our brains, says Cable.  “Our seeking systems create the natural impulse to explore our worlds, learn about our environments, and extract meaning from our circumstances. When we follow the urges of our seeking system, it releases dopamine – a neurotransmitter linked to motivation and pleasure – and that makes us want to explore more.”

When our seeker system’s up and running, we’re excited. We’re learning new things. Our world feels like a better place to live. We’re more creative and productive. We perform better, we’re happier overall and we’re alive at work.

“Our evolutionary tendency to disengage from tedious activities isn’t a bug in our mental makeup – it’s a feature,” says Cable. “It’s our body’s way of telling us that were designed to do better things, to keep exploring and learning.”

Bad things happen when we’re locked into tedious work and unable to explore and learn. Our seeker system shuts down. Work turns into a grinding and frustrating commute to the weekend. As neuroscience pioneer Jaak Panksepp puts it, “when the seeking systems are not active, human aspirations remain frozen in an endless winter of discontent.”

That discontent is reflected in ugly Gallup poll results that show the majority of us are disengaged and not contributing to our fullest potential at work. The lack of employee engagement isn’t a motivational problem, says Cable. It’s biological.

Organizations are failing employees by smothering their seeker systems with policies, procedures and processes. The rituals of SMART goals (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant and time-bound) and the fixed distribution of performance ratings fire up our fear systems and distract us from learning, taking risks and solving problems with new approaches.  Fear is kryptonite to our seeking systems, says Cable.

“Even though we may say we want employee creativity and innovation, we place even greater value on exploiting existing ideas and processes that are tried and true.”

It takes humble leaders to restart our seeker systems, says Cable. We need more leaders who’ll express feelings of uncertainty and humility, share their own developmental journeys and spend more time observing, listening and actively encouraging their teams to play to their strengths, experiment, explore and rediscover a sense of purpose with their work.

Being humble won’t just benefit the people you lead. “Finding ways to trigger employees’ seeking systems will do more than increase the enthusiasm, motivation, and innovation capabilities of your team,”says Cable. “By improving people’s lives, your own work as a leader will become more meaningful, activating your own seeking system.”

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. 

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