All work and no play makes for dull workers. It also can lead to an organization ripe for failure. Daniel Cable, London Business School professor and author of “Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do” has the antidote to the organizational blues. Drawing on work with a wide range of organizations including the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Standard Chartered Bank and Google, he shows that small changes can have a powerful effect on our approach to work. In his keynote address at the Fall 2018 Chief Learning Officer Symposium, Cable will lay out how leaders can make a meaningful impact on their organizational culture and help their employees reach their full potential.

WHAT INSPIRED THE CONCEPT BEHIND YOUR BOOK “ALIVE AT WORK” AND WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO WRITE IT?

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, and more broadly, I think it’s sad how many people are disengaged at work. So many people only bring their bodies to work and feel they need to shut themselves off to get through the days, the weeks, the months of work. Almost 20 percent of workers globally are actively repulsed by what they do all day long. Since we work most of our waking hours, this means they are trying to shut off through life. I wanted to understand the source of this phenomenon better and learn more about how leaders could activate and engage employees.

To engage 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.

IN TODAY’S WORK ENVIRONMENT, “MOTIVATE,” “ENCOURAGE” AND “ENGAGE” ARE COMMON WORDS USED BY MANAGERS. HOW IS IT THEN THAT 70 PERCENT OF EMPLOYEES ARE DISENGAGED AND “DEAD AT WORK”?

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. 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 this old approach does not work because leaders today need enthusiasm, engagement and innovation. Old-school bureaucratic leadership especially does not work 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.

But many powerful leaders do not want to give up 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, 40 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.

IN YOUR INTERVIEWS AND PROFILES, YOU’VE NO DOUBT HEARD MANY SUCCESS STORIES. HAVE YOU HEARD ANY INSPIRING “FAILURE STORIES”?

Almost every episode contains examples of failure. Joe Gebbia from AirBnb thought his business was a major failure in 2009 when only one person signed up to stay at an AirBnb in Austin at South by Southwest. He went back to San Francisco feeling pretty miserable until he received feedback from that one customer. The user complained that he had to pay the apartment owner directly and it felt awkward. But from that one complaint, Gebbia and his team pivoted and decided to make AirBnb transactions frictionless.

WHAT ARE COMMON MISTAKES LEADERS MAKE WHEN TRYING TO BREATHE LIFE INTO THEIR EMPLOYEES?

Many leaders see their job as the emperor — someone who rules above employees. This can give the illusion of control. These leaders try to demand adaptive work behaviors but the neuroscience shows it doesn’t work that way because anxiety shuts off creativity, innovation and engagement.

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 prescripted 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.

HOW CAN LEADERS CREATE AN ENVIRONMENT FILLED WITH PERSONALIZED EXPERIENCES?

We got rid of purpose and meaning in most jobs during the industrial revolution when we broke work up into little segments, most of which do not touch the end user. So we disconnected people from purpose, other than money to pay the bills.

But 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.

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. Create experiences where employees see how their work affects other people and the environment. Help employees experience purpose rather than trying to issue purpose.

Personalized purpose is when employees feel a sense of meaning in their work because they connect with customers and they talk directly with customers about what customers appreciate and need. It’s really pretty simple as a concept. You just need to invest time and set up the space for the conversations. The book is full of examples of how to do this without much financial investment and the returns are outstanding.

Register today at www.CLOmedia.com/symposium