Humans are wired to explore. Jobs are designed to constrain. From the intersection of these two realities springs ample worker dissatisfaction, writes Daniel Cable, author of new book “Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do.”
Workplace existential angst is a hot topic these days among authors, who often prescribe a healthy dose of purpose to people suffering from office malaise. But while David Graeber, anthropology professor and author of “Bullshit Jobs,” writes off entire professions as inherently pointless, Cable, an organizational behavior professor, takes a sunnier view. As his book’s subtitle suggests, Cable believes executives and employees alike can apply lessons from brain research to help them find personal fulfillment while still accomplishing even mundane company goals.
The key, Cable explains in the following interview, is to redesign jobs in ways that both tap into workers’ natural curiosity and make companies agile enough to compete in today’s quickly changing business environment.
What is the seeking system, and why is activating it important at work?
The seeking system is a part of your brain that seems to urge you to explore what you don’t know and then look for your impact. All of us mammals have this innate urge to explore, affect and learn from the environment. What this part of the brain encourages us all to do is to look beyond what we already know and get attracted to learning.
When we do that, it releases dopamine, which is a reward that makes us feel lit up, energized, curious. Those are peak human emotions.
Why is activating this system important at work? For workers, it just puts more living into life. For so many of us, work feels like a commute to the weekend. In surveys of 1.7 million people across 63 countries and 100 companies, 80 percent say they have to shut off to get through work. They feel like they have to put themselves almost to sleep to get through it.
That’s really sad, because work is where we spend all of our time. I work way more than I see my family. Between work and sleep, that’s like 80 percent of my time. I think it’s a travesty if work is a place we have to shut off because that means we’re shut off through life, essentially.
[Read: How to Handle Career Envy.]
What about traditional working conditions make people feel they have to shut off?
It used to be what made firms succeed was to tell everybody the tasks to do. If you go back to the Industrial Revolution, we invented this process where you broke workflows into tiny little segments, where everybody got a tiny little thing. They didn’t ever really get to meet the customer or see the full product or see the whole workflow. It was like hyperspecialization.
That helped firms compete. It increased reliability and drove down costs.
There are three huge changes that make that unacceptable anymore. The first is, change comes quicker. Henry Ford made the Model T in one color for 13 years. Nowadays we don’t get 13 years before things change. Things change in 13 weeks. Firms have to be agile and have momentum around change.
The third is the taste of the new generation. What the newer generation is looking for is, “What do I want to do?” Some people are saying meaning is the new money. Having a job that feels like I can be my best, that I can learn and I can grow, that I understand the purpose and can see the big picture, this seems to be what’s attracting the best and the brightest.
So if you’re a big firm and you want to compete, putting people in little boxes and saying we need you to do exactly this for the next five years — this boring, repetitive, disconnected task — that’s not going to give you a competitive advantage.
The seeking system is the manager’s friend today. There’s this innate biology that’s waiting to serve.
How can companies adjust their practices to address those three changes?
How do you hire the right person? You start by figuring out exactly what the job is, put out a very tight job description and then you go find people to do that exact job. The person has to fit into the job. And then we measure very tightly what we already knew we wanted you to do. We reward you externally. That’s called extrinsic motivation.
I think we need to turn that on its head now. The job can’t be static because it’s going to keep changing. It used to be the job would be there for 25 years. Now the job won’t be there for 25 months. It may not be there for 25 weeks before we have to change and adapt new processes, new technology, new ways of working, new customers, new products.
You’re really better off hiring a person and saying, “Make this job fit your strengths. How do we get you to play to your strengths in this role? What are the ways of working that suit you, and what fires you up?”
Another thing that’s really different is how we’re used to measuring performance with what we told you to do last year. I’m not sure that’s an effective way because a lot of the time we don’t know exactly what we want the worker to do. The job is for them to figure it out and tell us.
I think those are big, seismic shifts in how the firm of the future will win by lighting up this part of people’s brains rather than shutting it off.
[Read: How to Design a Job You Love.]
Millennials have been stereotyped as requiring their jobs to have purpose and social value. Your book suggests that’s true of all workers.
I believe we all have had active seeking systems for tens of thousands of years. Ever since we became human beings, we would have had this part of the brain firing, causing us to look beyond what we already know.
Since the Industrial Revolution, we moved out of the field and into the factories. I’m not saying growing food is deeply purposeful like solving cancer, but it is deeply purposeful because it lets us eat. When we went into the factories, we kind of threw all that away.
The whole thing then became, “I’m just happy to have a job.” My dad was born in 1929, during the Great Depression. He was just happy to have a job. He drove a truck. The attitude was, “If you pay me, that’s all I deserve.”
Something weird has happened in my own lifetime, though. For somebody like me, born in 1969, what I want is professionalism, learning, a career path. This is more than just a job. I want to know what it leads up to. That’s version 2.0.
For someone born 20 years later, that’s version 3.0. I need some money to put a roof over my head, which is necessary but not sufficient. I need professionalism and a career path, but that’s still not enough. I need to feel like it matters.
We now have the need to satisfy this meaning thing, to feel like what I do matters in a good way. Maybe it’s the case, as we continue to move forward as humans, we just demand more. In the same way that cars were great until we invented airplanes. We keep updating what our expectations are, don’t we?
Can employer attempts to instill work with purpose backfire?
The book is all about personalizing purpose, getting employees to feel it and find it instead of being instructed about purpose.
Today, leaders know workers want purpose. They’ll go off and invent it and try to hand it out like playing cards. It totally backfires. Hearing about purpose doesn’t make me feel purpose. Your purpose is not my purpose. If I feel like you’re trying to manipulate my purpose, I rebel against that. Emotionally, that’s a big turnoff.
One of the No. 1 things that seems to light up this part of the brain is getting employees to think up new ideas, explore, experiment. So companies put up these sprints and hack-athons, telling workers, “For the next 24 hours, think up new ideas.” It works, they get all turned on. If (employers) then ignore those ideas, and they don’t do anything with them, it actually is worse than doing nothing at all. It’s really a backfire scenario. Because the employees say, “You tricked us.”
How can a job seeker tell in advance if a company will activate his or her seeking system?
One thing I have been advising job applicants for 20 years is to ask a question about heroes and villains.
Ask, “Can you describe somebody who got hired here who is really seen as a success? Who would you call a hero?” Usually the firm will say, “This is the kind of person.” Try to get them to name names and make it really specific.
Then you say, “What are some of the behaviors they did that makes them a hero?” Listen for “They followed the rules, did as they were told, stayed quiet in meetings, didn’t rock the boat, didn’t make waves.” That means being a hero is just doing the thing again and again. I would hear “danger, danger.”
If the hero is someone who invented new things, who really was able to bring a new perspective, somebody who brought new ways of thinking, somebody who was a rebel, I would think “experimentation, playing around, trying new things.”
Also ask, “Tell me about someone who got hired and it didn’t really work out. Who is somebody who got fired, or who you knew wasn’t a good fit with the culture?” Listen for the facts and probe. It’s using the same tricks the interviewers are using — behavioral interviewing — but flipping it.
If they don’t have answers for any of this, then you also know they’re not taking it very seriously.
Ask, “How will you know if I do a really good job? Can you tell me specifically which parts of the job you think are the most important to making me a success?” If it’s all rigid and they have a three-page job description and tell you exactly how you will be measured, you have to hit these metrics, these are your quotas — that may be exciting to some people, but I’m saying your seeking system won’t like that after one year.
I can tell you after a year, when you’ve figured it all out and are nailing the extrinsic motivator, your seeking system will start to get shut off. You start really begrudging work. It’s not fun anymore. You’re not learning anything anymore.
How can workers find a sense of purpose even at jobs that, objectively, are not very exciting?
Ask why four times.
Take a look at an average week, and look for the big chunks of work, medium chunks of work and small chunks of work. For each thing, ask the question, “Why do I do it?” four times. Listen to the story you tell yourself. Try to find the story that inspires you the most.
If I say “Why do I teach?” one reason could be because it’s part of my job, or because I have to. That’s not a very good answer. It’s not very inspiring to me. Maybe it’s because I want to give information. Why do I care about that? Because I want students to make better decisions. Why do you care if they make better decisions? I want the company to run better.
The purpose is trying to understand the “why “of your tasks, even if they’re little tasks.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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