How to Breathe Excitement Into Mind-Numbing Work

Many organizations have it all wrong. They don’t just need to motivate their people. They need to stop demotivating them.

If you’ve seen the results of recent research you know the typical workplace needs a major overhaul. In fact, multiple studies show that the modern workplace is plagued with chronically low levels of employee engagement. The Gallup organization estimates that disengagement is costing American companies $450 billion to $550 billion per year.

You might think such findings—which have remained painfully steady for many years—would result in changes. Yet many work environments still leave employees feeling stifled, unappreciated, and eager to update their LinkedIn profiles to search for the next job.

Social psychologist Dan Cable has some compelling ideas for making all this better. He’s author of Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do.

In this interview, Cable—a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School—offers suggestions on how to encourage self-expression and experimentation to help employees see how their work impacts and benefits others. In other words, how to replace discouragement with engagement.

Rodger Dean Duncan: What are the most common demotivators in the workplace?

Dan Cable: There are so many opportunities to demotivate someone, such as a colleague who is a “taker-jerk” and gets all the credit, or a power-hungry boss who’s more focused on his/her next career move than helping the team get better. I focus on the demotivation we experience when we shut off our seeking systems—the part of our brains that craves exploration and learning and that gives us hits of dopamine when we follow its urges.

The seeking system gets activated by three things: encouraging people to (a) play to their strengths, (b) experiment and learn, and (c) feel a sense of purpose.

These three ingredients are often missing in the recipe of large organizations. I don’t think most leaders are evil and I don’t think most leaders try to squash people’s souls. But I do think most leaders have been trained for—and are rewarded for—efficiency and predictability. So organizations have metrics and controls and policies to standardize employee behaviors, and to punish employees when they haven’t done what was expected.

In general, this makes us feel standardized and processed as we spend most of our awake hours pursuing repetitive tasks that feel a bit disconnected from the bigger picture. We find ourselves disengaging from these sorts of environments. The worldwide polls show that about 70% of employees are not engaged with their work, and 17% are “actively” disengaged. These are people who are not only unmotivated—they are repelled by what they do all day.

But get this: we’re talking about an evolutionary tendency to disengage from tedious activities here. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Taken out of the modern workplace, it kind of makes sense, right? So low motivation and disengagement from tedious, meaningless tasks isn’t some kind of “bug” in our mental makeup. It’s a feature. It’s our body’s way of telling us that we were designed do better things—to keep exploring and learning. This is our biology. It’s part of our adaptive unconscious to know that our human potential is being wasted.

Duncan: Your research shows that many people suffer from “learned helplessness.” Exactly what is that, and how is it manifested in the workplace?

Cable: Many employees find themselves caught in a crossfire between their biological seeking systems and their organizational realities. Their built-in biology urges them to explore their environments, experiment and learn, and assign meaning. But most people work in organizations where they don’t feel that it is possible to do any of these things. After being shut down and punished a few times for using creativity instead of following the rules, employees begin to ignore the urges of their seeking systems. This means they shut off the dopamine and learn to shut down and just “take it.” They end up making a living but not a life.

Learned helplessness manifests itself in negative emotional states. We grow resigned and it lowers our motivation. When we learn helplessness, we no longer even try.

Duncan: What kind of environment is most likely to motivate people to share ideas, work smarter, and embrace change?

Cable: The positive emotions that emerge from an activated seeking system (curiosity, excitement, zest) are functional in triggering exploration, innovation and positive relationships with others. These emotions have downstream organizational implications such as releasing employee energy, enthusiasm, and creativity. For example, as curiosity and excitement increase, so does creative problem solving, because people are better able to marshal their cognitive resources to cope with the task at hand instead of being encumbered by fear and threat.

Duncan: What role does a leader’s personal humility (or lack of it) play in helping people become and stay engaged in their work?

Cable: To prompt employees’ curiosity, self-expression, and learning through experimentation, a leader can 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.

For example, some medical teams did not adopt a new method of open-heart surgery, even though it was safer, less invasive and painful, and improved recovery time. The new procedure, which involved special equipment to access the heart through an incision between the ribs, was a source of anxiety. For “God-Complex” know-it-all doctors, the new procedure presented the chance of failure. They did not want to give up power to serve their full team, including nurses. Even though the new approach was better for patients, many doctors continued with the old approach, and lost relevance.

This column by Dr. Duncan was also published by Forbes where he is a regular contributor. Follow on Twitter @DoctorDuncan

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Rodger Dean Duncan

Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP and a regular contributor to Forbes and Fast Company magazines. He is widely known for his expertise in the strategic management of change, for organizations and for individuals. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide to train and develop leaders. His clients have included some of the top companies in the world, as well as cabinet officers in two White House administrations.

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