Alive at work
A lot of your discussions seem to be about the intersection of work and emotion and you talk about great companies creating a feeling where their workers strive to achieve more, to accomplish more. How to companies do this and what’s the impact?
DAN CABLE: OK. So in terms of the impact what I really like thinking about here is ‘what do people bring to work?’ And so I think that if we very quickly talk about lots of people just show up you could say they bring the hands. Other people are thinking about how to do old things in new ways. They’re trying to be innovative or creative. Bring their head to work. And then the hardest might be to get people to bring their heart to work so that it’s not just a profession something they do because they’re knowledgeable and expert. But it’s also something that they love or that they want to put themselves into, that they care about. And so that idea about leaders creating an organisation where on average people are bringing all of themselves to work. I think that’s really interesting and we can talk more about the ways that leaders seem to achieve that. But your second and maybe even the point of your question is ‘what gets created?’
And so we think from an organisational perspective if employers are showing up and bringing their hands in, they’re sort of listening and waiting for a script. That puts enormous influence on what the leaders have to think up. It means that the leaders have to come up with the game plan again and again and again. Each time the organisation needs to change, the onus is on leaders to first sort it all out and then teach people. I think that when people are starting to bring their brains to work and want to innovate and try new things it starts to mean that creativity and innovation are organic and emergent rather than people waiting for the answer and then judging it. So one of the most important things from bringing your head to work would be innovation and creativity that the leaders get to experience and watch but not dream up and teach. And then in terms of bringing heart to work emotions I think there’s two really important bits here. One is so many organisations are trying to create emotional connections with the client, with the customer. And that’s really difficult to do if the employees themselves are not feeling it. So to plug emotions into a conversation or a sales call. To think hard about creating a relationship and not just a pitch, that often demands emotional labour. That demands employees bring their emotions to work and care if they’re to be seen as authentic. That’s one thing. Second thing that we really learn a lot about lately is in order to try new things at work. There has to be some emotion. That people are willing to put themselves out there and take risks. They’re willing to be energised enough to try something that might not work. And a lot of times that is not something they’re willing to do unless they’re feeling that it’s important.
One of the things when I saw you talking was a Gallup survey you gave reference to which was 78 percent of people say that they are adapted version of themselves. The wording was they ‘go to work to shut off’. Which is a depressing set of words isn’t it? And so that links into what you said, people bringing their full emotional self to work.
I was chatting to someone about your work. And they said ‘but any firm that fired someone, the risk of exposing your vulnerabilities, the risk of exposing your true self leaves you exposed to works exploitation’. How do you reconcile those?
DAN CABLE: It’s such a great topic in terms of the statistics it’s funny after we did that and I got your note, I went and looked at where I originally got that 78 percent is actually 80 percent. The Gallup Institute looked at 1.7 million employees 63 countries and 101 companies and they found that 80 percent of the people said that ‘they could not be their best at work’. It’s a very strong finding it means that on average work is a place where people feel they have to hide bits of themselves that they think are actually their best bits and that means that they’re wearing sort of a mask. And you’ve really put your finger on the issue which is for a lot people in order to be my best at work I would have to do it differently than you told me to do it. And this takes me to the idea – through not really evil but through efficiency – the industrial revolution was about standardisation and making jobs not only simple but very replicable. Meaning that if I lose you in this job I can easily hire and find somebody else. Cog in the machine thinking. This new approach is to say we have to let people personalise work. We would have to let them take the job then bring their unique strengths to it to light it up, using the way that they could do it best and that I think is where your exact comment is. It’s catching me. Because if we keep an industrial, mechanised model of what humans do there’s not really room for individuality and playing to your strengths means that you’re going to do it differently than me. That might mean that I have to judge you differently than you judge me. It might mean the metrics for you might be the metrics that are different for me. So now when I start hearing about the likes of Accenture or Deloitte I just learned today Amazon moving away from these forced ranking systems. One of the reasons why they’re saying they’re doing that is to allow more personalisation of how people do their work. Allowing more job crafting and playing to strengths.
So maybe we’re even seeing the beginning of some trends but those trends are I think seriously questioning the standardisation model that sort of came out of the 1900s.
The bit I get from reading your work – you talk a lot about ‘seeking systems’ which might be worth you explaining – the bit I get about your work then if I overlay what you said there is that that notion of ‘not bringing your full self to work’ is something that you could probably accommodate in a clerical, routine job but not bringing your full self to work is something that is very difficult to accommodate in a world where creativity, ideas and invention are the core principles that you’ve got. As work migrates away from these jobs that the robots are coming after into things that are far more unique and creatively focused it seems to me a critical thing that all work needs to get ready for then.
DAN CABLE: That’s right. What you just put your finger on is ‘why now?’ Why are these positive emotions at work so important now? Why hadn’t we caught on to this in the 40s, the 50s, the 60s? And there’s something really interesting about pace and speed of change. Not very long ago, 1987 for me, I came out with an undergraduate degree. By 1995 I had a Ph.D. And through that whole time the way people talked and thought about organisational change is that the leaders thought that up. And then cascaded it throughout, that you created a burning platform and then try to get people to accept the change even though they resist. And this new approach of saying ‘we don’t have two years to create a change’, ‘we can’t do an 18 month rollout, in 18 months the world’s going to have changed two more times’. It puts a very strong demand on getting these volunteer changes to emerge organically. And I think that this is enormously helpful. Humanistically it’s very helpful to me because it implies strongly that organisations that are using fear and then teaching scripts won’t be adept. They won’t adapt they won’t be be seen as relevant. Organisations that invite people to bring their whole selves to work, that invest in their best selves will not only survive, will be more likely to thrive. And so for me why now is enormously hopeful and I think that it won’t be all leaders that accept that approach. I personally had a hard time with this. Even as an American.
In what sense?
DAN CABLE: It’s not the way I was taught. It’s not the way my teeth were cut. It’s not the assumption base in which I operated. And for somebody that’s always been taught SMART objectives, goal setting around the organisational goals, cascading objectives starting from the top, 18 to 24 month rollouts. It was somewhat interesting how much I had to get my head around this new approach that the leader doesn’t have to have all the answers. They have to engage people to want to find the answers. You have to give up quite a bit of your certainty and become considerably more vulnerable.
Could you talk through then the ‘fear system’ and the ‘seeking system’ because he underpins a lot of the insight that I think you’ve shared.
DAN CABLE: The fear system is a good place to start because I think everybody knows about that one. There is a part of our brain dedicated to injecting cortisol into us when we experience a shock that is threatening. And so the feeling that people report: that sort of jumpy anxious fearful state comes along with not only some drugs that get jetted in our bloodstream but also some tendencies of how we should respond. And we don’t get to control those tendencies. They were helpful to our ancestors so we’ve got them now. So the eyes dilate to let in more information, we flinch and pull back, our body wraps our muscles tighter as we get ready to either fight or flee. And so we don’t get control over that – that’s an unconscious reaction to fear. And when organisations create that that means that the fear is coming from within the group. The action that our body wants to take when that fear hits from within the group. The threat comes from those around us. What we want to do is conform. We want to fit in. We want to hide our uniqueness. So unfortunately that used to be good for Henry Ford. That’s not so good for organisations that want people to be innovative and creative.
DAN CABLE: So now let’s flip it. Fortunately for all of time we have a different part of our brain that uses a different drug. It’s not as strong as the fear system and that’s something that’s really powerful. Fear has to be quicker. The Seeking System takes longer.
But the Seeking System uses dopamine and what it’s interested in doing is causing us to explore and play. So when we’re not afraid there’s something in us that urges us to think about new ways to get resources. Our ancestors used to gather resources even when they had to cave and food, they were seeking, thinking about other ways to get resources they were pushing us out of Africa. On the other continents to try to see what’s out there. And that’s existed for all of time. So that part of us is deeply resident. But as long as we’re feeling fear we don’t give it a chance to emerge. So the part of me that is so hopeful is that the current system of how do we activate playful behaviour at work? How do we activate creativity and innovation of new ways to do old things. It demands the dopamine, the enthusiasm, it demands that curiosity. But leaders don’t always have the right practices to activate and that’s when I say I’m hopeful, that’s why I’m hopeful. It’s putting the onus now on leaders to say how do I get that state. How do I reduce fear and increase curiosity?
The one things I found especially interesting and sometimes it’s good to sort of flip between the different aspects. You talk about the fear system. There was this example of rats in a cage. And if a bit of cat fur was put into the rats cage. You taught me, rats are immensely playful animals, they love playing. But it as soon as a bit of cat fur in their cage. They go into this Fear state that actually they find pretty impossible to emerge from it. It sort of permeates their behaviour – even when time passes. And for me there’s an interesting parallel there, because a lot of us, a lot of organisations do flit into fear mode. They do say ‘now’s Code Red’, ‘now’s the time that you guys need to be focusing on this’. And that might be something that a business might enter into lightly, but the consequence might be these enduring, abiding memories in people’s heads. And I wonder how you can think about that?
DAN CABLE: That’s fabulous. The analogy as you were talking that I got was my back. And how when it gets a little bit threatened, say by too much tennis serving. It seizes up. It literally clasps my spinal cords so hard that I fall and crumple.
And it’s trying to protect me. It thinks it’s doing the right thing for me and this is what I think will happen in a lot of organisations. They’re fine to do a bit of play as long as there’s plenty of resources that there slack in the environment. As long as we’re just proactively fooling around. But when the industry has shifted and we need to catch up or when the profits slip a little bit. If all of a sudden that little R&D doesn’t pay off immediately how do we react and what tightens up. It’s clear that there is no more important time to have creativity and play is when we need to change. But unfortunately when we need to change we might make organisations spasm and go strictly into fear state. Now let me tell you this, that will work as long as the people already know the right behaviours. Again it will focus them on the threat and it will make them conform to the rules of what we should be doing. That’s great. If you have the right rules. Unfortunately what organisational change often means is we don’t know. We need to figure it out. We need to be curious. We need to be creative. So right there is the rub. There’s no more important time to stimulate the dopamine in the seeking system than when we don’t know the right answer. That’s fascinating. It’s a paradox that I think will put a lot of businesses out of business.
Yeah, because if you play through that scenario that time when you’re really underperforming, in trouble people are scrutinising you, hostile shareholder position at that time you’re saying to people ‘now is the time to start experimenting, having ideas it’s over to you, this servant leadership, it’s over to you’
DAN CABLE: It’s a really nice illustration right there. And because I had one of these seize up opportunities recently. You just find it so interesting how the body thinks it’s doing it to help you. In this case it simply is not helpful. One other thing I’ll put out there that I found interesting. The fear state wasn’t meant to be switched on all the time. Our ancestors wouldn’t have lived in constant fear there would have been the occasional bear or threat. But the idea that in many organisations day in and day out, week in week out, month in and month out it’s a cesspool of fear it’s roiling with anxiety. That’s where the burn out happens. It’s not the quick reaction that’s run. It’s the ‘let me enter into another nine, 10, 12 hours of fear today so that I can do it again tomorrow’.
Oh god, what a life.
DAN CABLE: Have I depressed us now?
Let’s let’s talk about purpose because one of the things that more and more businesses are trying to reach for purpose because they can see in certain instances it seems been this incredibly energising corporate behaviour. And you’ve done a lot of work on this trying to find out when purpose works, and when purpose doesn’t work. And the interesting thing isn’t it purpose? Purpose is a bit like humour in the sense that a very small difference, a very small nuance can turn it from being sincere to being really horrible and saccharine. And there’s examples I think you’ve got where people have found purpose inauthentic. And what was I was particularly interested in is you seem to have come across the way that you can make purpose connect.
DAN CABLE: Yeah. I think one of the most interesting case studies with some really solid data is Adam Grant did a study where he took fundraisers who were just making calls for money. They’re making calls for a university. And in one set of the fundraisers he did an experiment where he simply brought in one of the recipients of that money – a scholarship student and they sat down with them and basically said thank you. Said ‘thank you for doing what you do, I couldn’t afford school without you’. He found enormous increases in terms of how many calls and how much money. Threefold kind of responses.
And it was a really brief interaction.
DAN CABLE: Ten minutes. Yes. It’s an incredible thing. So then when one of the supervisor said you know that’s kind of my job. It’s what I do. We don’t we need to bring in the scholarship student. So they reran the study whole different set of call centres, whole different set of fundraisers where in this one they again did the student. The student came in and said thank you but in another one the boss came in and said the same thing. He said thank you and let’s remember why we’re doing this. It’s to put kids in school. It just didn’t work as well. It got a 6 percent increase. Not even statistically significant whereas they replicated the first result you know over three times more calls almost six times more money. And this really got me thinking it really helped me to start understanding that purpose isn’t about what the boss says it is. Somehow that could even create a bit of cynicism. Because maybe people feel a little exploited maybe purpose is the last frontier. It’s something that’s truly personal and you don’t get to tell me my purpose. And I find it really interesting to think about personalising the purpose not by the leader saying ‘here’s what it is you’ve got to internalise it’ and certainly not by a firm putting it on the website or creating a laminated card that you have to wear around your neck.
Almost certainly won’t be received in somebodies heart as my purpose. But interesting how if a leader would start with the goal of how can I invest in them personalising purpose how can I get them closer to the end user of what they do all day long. In study after study and example after example that’s what I’m seeing working. I’m seeing that when you can look or talk to the person that is using the product and have them say ‘thank you, here’s why it’s so good when you do what you do well’. ‘Here’s why it hurts when you don’t do it well’. That’s emotional and not cognitive. Gratitude is an emotion that we have felt and have been evolved to feel. And when you feel gratitude it makes you want to give back. It creates a more honest exchange it creates trust. It’s just very interesting to me how the switch can be thrown but maybe not in such a mercenary way and I have a feeling that when leaders hear that employees want to know about purpose they think their job is to cook it up for them. And I believe what we’re stumbling on is it takes a bit more of an investment than that. It takes creating a personalised experience where firsthand they witness the end user experiencing their product.
So there’s something about that that’s helpful to me as well I guess I might just be the eternal optimist and that’s OK too. But what inspires hope in me is how that’s more how we’re built.
Yeah and I just fascinating for me, it feels a bit like – this might feel like I’ve turned this into a lower level of academia – it feels like you must be familiar with Robert Cialdiani’s Influence. And those behavioural triggers, and the things he studies at great length about the bath towels, the reuse of bathtowels. Sometimes semantics can play a big part, words and wording. Your work there seems really similar in the sense that you’re learning by understanding the cognitive paths that work in people’s minds you’re finding a better way to connect with them in things that you know are heartfelt and meaningful.
DAN CABLE: You know that’s just well, there’s a lot that you said there. Number one: it’s that the triggers are subtle. If you didn’t know to look for these differences you might not even see that they’re there. It could even be that one of the leaders listening to this. If he or she just glanced away for a moment and their mind just didn’t hear the bit about personalising. ‘Yeah yeah I know purpose is important. I got that. That’s why we have it on the website. That’s why we tell every new applicant about it’. It’s quite subtle what we’re saying. It’s let’s find a way to feel it first hand. That’s interesting to me. A second thing that is – and I didn’t think it through very well yet – is a lot of those influence attempts can be seen as quite manipulative. The order in which you bring something up in a meeting. Allows you to manipulate people into not having quite enough time to get what they wanted to say. So you as a leader can influence them. Contrast effects. Using fear. Just get people to notice it. These tactics which are influential can also prevent leaders from getting the best out of people. They can get the job done that you want to get done. But they may not get the best out of everybody so you have a collaborative team where there’s a complementarity. So I find that really interesting that there may even be some not so obvious conflicts between the 1990s influence tactics that we have talked about and learned and the expectations that millennials and youngers have around purpose and feeling that purpose.
The only other thing I wanted to cover was. We talked a little bit at the start about the ‘whole self’. It was really interesting when I see that in work. I’ve always thought if you can bring your unadapted self to work, and you can be the same person in every context that seems to be a route to happiness. And so consequently if work can facilitate that then happiness at work – which is my obsession – can be more easily accomplished. And through your work you found really simple hacks for companies to encourage people to bring them their real selves to work. And it’s very much it’s simple things about the onboarding process, about people starting work. Do you want to talk through the things that you found there.
DAN CABLE: I think there’s three things I’d like to say. The first one and you know you could call it a hack. That can come off as pejorative but if you just think of it as a way forward, a little bit unexpected way forward I think it kind of works actually. But one study that we did with Wipro in India was they were hiring newcomers and we just for one group randomly assigned them to a condition where the very first hour on the very first day a leader said rather than start with the job we want to start with you. We want you to write down three times that you’ve been your very best. When have you had your best impact on other people. And essentially it was a way of getting them to create a sort of highlights reel. A personal highlights reel. Not that you always act this well not that you always have this impact but sometimes you just up your game for whatever reason. We want you to write about that. We gave them 20 minutes and then they went off and they introduced their best selves to each other. They’d never met before. So in this fairly uncertain new environment of a brand new job meeting these people they’d never met before they were just asked to introduce your best self and maybe read one of those stories. And we found that six months later they were 57 percent less likely to quit. And they making customers 11 percent happier statistically significant. We were really surprised that we didn’t spend any money. It’s just there’s a lot that we could be doing. So we went back to Harvard and we replicated that with a bunch of data entry people in Boston.
And then we found that not only did it work again they made fewer errors, more likely to come back to work and so on. But we also measured why. And the strongest reason why is they felt that other people at work knew who they really were. They felt that they could self express. That people knew their real strengths. That carried the variance as it were. So that’s one.
Second thing that I bring up is we have now worked with a bunch of different companies and a bunch of different studies where we put that on steroids by going out to people’s social networks.
So we’ll go out to a person’s parents, siblings, college buddies, high school buddies, old bosses, old professors.
And we have those people be a looking glass back and say ‘here’s where we saw that person at their best’. They write stories saying ‘here’s where that person had their biggest influence on me’. And we bundle those we give them to them.
And it really seems to affect people. It seems to make that Best Self more salient. It seems to ignite the Seeking System. It releases the dopamine it makes people more creative it makes them more innovative. It makes them more resilient to stress and strain makes them less likely to burnout. It’s an interesting and powerful – if you will – hack. And again it doesn’t really cost much money. It’s just we don’t do it in the world until people die and then we call that a eulogy. And it’s a really strong interesting hack to give people eulogy when they’re still alive. And say ‘hey why don’t you use that here’. If those strengths that are natural and innate to you and it’s you at your best, you probably want to be that more often don’t you. Here’s the job that could be a platform for you to be your best. That’s much less of a hack and more of a revolution of course.
I was really struck because that has resonance in a book about the Method cleaning company called The Method Method. And they have something which is one of their core values which is ‘keep Method weird’. It’s all about celebrating eccentricity, it’s about celebrating the things that aren’t particularly normally. It immediately connected and so this place that has been celebrated for a great culture – it immediately connected.
DAN CABLE: Zappos.com – ‘let’s keep it a little weird around here’. Southwest Air – ‘we want you to bring all of yourself to work even the weird bits’. So one of my books is called Change To Strange and I’m a big fan of strange. Feels to me the last thing we’d want to be is normal which sounds a lot like average. But if you want to be extraordinary if you want to bring something that makes people say wow it’s got to be abnormal. It’s got to be strange. It can’t just fit in. So I actually think that we’re probably on to something not only interesting but truthful here. Great organisations probably don’t race to the middle. We probably race to eccentricity if you will. So that’s a nice catch.
Why is purpose so powerful? How do we trigger purpose that’s authentic. These are big questions, humanistic questions. They’re not ones where there’s the sort of tick box.
Yeah and I think the interesting challenge is ‘can you scale purpose?’ based on what you said there. All very well when you’ve got 20 people in a garage doing something and you can feel connected to what you do. But can you scale it to 10000 people globally? In an authentic way.
DAN CABLE: Fabulous. If we had to name this book I think we could name it ‘Beta Testing The Super Firm’. It feels very much to me like around the 1890s we invented this new thing which is not six people making shoes in a little village shop but 64000 called Nike. And how is it that we can as leaders make it feel as salient and tangible what we’re giving to people who are affecting when most of the people who work there have tiny jobs that they didn’t really invent. They they made ordered the mesh for the running shoe line that they didn’t design the shoe. They don’t talk to customers who wear the shoe. They don’t pick the colour of the mesh. They’re just trying to get the lowest price. Or maybe they post the pictures online for the new shoes but they don’t take the pictures. And they don’t decide what the lines of shoes are going to be. They just post them. And to think about bringing a sense of purpose to that, we’re beta testing that concept. I think we have a lot of evidence that it doesn’t often work. But then in some firms there’s hints and suggestions that you can get legions of volunteers to say ‘oh I want to be working on that’. So that’s what we’re up against for trying to crack that code. But
I thought I’d asked all my questions but you had the example of the an air engine manufacturers. What I was struck by that example because it was similar to a [steel manufacturer] in the U.S. called Nucor. They’re an incredibly profitable organisation. They devolved all decision making to the local mills. And you might think that’s OK but won’t devolve the things at scale. No. They said if you want your own computer system have your computer system. Anyway it’s a really well worked example, they’re the most profitable [steel mills] in the U.S. because they effectively bringing the autonomy and the local decision making closer to home they’ve provoked this seeking system. The Seeking System has such a differentiating effect that the bottom line is even more effective even though you’ve got rid of those benefits of scale.
Now I’m really with you. There’s another company in Mexico. Maybe it’s in Brazil I’m sorry it’s called Semco. And they make concrete I believe. They were just about ready to shut it down. It was not profitable for many years, a family business. This guy just decided to give all the control to the workers. You can make all the decisions. Not only how you’re going to make concrete? But do you want to make concrete? If you don’t what do you want to make? Not you get some insight into the books of – for example- how much we pay people, it’s you guys decide on what you want to pay people. How much you want to pay each other? And it just went from a loss to a massive success story, that now makes loads and loads of money. One of the most profitable organisations, doing great. Amazingly there’s not much better leadership but there’s loads of passion and purpose.
So there’s there are snippets that show us that there’s so much power right under the surface there’s so much energy in employees that can be unleashed. And you’re in it’s drug induced. You’re you are right on it when you’re saying that this dopamine is powerful. Not only because it makes us enthusiastic and curious but because it keeps coming back. It makes us want more. It’s addictive.
The guy from Semco he wrote a book called Maverick. It was 15 years ago. His whole inspiration I think was Montessori schools. Where you just went in and played and it was a was all about stimulus and do what you want.
DAN CABLE: And all that’s invoking the Seeking System.
I wasn’t sure how Semco had gone in the intervening years.
DAN CABLE: I can tell you it’s doing fabulous. I checked in with him about three years ago. This guy [Richardo Semler]. He has a TED Talk. A pretty reason one. He talks about just like how he doesn’t really have to go in anymore. It’s just like hand over fist money. Their product suite is enormous.