279: How to Feel More Alive at Work with Dan Cable

By March 28, 2018Podcasts

 

Award-winning professor Dan Cable shares his research insights on our “seeking systems” and how our engagement with them largely determine whether we feel alive at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The work we’re biologically hard-wired to enjoy
  2. How to rev up your aliveness using the three key triggers
  3. A one-hour intervention that reduces attrition by over 30%

About Dan 

Dan Cable is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School. Dan’s research and teaching focus on employee engagement, change, organizational culture, leadership mindset, and the linkage between brands and employee behaviors. Dan was selected for the 2018 Thinkers50 Radar List, The Academy of Management has twice honored Dan with “Best article” awards, and The Academy of Management Perspectives ranked Dan in the “Top 25 most influential management scholars.” Dan’s newest book is Alive at Work, and his most recent research was published in Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review, the Academy of Management Journal, and Administrative Science Quarterly.  This research has been featured in the Economist, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, CNBC, New York Times, and Business Week.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Dan Cable Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Dan, thanks so much for joining us here on the How To Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Dan Cable

Thank you, Pete. This will be fun.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, I really think it will be. You are award-winning in the field of organizational behavior, with getting “the best article in OB” title a couple of times. I’d love to know, what’s your secret? If it’s happened twice you must be good instead of lucky.

Dan Cable

Oh, can’t we just be lucky? I think it is a little bit of luck. I know that on both of these articles it started with me not even knowing if the research would work. One of them – the first one, with Virginia Kay – we were interested in knowing whether this tendency to want other people to know who you really are – the fancy phrase is “self-verification”, that you want other people in the world to know who you really are – we wanted to look whether that applied when you were trying to get a job.
So in this context of trying to meet recruiters and interview with them – do you still want that? And we found that there were actually large differences between people in whether or not they did or they didn’t. So I think that that’s one thing.
And then the second thing is, this most recent article, with my co-authors Fran Gino and Brad Staats – they are at Harvard and UNC, respectively – we actually put something in place that we didn’t think would really work. It had to do with when you’re first hiring people – having them write about situations when they were at their very best. And we had them do that the very first day. And we didn’t really know what the hell to do exactly. We had some ideas and some theory, but it’s a pretty strange thing to do on the first day. And lo and behold, both of those things paid off, so maybe that’s the secret.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, see, that’s not our primary topic, but I’m just so intrigued by this stuff, so if we can unpack it a little bit. So, with self-verification, that’s intriguing, because I would think that very much should be the case. I’d imagine some folks would say, “You know what? You’ve got to know me and embrace all of who I am, or I don’t want to work here.” And so you have that attitude versus, “I want to give them exactly what they want because I want to nail this job.” So, I’m curious – do we know if one strategy is more adaptive or optimal, based on some measure?

Dan Cable

Yes, and it depends on what measure you take. So here’s a couple of things that we have found, and this is actually on point if we’re going to move toward the book, because one of the activators of the seeking system is self-expression and playing to your strengths and kind of letting people know what you’re really all about. So, it’s not a bad lead-in. In some ways it is what led me to start studying what I study, in terms of the book, so that’s kind of fun.
But I will tell you that in terms of what we found in this study, in the very first study – the one that won this award – we found that people differ, and they differ reliably, so that some people care about this a lot more than others. Some are just like, “I just want the job. I will say whatever words lead to, ‘Here’s the job offer.’” And then there’s other people that say, “It really doesn’t work unless you know who I really am”, and may even be willing to take less money to have the people around them accept them for who they really are.
And so we called that “self-verification striving”. And what we found is in the short run there wasn’t much of a difference between those that wanted that and didn’t want that, but in the long run, meaning over the course of the next year, the self-verification strivers did better. They were both rated as more effective by their bosses, and they rated their own work as being more pleasurable, they had greater job satisfaction. And so, I would call that a win. I would say that on average, it doesn’t seem to hurt you, but what it does seem to do is help you find the fit where you’re more likely to find an environment where you can be yourself and kind of let your strengths shine.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, that makes sense. I totally buy that, in terms of…

Dan Cable

Can I add one more little bit?

Pete Mockaitis

Let’s do it.

Dan Cable

In a second study, that just published last year, in 2017, we looked specifically at, what if you’re a crappy applicant? [laugh] And we did find that it hurts you. We find that what happens is, for the good applicants it really helps and for the bad applicants it really hurts. And so, it is a matter of being willing to be in it for the long term and say, “I’m not going to just say the happy, nice thing, and that’s going to hurt me in the short term. I’m going to be less likely to get any given job. But over the long term I will find a job and a company where I would have a better fit.”

Pete Mockaitis

Right. Okay, that makes sense.

Dan Cable

So, it’s not quite as happy a story.

Pete Mockaitis

No, if it was like, “You know what? What’s most important to me is that I can watch Netflix as many hours as possible. And that’s who I am.”

Dan Cable

It may take a lot to find that job. And that might be like “Netflix groupie” – there might be that job, and you’ve just got to keep looking for it.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s so good. Okay, and so then I’m also curious, what’s the rough split between self-verification strivers and not, just for funsies?

Dan Cable

One way to think of it is a normal distribution, so that most people are just in the middle. So it’s kind of a boring but true answer. What happens is, plus or minus one standard deviation you have about 70% of the people right there. Now, there are people that are kind of two and a half, three standard deviations out, which means they’re sort of rabid self-verifiers, like they really, really need you to know what they’re all about. And there are other people that just do not care. Again, it’s just sort of like Teflon people: “You can actually say the words for me if you want, just as long as I get the job.” So, I think that most of us are in the middle, but some of us lean toward that authentic self-expression and we have an interest in being who we really are and we don’t really like wearing a mask.

Pete Mockaitis

Right, I hear you. I hear that. So now let’s dig a little bit into your book, Alive at Work. What’s the big idea here?

Dan Cable

Okay. I think that the coolest thing is that all this disengagement that seems prevalent, not only in the United States but all around the world… And when I say disengagement is prevalent, I mean the numbers look like 70%. In some surveys the Gallup Institute will go out and they’ll measure a 1.5 million people, they’ll measure 100 different organizations, they’ll go to 63 different countries, and it looks like about 70% of the people are disengaged from work.
If I had to summarize that quickly, it means that work is somewhere that they go to shut off. It’s almost like, I call it “the commute to the weekend”. You sort of get in there and you become this thing that really isn’t you. And we know also that about 18% of people are actively disengaged, meaning that they’re actually repulsed by what they do all day. They are almost disgusted by their work.

Pete Mockaitis

Now, Dan, I feel like you’re one of the few people I can ask this question. Alright. So, Gallup – do they not have a bit of what you might call “a vested interest”, since they’re providing consultation and assessment and solutions to addressing engagement problems, in having the disengagement numbers look bad?
I’m not imputing their integrity or anything, but I guess in a way it’s a bit of a judgement call, like … survey assessment, what is the threshold by which I’m going to make a call that that is a disengaged person? And I’ve tried to find what the formula is – I think it may be proprietary – in terms of what responses on what questions trigger engaged or disengaged. But maybe could you give us the bird’s eye view? Do other data sources seem to confirm that this is the ballpark of the state of play right now with engagement?

Dan Cable

Let’s just talk about this a little bit. What I’d say is, the different vested interests do seem to come up with very similar answers. For example Deloitte in 2017 did a big one of these, and it’s not shockingly similar, but it was just as bad. And in fact they asked one question about, “Do you feel like you can be your best at work? Is work a place that you can be your best?” And they found 80% were saying “No”. They were saying 80% of the people are saying that, “Work is not a place that I can be my best.” But Deloitte might also have something to gain – as you well know, they’re also a consulting shop.
Here’s what I can do, because I don’t know the magic formulas they use, and I don’t know when they publish these things how much we can believe in every bit of it, versus take it with a grain of salt. I can tell you that many, many of my friends would fail the test of engagement. So why don’t I tell you what the test of engagement would be? And you can think about your own friends and your own family, and how you grew up and what your parents thought.
Number one, engagement means you engage your body. So that’s easy – that means you show up. You get your hands to work and you say, “How do you want me to use these?” And the idea is, “I don’t really care. You might want me to weld something, you might want me to fix something else, but if you pay the most money, I’ll take the job.” And it’s kind of a transactional way of thinking of work.
And the second approach – you can engage your brain, your mind. And this approach says, “Don’t tell me exactly what to do. Tell me what you want accomplished. And if you – my supervisor, my leader, my boss – you can tell me what you want accomplished, and then let me figure it out. Let me use my brain, let me use my skills, let me create something.” That’s a second level of engagement, and I think that it’s a little bit more rare. It’s not always the employee’s fault. One of the big “A-ha’s” in this book, Alive at Work, is that a lot of times the supervisors and leaders – they say they want innovation and creativity, but what they really want is innovation and creativity that works.

Pete Mockaitis

Right.

Dan Cable

That pays off. When you’ve used engaging your creative forces and you’re innovating, and it doesn’t go as you expected, and maybe you make somebody angry or maybe it doesn’t actually work – then you get punished.

Pete Mockaitis

Right.

Dan Cable

If you get punished enough times you’re being creative, you’ll stop being creative and you’ll just do what they say. So that’s hands, that’s head. And then the third one is heart – this idea that some of us actually care about what we do, meaning you care if this show arouses people.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s true.

Dan Cable

And you care if this show helps people get more living out of life and sort of maybe become better at their jobs and at their work, increase their “awesome” quotient.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah.

Dan Cable

So you might actually care that that happens, and that notion of bringing your emotions to work and sort of letting the work define you… We’re on this little round planet, maybe it’s 40 years and maybe it’s 80; it probably isn’t much more than 100, and in that short amount of time most of our waking hours are going to be at work. Most of the time that we’re awake we’re going to be working. And so, this idea that you might even care about that, I think with a lot of my friends that’s rare, to be honest. Work’s a thing you do to get money; it’s not a thing that you really care about. And you would jump to another job as soon as soon as possible, and the evidence does bear that out. I mean people are job-hopping like crazy. They’ll leave one company to go to another one for 8% more money. That would imply to me that they weren’t very engaged in their hears.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, thank you for indulging me here. So it sounds like you’re saying that these numbers smell about right in your heart and mind, and experience and research.

Dan Cable

Yeah. That, and I like that you brought it up because I actually think it’s very good to stay critical. Not cynical, but it actually is really important to stay critical about what we’re learning about the workplace. And so I’m kind of just glad you brought it up. And again, whether or not you use that – totally up to you, but I actually think that is a pretty important and good question to think about: How do we know disengagement is rampant? That’s a good question.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, cool. So, got you. Now that we’ve laid that groundwork… You say something pretty provocative, that human brains, like all mammal brains, are not built for repetition, and indeed it is a need of ours to do some exploring, some experimenting, some learning. Can you share, what’s some of the most potent research evidence underlying this?

Dan Cable

Great, okay. The thing that I didn’t understand when I was in school – I don’t think anybody took the time to tell me about this – is that there’s this one part of our brain that can be called the ventral striatum, and that’s buzzworthy and that’s scientific and all, but some people – these affective neuroscientists, these people that study the brain on emotions, and where do emotions come from – that’s called affective neuroscience – they call this the “seeking system”.
And this seeking system is something within our brain that urges us from a very early age – and I mean babies – to explore what we don’t know, to become interested in what we don’t yet understand, to push on the boundaries of cause and effect. And I don’t mean just humans by the way; I mean mammals. … If you go to a zoo, for example, the animals that are fed on plates are not doing as well as the animals where they hide the food or they have to chase the food, where they have to sort of seek it out.
And so, one thing that was really surprising and even shocking to me, is that we’ve got this part of our brain that’s urging us to be creative, to be curious, to understand the “Why”, to understand the impact of what we do. And yet, I guess you’d say starting during the Industrial Revolution, that’s not how we have set up our organizations. And I think that that’s one of the keys to the book. And we can have a lot of fun with that if you want, but just to throw it out there briefly – Henry Ford did not see creativity and innovation in his workers as a good thing.

Pete Mockaitis

Right. It’s like, “Why is it when I hire a pair of hands I must get a…” What was it?

Dan Cable

“Why must I always get a head and a heart?”

Pete Mockaitis

Yes.

Dan Cable

Like, “Why can’t I just automate this baby?” They didn’t have machine learning back then, they didn’t have robotics, so really the human was just supposed to be the robotic. And more power to him – it worked. Nobody copied him for 10 years and he made it in black for 10 years, he made a lot of money. But things didn’t change quite as fast as now. Now you don’t get 10 years to paint it in black.

Pete Mockaitis

Right.

Dan Cable

Customer tastes and the environment seem to move at a much faster pace. And so, I think that we got into the habit of shutting off people’s seeking systems, we created measurement systems and reward systems and punishment systems and promotion systems, that were all kind of based on, “Well, we know what you’re supposed to do – now just do it, and we’ll measure you.” And I’m not sure that those management technologies are built for activating the seeking system. I think that they are kind of built to put it to sleep.

Pete Mockaitis

Understood. So that’s powerful stuff, and I feel this in my own experience strongly, in terms of, if I have had a day or two or three of repetitive stuff – and sometimes things get repeated – I just… I don’t want to be dramatic, but it’s like something inside of me is dying or atrophying or just sleepy, and I’m not alive at work, as you might say, in the title.

Dan Cable

Have you been disengaged once, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis

It’s happened before. Sure, yeah.

Dan Cable

Me too. Totally.

Pete Mockaitis

And sometimes it was just sort of like a necessity; it’s like, “Alright, I have to categorize all of these transactions for my accountant before the taxes. That is what has to happen now. Repeat, repeat, repeat.” And so, in a way I guess there’s another system at work, which is that I just like to win, to achieve, to conquer the thing. So, in a way I get some engagement and motivation and drive from that, but it’s much less fun than, “Ooh! I’m really intrigued by this thing that I’m learning and exploring” and, “Oh, what about this implication, if I try it that way?”

Dan Cable

That’s right. You’ve made a lot of good points there, but two that I’ll pick up on. The first one is this idea that not all of our day has to be full of that curiosity and that sensation-seeking, in order to end up with a day that feels meaningful, that feels like you’ve advanced something. I’m not so Panglossian that I believe that any of our work or any of our lives can be 100% seeking all the time. That almost sounds like some sort of an addiction in a way. So it’s not like I’m pushing that far, but I think you brought up a second really important point – sure, you can do that for a day, or even a week. But imagine if you had to do it for 40 years.

Pete Mockaitis

Right.

Dan Cable

Imagine if for roughly 280 days, 290 days a year, you spend roughly 8 to 10 hours doing a thing that you had done thousands of times before, and that withering, atrophying feeling of wasting away – I think that that is really humanistic, and I think it’s really potent to think of it. Here’s what’s interesting – for Henry Ford that was a bug. That was a problem. The seeking system was a bug in our makeup that he had to overwhelm by paying the $5 a day. He had to use extrinsic motivation to sort of force people to do this thing. You also could use some fear, because if you’re paying $5 a day, which sounds great, I can dangle over firing you, which sounds pretty anxiety-producing.
And so, just both sides of that coin of external motivation, means there’s this system you’re generating there of anxiety and fear, and I think that that is how a lot of our management systems work. I’m not trying to be draconian, I’m not trying to act as though capitalism’s bad. I’m not even saying that leaders go into this thinking, “How do I squash the souls of the workers?” I think what they’re thinking about is, “How do I do things efficiently? How do I make predictability? How do I know that that thing will run on time and have a certain quality level? How do I know it will ship on the right date?”
So, I think the metrics and the systems and the procedures and the policies that sort of pin us down, aren’t evil. I think that they’re practical. But what I hope to be bringing up with you right now, but also with the book more generally, is just the idea that if the world’s changing faster, that approach may not be getting us to the best ends anyway. It may not only hurt humanistically; it may hurt competitively.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s an intriguing big idea there. And so, I’d like to maybe focus us a little bit, in terms of the here and now, and individual professionals, as opposed to the global world of work evolving. I’m curious, what can we do to connect to more of that creativity, the self-expression, the motivation, the purpose? Given how the world is today, do you have some solutions, some best practices that we can latch on to?

Dan Cable

That’s really good. And we can chat about both what can leaders do to help their teams, and we can also talk about what individual employees can do to help themselves.

Pete Mockaitis

Yes.

Dan Cable

So I think those are both really important. Real quick – there’s three things, three triggers, that seem to ignite the seeking system. And we can play around with any of those that you’re interested in. The first one is what we already discussed, which is self-expression. It’s this idea of putting out to the world who you really are and what you are when you’re at your best. That’s one of them.
Second one is the notion of experimentation, and that’s just playing around, being curious, trying to understand the boundaries. And then the third one is personalized purpose, meaning I feel that the purpose is important, that I understand the “Why” of my work. So anyway, we can actually have a lot of fun. I could give you a quick story at the company level, and I could give you a quick story at the human level, if you’d like, about those.

Pete Mockaitis

Yes, I would like that. And I’m curious, as you lay out these three parameters, is it fair to say when it comes to these seeking systems, if I do one of them, will I kind of feed or nourish the other two?

Dan Cable

It’s a great question. I would say they don’t have to be. There’s a really fancy word, called “orthogonal”.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay.

Dan Cable

Try to use that one one time today.

Pete Mockaitis

You said “Panglossian” earlier, so you’re on a hot streak today with vocabulary.

Dan Cable

I have these all written down though. A friend said, “These are the four words you need to use on that interview”, so I’m just kind of moving through the paces here. [laugh] What I’ll do is say that in my real experiences with real companies, they do seem to work together, and in both the studies I’m going to talk about, they do seem to work together. So, let me tell you a study first about Wipro, which is an Indian call center, since we’re on a call right now, and then I can tell you maybe a specific story about something that happened at KLM, which is an airline in the Netherlands. And I’ll move real quick at first if you want, and then you dig in where you find it most interesting. Do you know what I mean?

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, sure thing. Let’s do it.

Dan Cable

Okay. So the study is really cool, because it was a field experiment, and this big call center in Wipro, which is a mammoth technology company in India, they allowed us to play with about 700 people. And these are 700 people that they just hired. And they let us put them in three different conditions the very first hour, the very first day. And one was a pure control group, one focused a lot on incorporating them into the corporate culture, and then the one that I wanted to focus on – this is the one that I didn’t know if it would work or not, and this ended up being that second paper, that won “best paper”.
What we did is we let those people in those conditions show up, and the very first hour of the very first day we had a boss ask them, “Who are you when you’re at your best? Before we even talk about the job and all the things you’ve got to do specifically, we want to know more about you.” So they really just let them write. They let them write little stories about times that they can remember being as good as they were capable of. And it might not even have been at work; that might have been at home or it might have been family.
So they wrote these stories, and then they got a chance to introduce themselves to each other, and they got a chance to play some games together as a bunch of newcomers. But what we learned is in that condition, when we started with self-expression, we were able to reduce quitting by 32% six months later.

Pete Mockaitis

There you go!

Dan Cable

So somehow that one hour on the very first day ignited something interesting that they felt differently about Wipro as an employer, and they were more likely to stick around. And then we did something – we went and got all the company data on their customers. We got data on how happy they were making the customers, because they’re supposed to be solving problems – for a Hewlett-Packard printer, or for an American Airlines flight that didn’t go – they’re supposed to be helping their customers be happier. And we got that data and we found that indeed the customers were statistically significantly happier in this condition, where we started on the first day with this self-expression.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s so good. Well, that sounds like it deserves “best paper”. Nice job, Dan! That is a nice breakthrough.

Dan Cable

Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis

So cool. So then, I’m curious – you mentioned the games. So, if anyone says, “I’m so doing that right away” – okay, how do we replicate it? You say, “Who are you at your best?”, then they write a bit and introduce themselves as such. And you said there are some games there too.

Dan Cable

Yeah. And what they could do is they could play any type of a team game where you had to work together to solve a problem. And we gave them that Desert Survival game that I’ll bet you’ve heard about.

Pete Mockaitis

You’ve got to prioritize which items you’re going take or score them highly or something.

Dan Cable

That’s right. Always take the mirror. Pete, always take the mirror.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh yeah. You’ve got to signal the airplane, Dan; the rescue chopper.

Dan Cable

We would kill it on that game right now, wouldn’t we? “I don’t need those I9 tablets, why would I take…” [laugh] Anyway, I don’t think it matters though. We also replicated this whole study back at Harvard, where we looked at some data entry people in Boston, and we were able to find the same thing again. And what it implies… Again, you can’t know everything from any one study, but what it implies is there’s a special charge that you can give people, instead of treating them like a number or like a cog in a machine and just sort of, you bring them in on the conveyor belt and say, “Okay, there’s the job. Get to work. Wear this.”
There seems to be something that is activated or ignited when you allow people, especially on their very first day, when you literally don’t know anyone yet – to introduce themselves as their best self and to start the employment relationship off with something not only positive, because “This is me at my best, not me at my worst”, and something that is shareable, because a lot of them read the stories to each other. So that’s one. That’s an empirical study – 700 people, we were able to use statistical testing, we found that all the results were highly reliable, and we also replicated in a second study. So, that’s a study.
I also would like just to tell you a fun little story though, and this is the KLM story. I’ve got lots of stories; I probably have more stories than studies. But this one we can’t tell you we caused this. In the other one we put people into different conditions, and then we know. This one is more of a story. This one is KLM about five years ago. There was this senior leader that kind of was getting wise to the idea that social media was going to be a big deal. If you think about it, five years ago companies weren’t really using social media very much to communicate with their customers. If you think of it, Instagram was just getting going five years ago.
So, there’s this one person here at London Business School; pretty senior leader at Schiphol Airport. And he said, “Wow. There’s a billion people on Facebook. We’re a really social business, but KLM is not really using social media very much at all.” So they did this experiment where they put 10,000 Euro in a budget and they went to a group of about 100 employees. And to the employees they said, “Are any of you people really into social media?” Not only Facebook, but also Twitter was getting on, and there was one called Foursquare that was big at the time. Remember that one?

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah. Haven’t heard much about them lately.

Dan Cable

I don’t know what happened to that one. But he said lots of people raised their hands. Loads of people were using this on their personal time and some people were really into it. And the leader said to them, “How many of you people would be willing to use social media, but for KLM? Help us use it to connect with customers.” And they said, “What do you mean?”, and he said, “I don’t know.” He was the one guy like I am now. He had never been on Twitter, he had never tweeted. He had never been on Facebook, he didn’t have a Facebook page.
So he said, “To be honest, I’m a dinosaur, but at least I can see the writing on the wall. I can see that this is getting big. Are any of you willing to help?” And he said most of the hands went down, but these eight people came up to him and said, “Would you let us experiment with that?”, that 10,000 Euro. And he said, “Sure.” Anyway, you can go find this on YouTube, but they actually have this little experiment that they tried, where they counter-Googled people. This is just these eight employees came up with this idea.
They counter-Googled people – anybody that tweeted about KLM, that put something on Facebook about KLM, that used Foursquare to check in with KLM – anybody that did that, they kind of counter-Googled them and they figured out fun facts about them, like who they were, where they were going, why they were going. And then they bought them little personalized gifts. They’d spend 10 Euro, 20 Euro, 30 Euro and they’d buy them these little gifts, and then they would find them in the airport. They somehow would track them down and they’d race up to them and they would present them with personalized…

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, that’s so good. I was like, “Well, how do you know where they are?” Oh, because that’s real time and they’re getting on a plane, is how you know. Okay, nice.

Dan Cable

Unbelievable. And then they filmed them presenting these gifts – that let them make an ad – that’s great. But then even more great was, these are really social media-savvy people, and they tweeted the hell out of this. They Facebooked the hell out of this. They got just on Twitter alone a million movements in three weeks.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s pretty good for 10,000 bucks, or Euro.

Dan Cable

For 10,000 Euro, exactly. What’s so cool about it from my perspective is when you watch the little film and stuff, not only are the customers kind of delighted – you can see their eyes are popping out when they’re getting these personalized gifts – if you look at the employees’ eyes, they are also excited. They are feeling entrepreneurial; they’re sort of running around an airport, they’re buying gifts, they’re making things happen, and it’s their idea that they’re sort of bringing to life.
And again, that’s not a study; that’s a story. But again, what it start to show is – now this is experimentation – when you allow people to try out their own ideas, you often can get so much more energy, so much more creativity, so much more caring, if you will, that isn’t there if it’s something you’ve done the thousandth time, that your boss is kind of evaluating how efficiently you’ve done it, and if you don’t kind of do it just the way that’s most efficient – well, then there’s a bit of a loss of raise or loss of promotion or loss of status.
And so what I’m so intrigued by here – and I can give you story after story; the book’s just chock-a-block full of this – is how this doesn’t cost very much. In these two examples, just to kind of play this back, Wipro – that was just a leader’s time; that was an hour of time. So there was basically no cost there. In the KLM experiment – yeah, it took 10,000 Euro but to be honest 10,000 Euro to get these eight people that charged up – what type of a bonus or a raise would you have had to have given them? What kind of money would you have to pay the media to get a million movements on Twitter? What if you’re going to pay a marketing firm to try to get you an ad where you’re delighting customers, and so on?
So, the idea is with relatively small nudges and little bits of money, I’m finding ways to light up employees, that not only seem to create better outcomes for the business so the competition gets better, but also it puts more living in the life. It makes work feel more like real life and not sort of that commute to the weekend that I mentioned earlier.

Pete Mockaitis

Right. This is so good. I’m loving this, I’m digging this. And it’s also cool; it’s like there’s just sort of additional psychological concepts or connecting, in terms of that self-expression when people say that, in a way that’s their first impression and they’re kind of giving themselves a bit of a reputation to live up to and be consistent with. It’s like, “Hey, I told all those people I’m like this, so I should probably try to act and live congruently to that, because I kind of went on record.” And I know consciously or subconsciously that’s at work. And then with the KLM instance it’s like just being of service, doing something for someone just naturally lights you up. And so it’s so cool to see these synergies in terms of, we’ve got the seeking systems, and then they’re juiced up all the more by these extra implications.

Dan Cable

That’s right. And those extra implications – that’s why I was so intrigued when you said, “Do these things move together?” And I think that even right now you’ve kind of just re-convinced me that they often do move together. For instance, in that KLM example – let’s just walk through this. Number one – they were experimenting and playing with the boundaries and sort of pushing on what they knew.
Number two – they were connected with their purpose, meaning the work’s “Why” – the “Why” of the work was to delight customers. And they first-hand got to see them smile and say “Thank you”. And then finally the idea that that was their own decisions about what gifts they bought, that was their own self-expression in terms of trying to approach not only the big problem of, “Here’s how we can use social media”, but the small problem of, “What gift should we get them?”
I think it’s really interesting just that maybe it’s often the case that these three things move together, and maybe that’s a way that leaders could actually think of kind of a checklist, like with the work, are the employees in that job having the chance to self-express? Are they having a chance to play in a sandbox and experiment? And are they connected personally with the “Why” of the work? Do they see the impact of what they do all day long?

Pete Mockaitis

That’s so powerful. Dan, I love this stuff. I would like to have a 2-hour episode with you, but I know it’s on your calendar, so I’ll just have to ask, is there anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about a couple of your favorite things?

Dan Cable

Earlier I mentioned that I would tell you some stories about real employees doing things, not waiting for the boss to say, “Here’s 10,000 Euro – go play.” And I thought I would tell you a quick story I heard recently from somebody in my class.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I’m so intrigued, Dan. Let’s bring it.

Dan Cable

I’ll try to do this one really quick. So there’s a guy in my class and he started off as a salesperson. He was pretty good at it, so he got to be kind of the lead of the sales team. And then still pretty good at it, so he got to be a sales manager. And he said right at manager something weird started happening, where he found that he was in a lot of bullshit meetings – those are his words – where he didn’t really want to be in them. He didn’t find them that compelling, it was about what orders were hot, or new ways of doing policy. He still got to get out about three days a week, so it was still pretty good.
So they gave him one more promotion, and now he was director of sales. And he said he just about died inside, because he said it was all bullshit meetings now. It was all about like, “These are the cycles and these are the policies, and you’ve got to fill out these forms and you’ve got…” And he never got to get out there, which is what he loved – he loved selling, he loved turning people on. So anyway, I just wanted to tell you this quick story.
He did something that we call “job crafting”. He would not have called it that; that’s what we call it – job crafting, which means anybody can look at their own job and say, “Can I increase my own self-expression? Can I find ways to be experimenting with the ‘Why’ of my work? Or can I try new things, not because my boss told me to, and not even because it’s a KPI or a metric? Can I just put more in?” And if you read a book by Adam Grant called Give and Take, there’s actually a lot of examples of people in that book who are doing this, where they’re actually taking more out of their work by putting more in in the first place.
So anyway, with this guy, what he does is he decides once a week… Still, four days a week he’s just doing his thing, but one day a week, sometimes only half of a day a week, he just goes out and meets with customers – real customers actually using their products. So in this case it was a distribution kind of company. So he would go to a supermarket and he would just literally talk with the supermarket manager about what’s hot and what’s not, “What are you problems? How can I help?” He would go to an actual distributor; he would go to a place that actually loads the trucks and he would talk to truck drivers and he would talk to the shipping managers.
Anyway, the point is, this was on top of all his normal stuff. He just did this for free, you could say. But he said two things happened. Number one is, he realized that it really lit him up to be out there connecting and understanding it, and that bled back into his meetings. He said, say he was doing a hiring meeting, where he’s sitting with an applicant – rather than just asking questions he was disconnected with, he would be talking about questions of something he just witnessed on Friday. Or if he was in a meeting and they’re talking about the new trends, he could be thinking about those trends relative to the supermarket manager and what he or she said.
So that’s number one, that it helped personalize the work again by feeling the purpose just once a week, when you’re actually out there in the field. That’s number one. He said the second thing he learned was, he made a lot of sales, because he was there not to make sales, just to listen. And he said nothing sells better than not trying to sell. [laugh] So, I’ll stop right there. This guy said he’d drive home and feel like, “Yup, I still got it!”

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, that is awesome. Thank you. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Dan Cable

Yeah, absolutely. A quote that I find really inspiring may not be a very uplifting one in some ways, but I’m going to just tell it to you anyway. Somebody said that if you just kill the insects from the face of the Earth, if there weren’t any insects left, within five years there would be no life on Earth. But if you took out all the humans, within five years all other species would flourish. And this is something I think about quite a bit.
I think about, as humans we have this really strong ability to change the world. We seem to somehow have gotten ourselves out of the food chain. We’re kind of out of the natural pecking order and we instead spend our energy and our time doing things to the world, doing things that aren’t really possible, like flying. We don’t have wings – why are we flying? What I think about, and what I try to think a lot about is, given that we have this opportunity, what can we do that’s good? That’s something that for me, I keep an eye on. It’s something that I try to think about the “Why” of the work that way, and I think it’s actually a question that lots of us can ask ourselves.
And that’s one, and then I was going to give you a second quote, and this one is much closer to the book. This is by Jaak Panksepp; he was a pioneer in this affective neuroscience that I talked about. And he died last spring, and so I kind of wanted to bring him back to life for a moment with one of his quotes. This is a direct quote – he said, “When the seeking systems are not active, human aspirations remain frozen in endless winter of discontent.”

Pete Mockaitis

Okay.

Dan Cable

That’s a heavy one, but it essentially says if we shut down the seeking systems of humans, we shut down the best parts of being human.

Pete Mockaitis

That is powerful, thank you.

Dan Cable

Cool.

Pete Mockaitis

And how about a favorite book?

Dan Cable

So many. I mentioned that, so I’m going to re-mention that – that Give and Take book – I really, really love, and it kind of moves me quite a bit. Second one is Yuval Harari’s book Sapiens. If you want to look at how we got ourselves out of the food chain, that book is a must-read. That’s 50,000 years of human history, and it is really worth your time. And then a third one, I would say is Tim Wilson… He wrote a book called Redirect. And Redirect could probably change the story that you tell yourself about yourself.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, excellent. Thank you.

Dan Cable

Yeah, those are really good.

Pete Mockaitis

And is there a particular nugget you share that you find often resonates and gets quoted back to you?

Dan Cable

Do you mean about what? About quotes, or about…

Pete Mockaitis

In terms of, as you are articulating the good message associated with seeking systems and organizational behavior?

Dan Cable

Yeah, I do. I can tell you one. The book’s only coming out right now, but we sent out a load of these pre-copies to the press, and family and friends, and CEOs and stuff like that. And I would say the quote that’s coming back the most often is, “Disengagement at work isn’t a motivational problem; it’s a biological one.” And that is what tripped me up two years ago. When I first learned about the seeking system, what I was so blown away by was how this is part of our physical brain. This isn’t sort of like the psychology; this is the biology. And I found that to be really interesting and I do think other people are resonating with that a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis

That is good, thank you. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, Dan, where would you point them?

Dan Cable

I think best is Dan-Cable.com, but it has a little dash. So it’s Dan-Cable.com.

Pete Mockaitis

Alright. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Dan Cable

What I would say is, if in our own work we could remember that there is this part of us that is urging us to self-express, to experiment, to personalize purpose – if we could treat that as not a bug, the way Henry Ford is, but as a feature that’s a feature of our brain – when you’re feeling that way at work, don’t put it aside and squash it. Remember that that is nature’s way of saying you’re better than this, you’ve got this now, you’ve got to learn more. And I feel as though in the old days that would have gotten you fired, and I think in the new days that’ll keep you relevant, and that’ll keep you agile, and that’ll keep you charged up about work.

Pete Mockaitis

I love it. Dan, thank you for this. This is powerful and engaging, so intriguing. I wish you and the book and all your work tons of luck.

Dan Cable

Thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed to talk with you, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, you too.

Dan Cable

Okay. Bye bye!

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