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Life By Design Blog

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Business Book Club: Alive at Work

I've set myself a goal to read one self-development book per month. To make sure I really reflect on what I'm reading I'm going to extract the wisdom from the best business and personal development books and share it with you.

This month I’ve been reading Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do by Daniel M Cable


The book:

The book largely focuses on a part of the brain called the ‘seeking system’. Our seeking system is the part of the brain that creates the impulse to explore our world and learn about our environment. We were born with an innate curiosity to explore, play and grow through experimentation. 
Following the urges created by this part of the brain releases dopamine, making us feel motivated and purposeful. It’s this natural urge to discover and experiment that encouraged our ancestors to explore beyond Africa, it’s the part of the brain that has helped us learn and adapt since we were born. So what has this got to do with feeling alive at work?
The book explores why we came to be working in a way that shuts off the seeking system and what can be done to reactivate it.

Things start to go wrong around the time of the Industrial Revolution

The problem is that the modern workplace was expressly designed to suppress our seeking system.
Modern management was first conceived during the industrial revolution. In the 1850s Frederick Taylor, a leading proponent of ‘scientific management’, attempted to apply scientific theory to manufacturing processes by improving economic efficiency and in particular labour productivity. Employees no longer did jobs end to end. Instead, jobs were broken down into manageable, easy-to-track, specialised tasks. He helped managers put measures in place to show whether or not employees had met expectations. This allowed managers to ‘motivate’ workers by taking away income and status when they were not fulfilling their prescribed tasks. 

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Many of these themes still dominate the modern workplace. In order to compete and manage productivity, most large organisations have created workplaces that discourage experimentation, showing too much initiative or leveraging your unique qualities. By creating specialised tasks many employees are completely removed from the impact of their work.
If you’ve ever watched the clock at work you know that after a while being bound by these policies and management practices can feel confined, repetitive and frankly, soul destroying.
When we get to this point of machine-like repetition we may feel like work is not real life but just something to get through. 

The worst bit is that most leaders don’t even believe that this way of working gets the best out of people but these practices are so deeply entrenched and the cost of stepping outside your box is so great, they give up trying to change it.

Fear Is Kryptonite to the Seeking System

Policies that make us anxious about losing pay, status or threaten career progression activate our fear response and shuts out our seeking system. When fear and the desire to explore bump up against each other, for evolutionary reasons, fear will always win. Negative emotions dominate positive ones. This means that loss of income and threats to job security will have a greater impact on us than the prospect of exploring new opportunities.

Many of us accept this way of working as “just the way it is”, as if it's some natural law, but it isn’t how to get the best out of ourselves or others. We were never meant to work this way and we can do better.

How do we activate our seeking systems in our work?

The good news is there are ways to activate our seeking systems at work. 


You might have heard of employees being allowed to choose their own job titles. When I first heard this I thought it was a ‘fluffy’ exercise. It might be harmless and make people feel good but surely it doesn’t really add anything of value? However, when I read how this was done at the Make-A-Wish Foundation I changed my mind completely. 
Supporting terminally ill children is emotionally draining and you can easily see how employees might feel bogged down. Choosing their own job titles made staff consider the purpose of their roles and what unique strengths and personal qualities they brought to the team.
Titles like “Minister of Dollars and Sense” (COO), “Goddess of Greetings” (administrative assistant), “Magic Messenger” and “Heralder of Happy News” (PR managers), “Duchess of Data” (database manager), and “Merry Memory Maker” (wish managers) helped colleagues to view one another as human beings, not merely job holders. They felt they had permission to leverage their unique strengths and were able to help their colleagues leverage theirs. Furthermore, these titles encouraged staff to “cognitively reappraise” their work. It helped them to focus on the more meaningful and intrinsically rewarding elements of their jobs that we often lose sight of.

When we feel like work is more like “real life,” complete with intrinsic motivation and positive emotions, we’re more likely to help our organisations adapt, innovate, and we are more likely to choose to go the extra mile.

Experimentation and Play


Cable gives the example of a manufacturing plant that desperately needed to modernise its processes. Staff were initially reluctant to try anything new. If trying something new meant slowing down or reducing productivity, even in the short-term, it caused them to fear for their jobs. However, when they were invited try out new ways of implementing the new processes as a team using Lego models first, their mindsets changed completely. They were able to experiment, test ideas for themselves and eventually the workers ended up coming up with ways to apply the new process in their work themselves.

When people are set a task that is framed as a performance situation, it triggers a fear response. We become risk-averse and are less likely to persist than when a task is presented as a learning opportunity. When a task is framed as an opportunity to get it right or test out something new, it triggers curiosity.  We become more willing to experiment and are more likely to see mistakes as feedback to be learnt from.



Another important way to activate our seeking systems at work is to have a clear sense of purpose.
When job roles focus on specialised tasks we often workers removed from the end impact of their work. One simple way to create a sense of purpose is to help employees experience the impact of what they do. Cable gives the example of employees at a tyre manufacturer who were invited to experience driving on ice using the company’s ice tyres. Of course, the company could’ve saved themselves a few thousand pounds and showed their team a customer video instead. But when the employees had the opportunity to use the tyres themselves they could see how great the product was. It also gave some context for their work and this inspired them to not only to take great pride in the ensuring the quality of the products but also to come up with suggestions for improvement.
Most organisations tell their workers how important their work is, they might even share customer stories, but in order to activate the seeking system purpose needs to be personally felt.


Balancing the Freedom and the Frame

So should people just be free to be themselves and explore whatever they want at work? 

Well no, not really. That doesn't work either. Even Google revised it’s 20% discretionary project time after a while. They had loads of innovative projects and solutions being developed but as the company grew there were just too many. It made it hard for Google to focus and diluted it’s offering. 
Balancing freedom and the frame is the answer. While the book gives lots of examples of how various organisations have attempted to do this the advice is to tailor to the approach to the individual organisation. The answer lies somewhere between giving enough freedom to truly activate team members seeking systems and giving enough direction for the initiatives to be meaningful so that it doesn’t feel like a token one-off activity.

Humble Leadership

Finally, the book discusses the role of leaders in creating a culture that activates their employees seeking systems. Humble Leadership is such an in-depth topic I can't really do it justice here but if you bear in mind everything we’ve learnt so far about  the benefits of creating a culture of curiosity (rather than one of performance or fear), giving people a sense of purpose and the importance of encouraging self-expression, it’s not hard to understand why leaders who listen to their employees and focus their energies on removing barriers get the best results. The reason for which is best explained by my favourite quote in the book:
“Because management is an overhead cost, managers do not create value unless they are serving the employees who create the value”.

One leader who has been working with these ideas over a period of years summarised it best when he observed: “I have found that people do not move much by KPIs and reward/penalty. These cause small changes. People move in larger ways by noble purpose, emotional connection, experimenting with new things, and leading by example.”Conclusion



Every so often you read a book that makes you think “Yes! THIS is what it’s all about”. I found myself nodding in agreement as I turned every page. Think about most of the people you know. How many of them truly love their work and feel that it gives them a sense of purpose?  Most of us have felt disconnected in our job roles at some point and I’m sure almost everyone has been on the receiving end of a leadership initiative designed to boost staff engagement only to find everything goes back to normal after a couple of weeks.  The good news is that this book demonstrates that having a sense of purpose at work doesn’t need to be the preserve of workers who save lives or work for charities. Any workplace can activate our seeking system with a different outlook and few inexpensive tweaks. In fact what is required need not cost anything at all, the main resources needed are a new outlook and perhaps the boldness to break the mould.

Whether you are an employee, leader or even someone who is self-employed, if you want some inspiration and ideas for how to stay connected and engaged by your work this is worth a read.


What should I read next?  

Have you read the book? What did you think? What shall I read next?

If you have any recommendations let me know below or via Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn

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