Alive At Work, by Daniel Cable

Why I read it:

If you’ve read a few of my posts, you’ll know that I have a keen interest in how we thrive at work – how we find purpose, safety, enthusiasm and wellbeing in our jobs. I’ve particularly enjoyed books such as The Culture Code, Think Again, and The Human Workplace, which examine research and real-life examples; in this instance, I can’t remember who recommend Alive At Work to me, but this fits the bill of those other great works. Thank you, unknown tipster.

In summary:

Alive At Work is divided into four sections: The Seeking System, Self Expression, Experimentation, and Purpose. Cable argues that many workplaces are deactivating our ‘seeking system’, the part of the brain that gives us the impulse to explore, learn, and experiment, and therefore we lose out on the hit of dopamine this gives us, as well as diminishing our motivation and sense of purpose. The book aims to explore how workplaces weaken the seeking system in their employees, and, more importantly, what we can do to reclaim this fundamental part of ourselves in our professional lives.

Cable uses a range of studies and anecdotal examples to create a thoroughly engaging and well-informed book. Reading it gave me the beautiful triumvirate of learning, enjoyment, and excitement, similarly to how I felt when I read the books mentioned in the first paragraph of this reflection. The author is solution focused and explores each aspect of being ‘alive’ at work through to a conclusion and recommendation for us as workers and leaders.

Key takeaways:

  1. Seeking system: exploring, experimenting, learning – a lot of the book is dedicated to our innate desires to explore, experiment and learn. The problem is that many workplaces have policies, job roles, and accountability measures that discourage employees from following their natural inclinations; fear from both managers and employees means that we are often discouraged from pursuing ideas. Cable suggests ‘freedom and the frame’ as a tool to help all parties involved; the right balance between an organizational frame, and the freedom for employees to solve problems and pursue their own ideas. This, in turn, links to a creativity fallacy. Cable states that by activating the seeking system: ‘when you increase enthusiasm and excitement, you improve problem solving and creativity’. In polls, CEOs tend to value being creative highly amongst employee skills, but studies show that they often put little trust in creativity and freedom. The challenge for us is to create environments where employees find their motivation and purpose from being able to activate their seeking system.
  2. Purpose needs to be felt – injecting a sense of purpose into an organization, and maintaining that sense of purpose among staff, is undeniably one of the most important aspects of a workplace. We all wake up and go to work to feel as though we are serving a purpose. So, how can we best utilize that? Cable cites a study by Adam Grant in which he attempted to understand how to motivate and inspire those who worked as fundraisers. Various ideas were tried, but the one that had the most impact, was the fundraising team hearing directly from someone who had benefited from funding before. Vitally, it was less effective when their managers told them second hand: the direct contact really drove the purpose home. Cable surmises that we need to connect emotionally to truly gain a sense of purpose: that the seeking system needs to feel – it is not rational or logical, or something that you process in a cognitive way. And therefore we cannot be disingenuous when trying to create purpose; it needs to be authentic and felt by the recipients.
  3. The power of ‘your best self’ – Cable talks at length about an experiment his team conducted at Wipro, a large telecom and ICT company, to get the most from employees in roles such as call centre reps. During the studies, they found that the employees who, on their induction day, were asked to write about their best qualities, and then share with the group, were more productive for months afterwards, and felt more motivated in their work. The studies seemed to reflect that by asking us to consider our ‘best self’, and share with others, we influence our own future behaviours, and also become more empowered and loyal to the group and the organization. Another conclusion is that ‘the more our colleagues know who we are when we are at our best, the more likely we can feel like ourselves at work’.

Favourite quote:

Lots of potentials for this prize, but here is an excellent conclusion from the section on humble leadership:

‘Here’s what we know: humble leaders help people move toward their full potential, growing and trying new ideas of the job. This works partly because humble leaders model how to grow to their followers. Rather than just talking about the importance of learning and experimenting, humble leaders model how to develop – by acknowledging mistakes and limitations and being open to listening, observing, and learning-by-doing. Humility allows both leaders and followers to be more receptive to new ideas, criticism, or changes in the external environment.

Favourite movement:

In 2014, perhaps before many companies had fully understand their social media presence, Dutch airline KLM made a blunder when they mocked Mexico during a defeat to their native Netherlands, with the words ‘Adios Amigos’ and an image of a sombrero-wearing man. Up to this point, the social media team had enjoyed relatively few protocols on how they conducted the feeds – but HQ had to step in with a public apology. At many workplaces, the work of those involved might have been seriously curtailed henceforth. However, rather than reprimanding the social media team, KLM encouraged them to continue to experiment. One example was offering a $10,000 dollar budget for employees to come up with an original social media campaign; one group decided to use social media to work out where some of their customers were flying, and then intercepted them at the airport to give them a gift for their travels, based on their destination or specific interests expressed on their social media page. Cable discusses how KLM provided freedom within a frame, and how, to this day, KLM is regularly awarded for its use of online presence and social media usage. This anecdote embodies a lot of what ‘Alive At Work’ is about – how organisations can be successful and organized, whilst still providing psychological safety, and a sense of autonomy to their employees, so that they can thrive in their sense of purpose and belonging.

Question and reflect:

  • Cable establishes the importance of our seeking system – does our organization give us the room to explore and learn? How could this be improved? Are we rewarded for being curious and creative?
  • How can we create a sense of purpose and mission in our organisations, without it seeming forced and disingenuous? Think of an emotive yet authentic method to help connect employees with your intended purpose.
  • Try out the ‘best self’ exercise. When are you your best self? Which are your best traits? Try sharing this with a team you work within.

Read this if:

You are interested in how we can thrive in workplaces

You are a leader interested in understanding how we can improve the sense or purpose and expression in our workplaces

Find the book here

2 thoughts on “Alive At Work, by Daniel Cable

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