Alive at Work – Daniel M. Cable

Daniel M. Cable is a social psychologist and professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, and in this book, which is arguably his masterpiece, he takes a look at the problem of disengagement. An unprecedented number of people are disengaged with the work that they’re doing, and Cable believes that far from being a motivational problem, it’s a biological one.

“Humans aren’t built for routine and repetition,” he explains in the blurb. “We’re designed to crave exploration, experimentation and learning. But the way organisations are run prevents many of us from following our innate impulses. As a result, we shut down. Things need to change.”

Alive at Work, then, is Cable’s thesis for change, in which he explains why helping people to love what they do is a good idea and then follows it up with an action plan. It’s easy to follow and easy to implement, but that doesn’t mean you’ll want to whizz over it. Take the time to process it all thoroughly and to follow up with some of the suggestions that Cable has to offer. And if you’re in a hurry or you want something to check back against, here’s our summary.  (Sign up for Audible and get Alive at Work plus one other audiobook for FREE – click here)Opens in a new tab.

Alive at Work – The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do

Cable starts off with a somewhat alarming statistic: 80% of workers don’t feel that they can be their best at work. This is the result of both US and global Gallup polls, which also found that 70% of them are disengaged. That’s a lot of disengaged employees not being their best in the workplace.

Cable suggests that the cure for this can be seen in action in a game of World of Warcraft, retelling the story of Bonnie Nardi, who discovered the game for the first time and quickly found herself joining a guild and going on a four-hour bout of raiding. He explains that this is because World of Warcraft is a huge, open-ended world, and it engages people’s “seeking” behaviour.

“The seeking system prompts an intrinsic urge to explore,” Cable explains, “rather than giving an extrinsic reward for action. This is why Bonnie Nardi and millions of other gamers can play World of Warcraft for four hours straight. They wanted to explore and learn more.” It’s easy to see how this can also apply in the workplace, and Cable makes the point that even when you have an assigned role – which in Nardi’s case was as a healer – the important thing is the way in which you interpret that role.

In the workplace, people too often feel boxed into roles, and instead of engaging people’s seeking behaviour, we’re focussing too heavily on those extrinsic rewards. All of that time that Nardi and her fellow players have spent playing World of Warcraft has been 100% voluntary and pro-bono. Imagine coupling that attitude with the financial benefits of a day job.

The way things are – and how to make them better

The second chapter starts with a somewhat alarming study on the subject of helplessness. Basically, scientists administered shocks to dogs to see how they’d react, and after a while certain dogs just lay down and waited for the shocks to be administered. They’d learned helplessness, and Cable says that the same concept can also happen in the workplace. If we “shock” employees by punishing them instead of rewarding them for behaviours that we want to encourage, we can end up doing more harm than good, ultimately teaching employees learned helplessness.

Fear is kryptonite to the seeking system, and we need to help people to overcome that fear if we want them to be the best they can possibly be in the workplace. The future of our companies may depend on it. “In case you haven’t noticed,” Cable says, “the speed of change has been accelerating. As environments change faster and faster, and innovations are copied more and more quickly, employer-imposed scripted and repetitive behaviours are no longer a way to gain a competitive advantage. Organisational survival today comes from employees being proactive – using creativity and ingenuity to solve problems without waiting for instruction.”

This brings us on to the next chapter on the subject of encouraging people to bring their best selves to work. Cable points to Laura Roberts and her colleagues at the University of Michigan, explaining, “A best self is ‘the cognitive representation of the qualities and characteristics the individual displays when at his or her best.’ Our concepts of our best selves are not projections of what we think we could become someday. Rather, they’re based on our real-life experiences and actions. They comprise the skills and traits that we’ve developed and discovered over time.”

Promoting self-expression

By helping people to identify their best selves and pushing them to express themselves creatively in the workplace, we help to increase the chances that they’ll be bringing their best selves to work on any given day. Much of this comes down to giving people the right job titles, and even allowing them to pick a title of their own that’s the most accurate representation of what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis.

Self-expression is important. According to Gallup Institute researchers Brandon Rigoni and Jim Asplund, the more hours per day that adults believe they’re using their own unique strengths, the more likely they are to report “being energetic”, “learning something interesting”, “being happy” and “smiling or laughing a lot”. So just being able to tap into self-expression in the workplace can be enough to have a tangible impact on the way that people perceive their lives.

One of the ways to promote self-expression in the workplace is by encouraging serious play. “According to affective neuroscientists Jason Wright and Jaak Panksepp,” Cable explains, “one way to active people’s seeking systems is to create an experimental ‘safe zone’ that includes play and supportive social bonding. Play is important because it recruits, or stimulates, the seeking system, which in turn attenuates activity in the negative emotion systems.” The neuroscientists themselves add, “Play can promote emotional resilience, diminish the negative affective consequences of stressful emotional experiences and fertilise affectively positive gene expression patterns.”

Humble Leadership and Employees’ Seeking Systems

As for leaders, Cable argues that they need to be humble if they’re to help employees to be alive at work. He suggests that to prompt curiosity and learning through experience, leaders need to start with the humble process of serving others and being open to learning from their employees. He points to research from Bradley Owens and David Hekman, who conducted 55 in-depth interviews with a variety of different leaders.

“They found that when leaders express feelings of uncertainty and humility,” Cable explains, “and share their own developmental journeys, they end up encouraging a learning mindset in others. Ironically, humble leadership works not by demanding perfection, but its opposite – by showing that humans are never perfect and must explore, fail and practice in order to learn and improve.”

Another way to bring employees to life in the workplace and to activate their seeking systems is to show them the tangible impact that their work has. This brings us full circle back to the start of the book, when we talked about how having a feeling of purpose can affect our health and life expectancy. But purpose isn’t always easy to create, and it ultimately comes down to the fact that each of us must find our own purpose.

Helping employees see the impact of their work

Cable doesn’t shy away from confronting how difficult it can be to create a true sense of purpose, explaining, “Because purpose is personal and emotional, it’s difficult for leaders to instil in others. It’s even more tricky to sustain, even for people in altruistic organisations. I’ve worked with many people in pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and even the World Economic Forum who have lost the sense of purpose that originally attracted them to their jobs. They work to ensure that people’s families and most valued possessions are protected. But many of the people who work in insurance are disengaged and disconnected, with little sense of purpose in their work – including the leaders. If it can happen to people in these types of organisations, it can happen to anyone.”

One way to keep employees alive in the workplace is to show them the tangible impact of their actions. To illustrate this, Cable talks about Adam Grant, who separated fundraisers into three groups: a control group, a group that were read a one-page letter from a student beneficiary and a third which actually met with the scholarship student.

The results speak for themselves. “They were dramatic,” Cable says. “A full month after this visit, the callers in group three showed average increases of 142% in weekly time spent on the phone. They raised 171% more money. Callers in groups 1 and 2, who didn’t meet the scholarship student, showed no changes in performance. A surprisingly strong effect for spending a few minutes talking with a scholarship student!”

Crafting narratives about purpose

All of this brings us nicely on to the final chapter in the book, which is entirely dedicated to the idea that by creating narratives and telling stories about our purpose, we can achieve our full potential both as businesses and as individuals. He starts by talking about Rick Garrelfs, a leader at Rabobank, who told his team to meet at 5 AM at Eindhoven Central station. From there, they were ushered into a shuttle bus and driven away from the town. When the bus stopped, the group started walking into the fields, with Garrelfs up front with a light.

“After thirty minutes,” Cable says, “they arrived at a line of trees, where they saw a man standing with a candle. As the group gathered around him, still in the dark of early morning, the man started to speak about the situation of farmers in the late nineteenth century in the southern Netherlands. As the man spoke, the sun slowly started to light the scene and the group recognised the speaker. He was Bert Mertens, the senior executive of Cooperative Affairs and Governance of Rabobank. He was seen as the ‘conscience’ of corporate thinking in the bank. His core message: Rabobank emerged from the misery of farmers, and we should never forget that.”

Of course, you don’t need all of these theatrics to tell stories and to bring purpose to life in the hearts and minds of your employees, although it can help. Much of this final chapter is dedicated to activities that you can do to tell better stories along with practical examples of a few of the people it’s worked for.

We’ll leave you with just one of those examples, although it’s a good one. UCLA professor of medicine Steve Cole used the power of stories to create a video game that helps kids deal with chemotherapy. “Cole told me, ‘The video game is sort of a rebranding of chemo as a weapon in the fight against cancer,’” Cable explains. “’One of the goals of the game is to move chemo in semantic space from being something primarily perceived as part of cancer and toward something on your side as you fight a foe.’”


Now that we’ve gone through just a few of the lessons that you can learn from Alive at Work, it’s over to you to put them all into practice. Of course, we’re only just scratching the surface here and this is also the kind of book that stands up to a re-read, so you’ll take something new from it every time you read it.

The best way to read this book is with a notepad and a pen so that you can take notes and brainstorm ideas for your own business as you go. Perhaps you’ve even been doing that as you’ve been reading this article. Either way, you’ll want to jot down as much as you can think of that you can apply to your own business to change it for the better. Then go ahead and put that into action. Good luck.


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