Published by Jeremy Fagan on 7th October 2019

Book review: Alive at Work: The neuroscience of helping your people love what they do, Daniel M. Cable.

Reviewed by Vaughan S. Roberts

Harvard Business Review Press, 2018 203pp; ISBN 978-1- 63369-425-5 £22.00.

How do you maintain your zest for work? And for those in leadership positions, an even more challenging question is how to you maintain the zest for work amongst those in your organization? Dan Cable sets out to address these concerns through neuroscience, psychology and sharing stories of leadership from his research.

In essence he argues that the organic chemical dopamine, which occurs naturally in our brains, drives and propels human innovation and creativity. He calls this our ‘seeking system’ and that the ‘animating effect of the seeking system is optimal in work settings because it urges us into action instead of making us complacent’ (p 23). Much of the rest of his book explores how leaders can be effective in encouraging creativity and engagement within a range of organizations.

Significantly, Cable contends that there is an inhibiting system as well. The ‘fear system’ constrains motivation at work and whilst a fear-based approach (often found in scientific management methods) enables leaders to keep control, it also prevents employees from being both proactive and being problem solvers. He likens these two systems to the accelerator and brake on a car, and observes that in contemporary organizations there is still too much use of the fear system when the seeking system would be far more effective and healthy for all concerned.

One key factor in encouraging people’s seeking systems is the story individuals tell about themselves, in particular, the story about one’s ‘best self’. He notes that: ‘a self is just a story that we tell ourselves. It is not objective – you can’t see it or touch it. But it is very real in the sense that the story affects how we act and how others respond to us. If we change the story we tell about ourselves, we change our behaviours’ (p 59). In Cable’s research, encouraging new employees to present their best story when joining a company has many positive benefits, certainly when compared to a more normative induction process focussed on setting out a firm’s values and ethos.

He believes that encouraging self-expression at work is vital to employee enthusiasm and motivation. Moving on from his car analogy Cable uses the image of ‘freedom and frame’ arguing that: ‘The tension between freedom and frame is very real … Most large organizations err on the side of too much frame and not enough freedom … I’m proposing that leaders need to encourage enough freedom so that the frame does not become an iron cage, and employees feel they can experiment and learn’ (p 114).

An important element here is the style of leadership employed in
organizations. Cable argues for what he calls ‘humble leadership’ which includes being prepared to serve others and being open to learning from employees. Thus, ‘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’ (p 123). Such an approach connects positively with the body’s seeker system whereas as leadership through positional power tends to engage the fear system.

At this point stories become crucial since they communicate an organization’s purpose in a way that a message from the leader cannot. Whilst personal stories can vividly illustrate how an individual engages with a group, Cable makes it clear they are not a panacea. Narratives used by leaders (and others) have to be seen as authentic and to reflect what the storyteller truly cares about. We have to be wise about the stories we choose and how we share them. Cable illustrates this by telling two stories that he told himself personally about being treated for cancer through chemotherapy.

In the first story he told himself the treatment was a ‘poison’ which made him deeply aware of the embodied battle he was undertaking. The second story was a ‘gratitude’ narrative and that enabled him to take a more positive attitude to the poison entering his system. From this innermost experience he comes to the conclusion that the stories ‘we generate and tell ourselves can have huge effects on our behaviors and the results we create’ (p 161). Then Cable illustrates the powerful effect that immersive narrative can have in the workplace with an account of software programmers who are given time by their company to spend time with clients to share in the organization’s life and story, and see how their products did (or didn’t) work.

He concludes by arguing there is a fundamental relationship between leadership and purpose. By openly exploring and discussing this relationship it is possible for leaders to make life more worth living for the employees they serve. And in one final point he makes a direct connection between the ideas he has been setting out and religion, stating that: ‘leaders have duties that are similar to religious figures. This is because they have such a direct effect on the purpose that people feel about their work and their lives’ (p 173). Sadly this tantalising observation is not explored further.

Alive at Work is an engaging and thought-provoking book which takes seriously the role that narrative and story play within people’s personal lives and in the workplace. With his description of seeker and fear systems he paints a compelling contrast between two approaches to organizational life. However, in work environments where outcomes and statistics continue to be so crucial (even in universities and churches!) we have to ask, will we ever see an end – or even a diminution – of the techniques of industrial management which continue to have such a hold over work culture?

Vaughan S. Roberts is Team Rector of Warwick and co-author with David Sims of Leading by Story: Rethinking Church Leadership (SCM Press).

#Book review#Leadership books

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