Employees “shut off their minds” to get through work

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Employers must activate the seeking systems in employees' brains to encourage innovation and purpose, according to Daniel Cable

“80% of employees around the world say they have to shut off their minds to get through work,” professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School Cable said, speaking at a Harvard Business Review event to launch his book Alive at Work.

Cable stated that most workers “can’t use their best skills or do their best work” in their jobs.

He pointed to the introduction of the Ford production line as when employees became conditioned to do repetitive tasks. “There are business benefits to this type of work, but parts of the human brain also desire something different,” he said. “The brain’s seeking system urges us to explore our environment, to experiment and to seek to learn new things.”

Cable cited psychologist Martin Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness, where a human or animal learns it is helpless in a particular situation, accepts loss of control and gives up trying. He explained that employers are creating learned helplessness in their workforces by putting people in roles where they can’t use their seeking systems. This is creating a “crisis”, he asserted.

“Employees need to bring innovation and their best ideas into the workplace,” he said. “Otherwise they just see work as a commute to the weekend.”

The same occurs when workers feel anxious or afraid, he added. “When employees are doing repetitive jobs their dopamine levels shut down. Anxiety and fear also shut down these levels,” explained Cable.

“Shutting down the brain means the employee struggles to creatively problem solve. If we want creativity and to get the most out of people, leaders should be careful not to scare them or make them feel anxious.”

Instead leaders must create a platform for them to be curious, he said.

“Leaders need to activate the seeking systems in the brains of their employees,” Cable explained, citing three key ways to do this. There are: prompt curiosity through experimentation, emphasise unique strengths and perspectives, and experience purpose beyond the money.

As well as “making employees feel more alive at work”, this will also improve innovation and productivity levels, he added.

Cable also advised leaders to use KPIs and metrics judiciously, as these can create environments where workers don’t have opportunities to be agile or to learn.

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