Employees who experiment, learn, and put their best skills to use can achieve great results. So how can managers encourage such activities on their teams? Daniel Cable, professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, draws from neuroscience to suggest that leaders help activate employees’ “seeking systems.”
In an podcast with AMA Edgewise, Cable says the seeking system is the part of the brain that leads people to explore, gain more knowledge, and create. “It urges us to push the limits of what we know, to explore, to learn new things,” he said. When we follow through on that urge, we release dopamine—an “enthusiasm drug”—into the system.
Unfortunately, many companies seem to shut off the seeking system, rather than activate it, with their organizational practices, says Cable, the author of Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018).
Cable traces this problem to management systems developed during the Industrial Revolution that focus on breaking down, controlling, and measuring work processes to achieve efficiency. In organizations built around this idea, he says, people who don’t do something “just the right way” may be punished, such as by having a raise or bonus withheld.
“We have to understand that we’re using a fear system there,” he said. “We’re creating anxiety, but what we’re also doing is shutting down the part of the brain that wants to explore. It wants to try new things. It wants to be creative.”
Encouraging experimentation, learning, and creativity
According to Cable, team leaders can use three levers to make employees’ seeking systems light up and get the dopamine flowing. He describes them in the podcast as follows:
Freedom to use your best skills. When team members bring their best selves to work, they can offer unique and complementary perspectives, backgrounds, and training. They’re free to use their best skills rather than simply do things as everyone else does.
Freedom to experiment. Employees must have the space to play around, try things in new ways, and innovate.
Freedom to understand the impact of your efforts. When the team creates a new product or service, Cable says, the loop needs to be closed so that employees understand how customers respond.
Research shows that teams can achieve exceptional performance when these activities occur. “There is sort of a secret here, where a leader that can create that protective bubble and allow that freedom seems to drive great performance,” Cable said.
Listen to the podcast with Dan Cable.
Visit the AMA Edgewise library for all podcasts.
As a strategic leader, you can move your team forward by serving as an innovator, a persuasive player, and a driver of change.