Organizational behavior expert Dan Cable says disengagement at work is the product of an evolutionary trait. It’s a trait that has a lot to do with our survival and what it is that makes us human. In his Big Think Edge video, “Helping Your People Love What They Do: Improve Performance by Engaging the Biological ‘Seeking System,’” Cable suggests that we’d be better off leveraging this trait than fighting it, as we may unwittingly be doing.
Disengagement is rampant, affecting as many as 70% of employees at a typical company, as Cable notes, with 18% actively hating what they do. It’s obviously a big problem for productivity, and a soul-deadening waste of eight hours a day five days a week for many. Fortunately, there’s an area of our brain that can help. It’s the ventral striatum. Cable calls it the “seeking system.”
The mammalian seeking system
The brain’s ventral striatum encourages us to push at the boundaries of what we know. It’s what makes us curious, and pushes us to self-educate throughout our lives. It’s why a child is just as interested in a present’s ribbon as the present itself. We love to try things out and to learn.
It’s all part of being an intelligent mammal, says Cable, citing affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp’s example: “If you have a bear that’s in a cave that has food and warmth and shelter, it’s still goes out ambling. If you have zoo animals and they’re in a cage, they prefer to find their food than have it given to them.”
We’re like that bear: We prefer to go exploring. We’re not so fond of being constrained in a little box.
Bored to death
Cable sees the “pervasiveness of people feeling like work is a thing that we have to shut off from, a thing that we can’t be our best selves” as providing just the opposite of what we naturally crave. Describing a job as “a thing that we have to get through on the way to the weekend, I think that is a sort of humanistic sickness.”
This is due, Cable asserts, to the late 19th-century shift towards mass production. On production lines, workers were assigned a single, small task before passing a product onto the next person, and so on and so on. Only the person at the end of the line got to experience the finished result. And none of these people had contact with customers. Experiencing the value of their work became someone else’s privilege.
In the effort to continually increase output, Cable reminds us, an individual’s curiosity or desire for a sense of meaning in their work was little more than a production bottleneck to be avoided. As Cable puts it, “For Henry Ford, curiosity was a bug, a problem, and he needed to stamp it out in the name of reliability and quality.”
The modern workplace isn’t so extreme, of course, but Cable stills sees a lingering echo in “the way we use control systems and punishments and extrinsic rewards to kind of cull people out into doing really repeated and sometimes tedious tasks again and again and again without having a sense of the bigger picture, or who uses the final product.”
Think about startups
This mammalian curiosity is encouraged naturally at startups, where roles are more fluid: Everybody does everything. There’s no strict compartmentalization — a pervasive panic-mode prevents it. As he puts it, “The job titles are not burned into your flesh.”
Cable suggests reintroducing some of this vitality at established companies. He’s not recommending deliberately throwing the business into chaos. What he is proposing is developing a culture that invites input of any kind from any employee, and of promoting a more holistic view of the business throughout the company, at all levels. “And so you could be a delivery person, but then if you see the competitor do something then you can be corporate espionage,” he says. “Then you can get into strategy and help reinvent a response to what you saw. And that’s actually not only acceptable, it’s desirable.”
Bottom line: Employees are designed to be seekers. Let them seek.