Disengagement at work isn’t a motivational problem, it’s a biological one
Ever hear someone say: “Sure, work sucks…that’s why they call it work.” At one point or another, we’ve all felt dulled by what we do at work – bored and creatively bankrupt. It’s not like we want to feel negative about our work. People want to feel motivated in work and in life.
Organizations can do a much better job at maintaining our engagement with their work and boosting the overall culture of their organization if they understand that employees’ lack of engagement at work isn’t really a motivational problem. It’s a biological one.
Mammalian brains – especially humans – are not wired for routine and repetition. Exploring, experimenting, and learning is how we are designed to live – and work. But it’s not the way our organisations are designed. In an effort to routinise work and establish clear-cut performance metrics, many organizations suppress the seeking system – the part of the brain that craves exploration and learning and gives us hits of dopamine when we follow its urges. It’s a real place: a neural network that runs between the prefrontal cortex and the ventral striatum. When activated with electrical impulses this system actually does light up in FMRI studies, showing the blood movement with the heightened activity.
The seeking system is the part of the brain that encouraged our ancestors to explore beyond Africa. It pushes us to pursue hobbies and seek out new skills and ideas just because they interest us. The seeking system is why animals in captivity prefer to search for their food rather than have it delivered to them. When our seeking system is activated, we feel more motivated, purposeful, and zestful. We feel more alive.
During the Industrial Revolution – when modern management was conceived – organisations were purposely designed to suppress our natural impulse to learn and explore. Bureaucracy and management were the solutions invented to solve the problem of controlling tens of thousands of employees.
But now, organisations are facing the highest levels of change and competition ever and the pace of change is increasing each year. They need employees’ creativity and enthusiasm to survive, adapt and grow. And when organisations activate employees’ seeking systems, it’s like putting a plug into a live socket.
Consider a UK food delivery business. Every morning, its drivers – called roundsmen – deliver essential groceries to customers. As is often the case, the managers were not respectful of these lower level employees and their ideas. Over time, drivers became distrustful and shut off their seeking systems at work; negative emotions dominated. You could hear it in the roundsmen’s cynical banter about management as they loaded up their trucks in the depot before delivery runs. With years of a shrinking customer base and limited possibilities for growth, the only way the company could survive was through excellent customer service. However, the attitudes and behaviours of its employees were making it difficult to deliver on this possibility.
The company hired Duncan Wardley, a director at PwC, to help. The PwC team tried to activate the drivers during the weekly ‘debriefs’ – which traditionally had been managers’ way of letting the drivers know that they were watching them and were recording their errors for punishment. These meetings lasted for fifteen minutes, sometimes less. The drivers certainly wanted them to be less. To the drivers it did not even feel they were part of a human interaction, but a tick box exercise designed to catch them out. The system produced a lot of anxiety.
It’s not that the depot managers were bad people – for the most part, they were salt-of-the-earth types whose hearts were in the right place about organisational success. But they were old school. Their methods for achieving better performance were authoritarian and paternalistic. They used dominance and anxiety to try and force better performance and that tactic was all they knew.
Since the weekly debriefs were usually one-way conversations, the managers were preventing themselves from receiving on-the-ground feedback from drivers. For example, some so-called ‘mistake’ that drivers were making and were being punished for were actually innovations they had created to streamline processes and still deliver everything on time.
Duncan and the PwC team started with a small intervention: take the standard fifteen-minute format for the weekly meeting and have managers start the meeting with a basic servant leadership question: “How can I help you deliver excellent service?”
The depot managers did not think this new meeting format would change anything. And they said so. One of the depot managers told the PwC partner: “Listen, I will do this, but I know these drivers and it will not work.” PwC ran a coaching program to support them in getting it right.
It was slow going at first. Drivers’ dislike of managers was high and trust was low. But as depot managers kept asking “How can I help you?” some drivers eventually offered suggestions. One driver suggested new products like ‘Gogurts’ and fun, string cheese that parents could get delivered early and pop into their kids’ lunches before school. Another driver thought of a way to report stock shortages more quickly so that customers were not left without the groceries they ordered.
For drivers, it felt good to express and get some of their ideas in place – ideas they had locked away for many years as they shut off their seeking systems and allowed negative emotions to dominate. Even the most skeptical depot managers were impressed. What seemed like an incredibly small and simple change – opening the once-a-week meeting with a new question – culminated in real and important changes.
The key insight? The creativity needed for employees to think up the ideas – and the enthusiasm and curiosity to pursue the ideas in small experiments – demanded an activated seeking system.
Duncan and his PwC team implemented a small but powerful intervention. A single question. But it signalled a different leadership philosophy and led to very different conversations. This intervention shows the essence of appreciative inquiry, which breaks the cycle of depersonalisation that shuts off seeking systems. As the drivers got credit for their ideas and saw them put into place, they grew more willing to offer more ideas, which made the depot managers more impressed and more respectful, which increased the drivers’ willingness to give ideas and so on.
Due to the assumptions created during the Industrial Revolution, many leaders do not see the true value of the employees they serve, especially ‘lower-level’ workers, drivers, call-centre operators, mechanics and assembly people. But when leaders are humble and ask how they can help employees experiment and be creative, they activate the employees’ seeking systems and the outcomes can be outstanding, both for company results and company culture.