Skip to content Skip to footer

Loading Results

Episode 1: Keeping your people "alive at work"' when transformation's on the mene

Welcome to transformation talk. This podcast series is aimed at people involved in transforming organisations of all shapes and sizes, how to transform using nudges, nurturing people, so it’s all rooted in the human condition.

My name is David Lancefield and I am the partner in PwC Strategy&.

I am absolutely delighted to be here with professor Dan Cable from the London Business School. He has joined me to share his experiences in research in the topic, particularly in ‘how to be alive at work,’ the title of his brand new book. 

Dan’s research focuses on employee engagement, leading change, and organisational culture, and I would say, at a risk, that Dan is the leader of a liberation movement at work, how to set your workers free, and encourage and peak their curiosity.

So, Dan, I reckon that too many of us are dulled with dead work, too many zombies, robots potentially, unhappy depressed, and you said in your book very eloquently that our brains are wired through our seeking systems, to seek out play, self-expression, and experimentation. Why is it that children, musicians, artists, get this, and you love music, I know that, you love music, but why does business people really struggle to get it?

Thanks first for having me on the show, it is very nice. It’s a great question.

My thought is that, because we need to not trust where we need to measure. At the root of it for me is this idea that what is natural over the eons would have been relatively small production facilities and that might be cobblers or blacksmith or farming, where two to four people would work together and it would often be related, and they got to see the whole flow of work. They got to see from the seed to the customer, or they got to see from a piece of leather to a shoe.

I am not going to say that that is where all beauty existed, but I think that that’s the soup that our brains were stewed in. When, in the 1900s, we invented big companies, we invented management, and necessary ingredient of scaling up was controlled.

Again, I am not saying controlled as though it’s always bad or as though it’s a dictatorship. I am just saying that managers need to be culpable and they need to be held to a standard of delivering a promised product on a certain day. I think for that reason we set up structures that only let us push on efficiency and delivery, but then reward that extrinsically. So, work doesn’t often end up feeling like play, because it’s pre-scripted and we are being evaluated, and if we get it wrong, we get punished.

It is interesting, I talk to business leaders, who often go up on the stage and say, ‘I want to empower my people,’ and then they walk off it, and the next day the email fires off, and it is like, ‘here’s your next KPI, here’s your next target,’ it’s a controlled mechanism.

I am just wondering where, given this tidal wave of, and your book is a part of that, I hope, will encourage empowerment and play; is there going to be a moment where somebody will say, ‘hey, let’s loosen up on the control, is it going to be a crisis, is it going to be some leaders taking on?’ What do you think is going to be the fuel for this change?’

There are some organisations that do just that. They are in full play mode. They don’t even job descriptions. You could even say most start-ups are this way. They really don’t have the confined defined job descriptions, that this is the cell in which you operate, and these are the prescribed behaviours, and if you don’t hit these targets, then we are not going to reward you. That’s how start-ups often operate.

Even some very large organisations are fairly lawless, meaning they just say ‘work on what you like’ and they have made, whatever it is, 20 billion dollars, they are on Australia, doing business this way. I don’t think that’s going to become the norm anytime soon. What I love is the idea of big businesses thinking small. I love the idea of building pods or centres of excellence, where a lot of the individuals understand the full cycle of the work, are personalising the purpose. They are experiencing the beginning of the work, the throughput of the work, and the end of the work.

I think, that it is really exciting to think about giving people 70% to 80% of the time, when you do have to do repetitive predictable actions, but there is enough time, and maybe even as much as an hour a day, we are just fooling around. You are just trying things out and playing. It’s not that that doesn’t help the company, but there is a mind-set that says that would be wasteful, and I think that’s the mind-set that’s changing.

It’s like a fixed mind-set right. 

Yes, that’s really nice.

But it requires a trust, doesn’t it?

It certainly does.

It is like when you walk into a building wherever you are, and you walk in in the morning, say at 10 am, is it that pay you, just walk in and you do your thing; or is it that somebody makes a comment, and say ‘uh, having a half day.’ You could be having an amazing walk, you could be doing something that comes up with a great idea, but there is a trust deficit, I would say in many organisations.

What’s interesting about traditional economics, I also think of start-ups as the ones who can do this more easily, and I always wonder whether traditional companies can become weird again, eccentric again, and if I was the manager, I am running a business unit, I am running a transformation method, and I wake up the dormant people, if you like. That’s what you do. It is like, that’s pretty scary.

Where do you start? If you were somebody like that, and you’ve read the book, and you wanted to do this for ages, but it feels risky right. Where do you start, is it a pilot, is an experiment, where do you actually start…

Both of those words work really well, I think. Experiment even better than pilot. Pilot to me implies, we are going to try to scale this up and roll it out. This is our first go. Whereas, experiment means we are not even sure what it is yet, but they are real good words. I mean anything that pushes us toward practicing and playing as opposed to repeating a predefined action is what we are talking about, but when you said, where do you start, and we take that seriously, and just say, ‘it appears that a place to start is with why’ and really think that this is the notion that the leader, the employees, would have a collective sense of where we are trying to push, and what it solves for us if we get there.

The idea that here is a customer need, and we don’t only satisfy that need, let’s see if we can, or here is a new technology that we are just not good at, but we need it to be relevant. Let’s see if we can start to get good at that.

Takes time, doesn’t it?

It has to, the brain is a muscle. 

It is not a five minute conversation, you have to actually get deep and spend time, and invite bit different people to contribute to that conversation as opposed to an order machine.

That’s absolutely right. The brain is a muscle, it can be worked out and strengthened, but it doesn’t happen in a conversation or overnight. Just like a bicep, if you want to do a pull up, you have to try pull ups for quite a while, you rip up the muscle, and it gets stronger. If you want to learn a new programming language, if you want to start using social media to get in touch with your consumer base, the first couple of goals won’t be seamless.

It will feel awkward, it will feel uncomfortable, and it will seem to omit mistakes. This learning mind-set says savour that, because that’s where the learning is happening, that’s where the strengthening is occurring.

You talked about psychological safety, both at individual level and leader level, lot of companies are with loads of stake holders, investors, regulators, government, all challenging them if they put a step out of place. At the same time, you want to create more of a learning mind set, which means you might make some mistakes, how do you actually combine the two?

They are at odds. I see this as an irresolvable tension. I don’t think that it is possible to think of that as an either or, any big business, and probably even medium-sized business, who have regulations and rules for sure, that’s government imposed, but also they have policy. If you’ve got even 10,000 employees in two different countries or three different countries, there is a certain culture that you think makes you successful, that culture can be crystallised into policies, that this is the way we do things.

Those policies can start to feel like regulations, only they are internal, instead of external. So, I am not fan of saying we are going to get rid of all that, what I am saying is, if we treat that as a frame in which we operate, how do we inject the freedom, how do we find the places and the spaces to let people play?

The words you used before on experimentation, that’s a really important ingredient in this. So, it’s making enough space that people can learn, rather than creating procedures that they have to follow through.

That’s quite a shift right, because that’s the control thing. I would say one thing, you and I talked about before, is the shift between work being centred on, if you like, graft process, effort, time-set, and we all need to work hard, but how do you shift it to one way and say, ‘hey, you know what the purpose is, you know what you want to deliver in terms of the outcomes, and then you give people a bit of space to do it, as opposed to always checking, that is sort of insecurity.’ It’s like a strait jacket on innovation, you feel that insecurity, I work into businesses, and you can tell the ones that have a great mind-set.

There is a certain freedom. Doesn’t mean that they are not as passionate, doesn’t mean that they are not as purposeful, actually the opposite. But you can sense that just, ‘oh, they are looking at the phones, they are walking around, and they are edgy.’

That’s called anxiety. That’s a threat culture, or an anxiety culture, and it’s not one where I don’t think leaders wake up in the morning and say, ‘how do I suppress the souls of my employees today.’ I don’t think they wake up and think maniacally like that, well some do, I don’t think that’s the trend.

My thought is that they wake up and they say, ‘how will I get what I promised to the customer, how I ensure that the regulators are not unhappy with us?’

So, that thinking, while not evil, it’s not immoral, it often yields work practices that feel confined and strait jacketed, and that’s the balance that has to be resolved or restored.

One of the things I really enjoyed in your book was, you talked about self-expression, I don’t want to give the game away…

Right at the end you talked about business leaders have a role, potentially close to being religiously leaders, right, in terms of the sense of purpose, and also playing the role of a doctor, in terms of people who have a sense of purpose, and meaning healthier people, both mental health and physical health.

It is interesting to see a Bishop Michael Curry sermon at the royal wedding, which, I have to say personally I was in tears, listening to it. It was emotive, it was substantial in terms of the topic, I think people need to listen to it, but there were people in the audience, no names, who weren’t comfortable with it.

Why is it that business leaders, many of them, there are some exceptions, but many of them feel uncomfortable expressing themselves, or taking the role that’s a bigger role than just the day job, whether it is a doctor or religious leader?

Well, so many great questions there are.

I think let’s start with that doctor-priest thing, and then let’s move towards off expression. They are certainly related.

But, the doctor-priest one, I just wanted to comment on it. I think that that is a really heavy mantle to wear, and I think that lots of leaders, I might say stumbled into their leadership, through almost a form of, I was a good sales person, so I got promoted, and then I am the sales manager, and I was terrible at that, so they made me sales director.

So, Peter Principle, here I sit, because I maximally incompetent. I am not going to discount that possibility that many of us don’t go in the leadership, because we have the passion to be leaders. We are good at our day job, and we found ourselves there. So, let’s not act as though all leaders are coming at it from the same approach.

But I can tell you that the leaders that get the most out of people are ones that start with, how can I help these people, how can I serve my employees? That is not how most leaders approach the problem. When you just mentioned that I talked about this being a doctor, being a priest, I think that’s going to sound plain ludicrous to most of the people listening.

So, I think I want to put a little bit more meat on that one. Here is what the evidence is. The evidence makes it really clear that we work more than we do anything else in life. We work more than we see our families. We work more than we do our hobbies, and pretty much what we do in life is we work. Now, the evidence also is very clear that if in life we don’t feel meaning, we don’t feel that our activities have purpose, we are sick. We are more likely to get what I call depressive symptoms, so that’s headaches, trouble getting out of the bed in the morning. Starting to feel that life is a hassle instead of an adventure or joy. We know that this leads to heart disease, it can lead to cancer.

Steve Cole at the UCLA Medical Centre has a number of studies now with Barbara Fredrickson, showing that lack of purpose and lack of meeting lowers our resistance to disease, we are sure of that, so that’s one thing. Now, you as a leader have the most influence in how your employees feel at work. 

I just don’t think that’s where lots of leader start. I think, again to your point earlier, they start with how do we ensure that we take the boxes of productivity, how do we make these more efficient, how do we remove waste from the system.

I know we are only on the first question, but do you think that in this construct that the sort of the type A hero leader, is he or she dead, or are they going to evolve.

The sort of the red face, time in the clock, push, push, push.

I think that that is on its way out, and if we can say why, think leaders today need to be able to adapt, listen, and learn. I don’t think that it is possible they will know how to do all the things that they need to have done. So, louder they yell about things that they don’t know, the arrogance and the ignorance, it won’t lead to good results. It will put people in a fear threat state that would decrease creativity, it will decrease innovation, and it will decrease play.

So, to the extent that what we need is innovation, creativity, and play, I would say that the blustering pompous leader will become decreasingly effective. So, it’s a wonderful news, isn’t it?

Let’s go back to your second comment. Self-expression is emotional and so many of us are not taught how to deal with our emotions. They don’t have words. Emotions are more powerful, they are an ancient system. They are an ancient system of motivation. Emotions motivate us to act, and they have kept our ancestors alive. They are brilliant. They are so fast and so smart. But, we don’t have direct access to them. We don’t have words to talk to our emotions. So, many of us feel insecure about where they may take us if we let them out.

Is it the way you want to say about that. I find it that to be something, leaders will need to get good at emotions projection, I think.

‘Emotions projection’, that’s interesting. I like that. It is considered a soft skill.

Or dangerous.

Dangerous because they are just probably stuff that has been pushed down somewhere in, ‘you will know this more than me,’ somewhere in the brain or the soul I would argue, or it is something that is not where they go, but how people react.

So, if you put people in different boxes, not sure that the boxes may be working very well together, you know, the business is working well, but then you give more of yourself, what are people going to do themselves? 

Maybe they do the same, and I guess, the question therefore is, how much does this comes out with some of the conversation I have with some people I work with is, how much disclosure is enough?

Now there is no one answer right, but there is something about expressing yourself, showing your emotions at the right time, and giving a deeper sense of who you are as a person.

If you try and transform an organisation, mind you, if you don’t give enough of yourself, you don’t have the integrity and authenticity to ask more of other people. But, how much disclosure is enough?

That’s lovely. It’s lovely to remember that if you don’t feel inspired, how will you inspire others. I think that’s a really nice question.

Part of inspiration is emotional. I think that there is a safe ground in-between that we might discuss really briefly, which is, there is the show of emotions, and that might be anything from excitement and curiosity, to anger, to fear, because these are all valid emotions, they are motivating stakes.

But, there might be a little ground here, which is the self-expression around who I am at my best. The self-expression of certain perspectives that I grew up with that might be interesting to this conversation, education, or travels that I have done that might be relevant here, but are unique to me. It might be ideas or innovations that I am just interested in, but I don’t know why, I am just intrigued. I feel a passion around this issue.

I can’t tell you why, I just do, and that might be a safer business space, in some ways, maybe those are the training wheels, and maybe leaders that facilitate or encourage, prompt that type of self-expression, meaning, ‘let’s go on a little journey together, where we spend a little time each day or each week, pursuing what we feel innately and intuitively interesting. What are you curious about, just because…’

That’s the word right. You have to have a sense of curiosity and genuine intrigue, and also have the time and willingness to listen, genuinely listen. I remember a few conversations both with colleagues and other people, where they talk about their experience as a mountaineer, as an artist, as a musician, and sometimes they share it in conversations, sometimes in groups, and at the end they go ‘we sort of think some of this is relevant to work’.

So, you had peak performance and they talk about how they manage their energy, their resilience, how they work as team, all highly relevant to work, but they have been programmed to say, ‘hey, that’s in a box over here’ it’s not quite relevant, even though actually if they injected just a tiny bit of it in their day job. Well, it would just seed amazing ideas and energy of the people around them.

That’s right. That’s another form of hiding from ourselves in order to be rational, cognitive controlled, and I think that those scripts are how we’ve built organisational life, and it is not as though we have to blow up everything in order to change, but I think it is the case that, we are due for more self-expression if we want creativity. If we want innovation, we need to be open to unpredictability, and we know that the world is changing faster than ever, so that firms have to adapt to stay alive. To stay alive you have to adapt.

That’s where I think this is a golden age for human emotions. I have got this hope that what used to work in terms of reliability, predictability, and control, was a threat system of fear, and my hope is that that won’t be effective, and what’s needed is curiosity, enthusiasm, and zest.

I would say that’s a reimagining, that’s a re-wiring of how organisation run. So, think about companies that we work with, or who are trying to transform, it’s not like you set the strategy, and you set the program up. You have to create the conditions for people to flourish, to create, to be curious, and that comes from hiring the right people, to promoting the right people, the whole piece, it is not one or two efforts.

You talked about the world changing, I will just throw a few other things, just into the mix just to make it even more complex. You talked about organisations, but many organisations are working sort of the more flexible gig economy, where actually I was told to one organisation, we’ve got two-thirds of our organisation now on more flexible arrangements. How do I create a sense of purpose for the people, who might be only working a week or two weeks with us?

So, how does your thesis work in more networked or open organisations?

That’s right. Well this could be good news and bad news. The good news is, there is going to be a lot of opportunities for self-expression there, and a fair amount of freedom, or fair amount of experimentation, meaning that when I am, let’s say almost, my own contractor, I am an Uber driver, instead of working within a large organisation, a driving organisation, even thinks about setting my own hours, are going to feel very empowered. The way that I talk with customers, the way that I dress, the type of car that I drive, these are all self-expression opportunities.

If I am a contractor that’s doing a bit of digital work, the hours that I keep, the sources that I use, the programming language that I use, the network that I go to ask questions, those are all opportunities for self-expression, and for the feeling of freedom, feeling like a micro-entrepreneur.

I find that to be, I don’t know, there is some hope in that. The downside, as you are saying is, it is certainly going to be, do on a certain day, it is going to be a smallish bit of work often, and it might be difficult for me to understand the bigger picture of that. So, I have to give more thought to that, but our bet, if we were in experiment, where we randomly assign micro-contractors to conditions, some of whom got to meet the end customer, and say, what will this piece of work do for you, if I do it right; and others that don’t get that opportunity, they just get a draft, they just get something and says, do this by a certain day, I bet you that the quality and the customer satisfaction in the first one, where they’ve got to meet the customer first, and understand the purpose, I bet it would be higher.

Just thinking about it, I’m going to take a risk now, I’m thinking about you being alive at work, so whether it’s doing research on your own with other professors, whether it is giving a talk, whether it is a London Business Schools, how do you create your own conditions to be alive at work?

I got a lot of practice with those.

Because, I think my hypothesis would be there would be certain moments where you are with teams and other people, it is quite solitary other parts. So, actually you are going to probably have to be in a lot of different places, different environments compared to, say, somebody in a corporate role, but how do you create the conditions, because you also have moments where you have to really peak perform?

You are getting the final draft, the manuscript, the presentation, certain management task you know you have to do, we all have to do them, how do you create your conditions to be alive?

Absolutely. I mean you have to go up one level. The way it seems that it worked for me was to take on this growth mind set really seriously and behaviourally.

Just as a couple of examples, I found that I let myself down at work at least for five years, maybe for as long as seven years, by trying to be as efficient as possible. I shut off my own seeking system, you could say, by not teaching new classes, and only continuing to teach, what I had already prepped, because it was more efficient. I published in the same journals and on the same topics, once I cracked that code, and was able to get them published, and that repetitive nature started to feel solace to me.

I could watch myself teaching from a corner in the back, I had done it so many times. Now, I allowed myself to believe, ‘well that’s why they call it work, of course it sucks. If it wasn’t work, then it will be ‘I allow myself to feel that way’. Now I, for example, I teach new classes even though I don’t have to. I invent new classes and then I teach them, and it is a lot more work, and it is a lot more fun. It is interesting how you can activate your own seeking system.

I tried to think routinely about the why of my own work. When I give a talk, I think, if I do this really well, who I affect and why do I care. When I try to repurpose my tasks and my job that way, and then I think. One more thing is, when I write either a book or an article, I try to think not just about what will get published, what will be efficient, I try to think about, what do I care about the most innately, what am I just curious about, and those are things that you can do for yourself to activate your own seeking system, and to make work feel more like an adventure, and less like a scripted set of routines, that I have to push myself through.

So, it is really interesting how, yes I am within a shell called London Business School that encourages me to have a dramatic influence on the way the world does business. So, that helps a lot to have that charge or the purpose out there, but within that it is co-created, because you have to be willing to take those risks on. The first time I teach my class, it doesn’t go as well. I am not wowing people as much. I don’t have my moves. I am more awkward with myself, but I am learning, I am practicing, I am growing, and so what I do is, I talk about with the students, as I am modelling growth mind-set with you right now.

You are explicit about that?

I am explicit about that. So that’s, kind of, risky.

That is risky, but is refreshing. You talking about that, there is a humility there, which I think we could all do a dose with. I remember first few weeks coming back to work after a break, and meaning had to matter more; whatever people take breaks for, even if it is a break for the weekend, come back to work; we have to space to think. Why are we here? I don’t want to be, to use your phrase, I don’t want to commute to the weekend, I don’t want to be dulled, I don’t want to get to the end of my career, and say, ‘hey now it’s time for fun.’

A lot of people will then have a health scare. So, I have to say, having read the book, having spent time with you, and I feel emotional talking about it, this is real stuff, this is not a business book, that’s going to just be talked about in conferences, this is changing the way people think about work in your daily life.

People are trying to transform organisations. It’s putting rigour behind. There is newer science. There is experiments. You talk about these vivid stories, and it is very practical and real, and I have to say it has been an absolute pleasure, speaking with you, learning from you Dan.

I hope this has given listeners an opportunity to reflect on their own leadership, their own transformation, and practically how to have a better day in a week, a month, or year at work.

What a joy, thanks for having me here.

Contact us

Follow us