We're neurologically programmed to dislike work - here's how to reset yourself

Feeling disengaged is our brain's way of telling us to seek new things, says organisational behaviour professor Dan Cable.

by Dan Cable
Last Updated: 08 Feb 2018

Ever hear someone say: ‘Sure, work sucks . . . that’s why they call it work.’ At one point or other, we’ve all felt dulled by what we do at work—bored and creatively bankrupt. We’ve sometimes lost our zest for our jobs and accepted working as a sort of long commute to the weekend.

It’s not like we want to feel negative about our work. I think it’s safe to say that we want to feel motivated in work and in life. We seek meaning from our jobs. But given the wide-scale disengagement that exists across the globe, there seem to be some realities of organizational life that prevent us from feeling alive at work.

Here’s a real-life example. When Tom started his gig after college designing and maintaining the website of a Big 4 accounting firm, he was excited. The pay was great, and he was told that there were lots of opportunities for personal growth.

The honeymoon didn’t last long. As Tom recalled: ‘I soon found out my supervisor had no time or patience for experimenting. He was more concerned with protocol than personal development. It’s like he’s afraid of me trying new things because it might not go exactly as planned. It doesn’t exactly leave much room for learning.’

After a year of this, Tom began to shut off. He did his work and completed his tasks, but he was becoming disengaged and unmotivated. He felt he was performing a series of scripted actions. Worse, he felt as if his boss wasn’t responding to his creative impulses. After a year, Tom’s tasks began to feel routine, small, and disconnected from a bigger picture.

Which is a shame. It’s not as though Tom was a subpar performer who was only working for a paycheck. He was smart and talented, and he wanted to learn new things and expand his horizons. But his boss, he thought, was holding him back. So Tom looked elsewhere for fulfilment. While at work, he started bidding on website management projects via a freelancing app, and took on new projects that he was excited about. The irony was that his freelance work wasn’t much different from his day job. But since it allowed him more ownership and freedom, it felt more meaningful to him.

Unfortunately, Tom isn’t an outlier: he’s like most employees in big organizations. The vast majority of employees don’t feel they can be their best selves at work. According to both US and global Gallup polls, about 70 percent of workers are not engaged at work. They don’t feel they can leverage their unique skills or find a sense of purpose in what they do. Most organizations aren’t tapping into their employees’ full potential, resulting in workplace malaise and dull performance.

Organizations can do a much better job at maintaining our engagement with their work. But first, we need to understand that employees’ lack of engagement isn’t really a motivational problem. It’s a biological one.

You need to keep learning

Here’s the thing: many organizations are deactivating the part of employees’ brains called the seeking system. Our seeking systems create the natural impulse to explore our worlds, learn about our environments, and extract meaning from our circumstances.[ii] When we follow the urges of our seeking system, it releases dopamine—a neurotransmitter linked to motivation and pleasure—that makes us want to explore more. 

The seeking system is the part of the brain that encouraged our ancestors to explore beyond Africa. And that 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.

Exploring, experimenting, learning: this is the way we’re designed to live. And work, too. The problem is that our organizations weren’t designed to take advantage of people’s seeking systems. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution—when modern management was conceived—organizations were purposely designed to supress our natural impulses to learn and explore.

Think about it: in order to scale up organizations in the late 1800s, we invented bureaucracy and management practices so that thousands of people could be ‘controlled’ through measurement and monitoring. Because managers needed employees to focus on narrow tasks, they created policies that stifled employees’ desires to explore and try new things. These rules increased production and reliability, but reduced employees’ self-expression, ability to experiment and learn, and connection with the final product.

Unfortunately, many remnants of Industrial Revolution management still remain. In an overzealous quest to be competitive, ensure quality, and comply with regulations, most large organizations have designed work environments that make it difficult for employees to experiment, stretch beyond their specialized roles, leverage their unique skills, or see the ultimate impact of their work. As a result, organizations deactivate their employees’ seeking systems and activate their fear systems, which narrows their perception and encourages their submission.

When people work under these conditions, they become cautious, anxious, and wary. They wish they could feel ‘lit up’ and creative, but everything starts to feel like a hassle. They start to experience depressive symptoms: for example, a lot of headaches or trouble waking up and getting going in the morning. Over time, they begin to believe that their current state is unchangeable, and they disengage from work. 

But get this: our evolutionary tendency to disengage from tedious activities isn’t a bug in our mental makeup—it’s a feature. It’s our body’s way of telling us that we were designed do better things. To keep exploring and learning. This is our biology—it is part of our adaptive unconscious to know that our human potential is being wasted, that we are wasting away.

Unlock the seeking system

Now more than ever, organizations need employees to innovate. Organizations are facing the highest levels of change and competition ever, and the pace of change is increasing each year. Organizations need employees’ creativity and enthusiasm in order to survive, adapt, and grow.

And when organizations activate employees’ seeking systems, it’s like putting a plug into a live socket: The potential is already flowing right under the surface—you just need to access it to get employees lit up using the three triggers: self-expression, experimentation, and personalized purpose. This is how leaders cause employees to feel more alive at work, and use neuroscience to help people love what they do. 

Dan Cable is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School. He adapted this article from his book ‘Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do.’ Copyright 2018 Dan Cable.

Image credit: Andrey_Kuzman/Shutterstock

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