Henry Ford did not want creativity and innovation, for him that was an error, for him those were mistakes.

Daniel M. Cable is a two-time winner of the “Best Article in Organizational Behavior” from the Academy of Management and has been ranked among the top 25 most influential management scholars in the world. Dan’s newest book is Alive at Work - The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do, and his most recent research was published in the Harvard Business Review.

You can listen to the conversation on iTunes, Acast and other podcasting apps. What follows here are excerpts from our conversation with Dan, edited for length and clarity.

Agnes Uhereczky: May I ask you Dan to tell listeners about yourself, your journey, passion, and what gets you out of bed in the morning.

Dan Cable: Thanks for having me on the podcast, it is really fun for me to talk about these ideas, getting them out there is most of the battle. I am really interested in how we spend most of our hours at work. Originally, I tried to become a work psychologist, because it is interesting to me that work is pretty much what we do with our time. So, how we feel about work is pretty much how we feel about life. That is intriguing and very important to me. It is also very important to me that how the same work, in terms of job titles and tasks, can either be something that lights us up or shuts us off. Lately, in the last 5 to 7 years, it feels like that I have been learning that it’s less about the 'what' of the work and more about the 'why' and 'how'. I think that it is really important, especially for leaders who have to try to get the best out of people. It is so interesting how the stories that we tell ourselves about work might be more important than the tasks themselves. So, trying to help people put more meaning into that time would be one of my passions I would say.

Agnes Uhereczky: You have written a book, Alive at Work - The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do, by Harvard Business Review Press. How did you get to the process of writing the book? There are lot of case studies in the book, so I guess it was part research, but also part talking to companies.

Dan Cable: Yes, that’s right. And I even helped those companies. I think the best stories and data in the book are when I got to go and observe and even gathered data with partner companies. That is really exciting. Other experience I gathered through talking to leaders in classes where I would present some ideas and then they would say: “We are doing something like this”. And as I learned more about their journeys and took notes, and made them into these mini case studies, I realized that the book would be far more salient to readers. It would be far more real, if I could make it a patchwork of stories and studies as opposed to a set of ideas. I think, I succeeded in that sense as every chapter has at least two solid cases that make the ideas presented in the book real.

Agnes Uhereczky: Yes, the book really comes to live thanks to its many case studies. On page 87 you write: It sounds a bit counter-intuitive to many people but play and experimentation are most important when things seem negative and threatening. Could you elaborate on this sentence? Why is it so important to be even safer in creativity when there is a crisis?

Dan Cable: One thing about a crises, and when things are going to hell, is that that’s when change and learning are most important. That is to say, if we ratchet back to what we always have done that’s exactly what isn’t working. And the idea of needing at that point is to explore and learn new approaches to old problems, and to really start to empathize with customer needs so that we can address what they need instead of what we used to offer. I think that it is just so important but not obvious. In terms of what people usually do, and some business schools teach leaders to do, is to create fear, burning platforms, the sense of urgency that things just keep getting worse unless we change. I think the irony is that those emotions like fear, anxiety or stress, can lead people to focus on what’s safe and what is already known rather than willing to experiment and innovate.

Nowadays, the word “play” gets a bad reputation. It is associated with children playing. Many people think that it is certainly immature, but what play is really, it is just experimenting to learn. For example, children play in order to take certain roles and see how they fit or feel. The idea of practising and thinking about play as practice it’s what we have to do to in order to become proficient. You can very well walk before you fall, but if you are treated so seriously that you are not allowed to fall then it means that you are never going to walk.

I think a lot of these things can come off as very academic to many leaders. What they often say to me when I talk to leadership teams is: “Yeah, we get it conceptually, and what you don’t understand is that we run a real organisation. In the real world what you don’t understand is that we actually have regulations, customers etc. so it would be nice to play, but we just don’t have the time.” Often I have to help them understand, which can take sometimes days, that if you proficiently do what doesn’t work that is the sure road to failure. But, the only way in being successful in the future is being open to what might work and by practicing and learning. At the same time, it doesn’t feel natural to many leaders.

Agnes Uhereczky: According to your book and research every organisation, regardless of their size or sector, can improve through play. The environment that leaders can create without fear that can trigger positive tiny changes that summed up can create huge differences. Am I right?

Dan Cable: That’s exactly right. It’s worth saying to listeners a little bit about the motions underlying innovation. I hesitate to say that anything in science is the final word, but one of the things that are clear, from 35 years of evidence, is that anxiety and fear shut off the creative parts of our brain and it also shuts off our ability to use our brain potentials. When leaders or organisations provoke fear or anxiety we go into a state of almost survival, and our brains don’t really understand that it is not life or death. Once that fear kicks in we go into that state of shutting off play or creativity and go into a survival mode. Just as fear and panic and anxiety can be provoked, which is one system, it is also possible for leaders to provoke the seeking system that is part of the brain that wants to explore and be excited. It uses dopamine to get us there, where fear uses cortisol, which makes life more exciting and effortless.

Agnes Uhereczky: I also very much like when you explain in the book that fear is always stronger than safety. The negative is always stronger than the positive.

Dan Cable: One of the things that I try to talk about in the book is the way through which we invented organisations did not change as often. So, the early industrialists used fear and anxiety to make people focus on small, predictable, repetitive and disconnected tasks. They also used a lot of measurement to know exactly what each job will do so to be able to predict how all the jobs will fit together, but if we have one person that’s being creative and innovative that ruins the whole production system. So, a lot of early management systems were set up to provoke fear and anxiety-like fear of missing your raise, fear of missing your bonus or fear of getting fired. Many organisations were just not set up to prompt the seeking system. They were set up to prompt anxiety and fear. What that means is that many of us grew up thinking of work as something you would not want to do, or had to do in order to make money. This new way of thinking, which is about us going to work because it’s interesting and fun, and it gives us a chance to innovate and play to our strength, is pretty rare still. That type of thinking can lead to more creativity and innovation, which we can prove. The point is that Henry Ford did not want creativity and innovation, for him that was an error, for him those were mistakes.

Agnes Uhereczky: Employees are often treated like children. We observe some level of the infantilisation of employees, as organisations think they know what’s good for them. New generations (Millennials, Z generation etc.) who have recently started to enter and have an influence on the labour market are challenging the status quo such as the infantilisation of employees. Can these developments support your agenda and the messages of your book?

Dan Cable: I think there are actually three things. We have talked already about two. Number one is the speed of change and the idea that firms need to adapt quicker and quicker to stay relevant. Number two is that the tastes and demands of the newer generation as they tend to be the activators of the seeking system. It can be divided into three segments: number one is the idea of playing to your strengths and being able to bring your best selves to work, number two is the idea of being able to play and experiment, and the third is the sense of purpose and knowing why we do certain activities in our work.

So, the third significant shifter is AI, robotics and automation. Nowadays, if you have a task that can be scripted in advance, that is very repetitive and predictable that basically, won’t be a job in five years. Those three big trends come together to push this agenda of what are the jobs for the humans and what are the jobs that create a competitive advantage. They have everything to do with innovation, creativity and customer empathy. I feel that is almost inevitable that those firms that don’t get into the activating of their seeking system will fail, which might not be in this year or the next decade, but the writing on the wall is that they won’t be able to keep pace and stay relevant. The firms that are able to activate the seeking system of their employees will thrive.

There seem to be lots of real-life cases, many of which I tried to include in the book, showing that it’s not like that you have to change a 42.000 person organisation in order to be a leader who creates real movement in terms of how the work feels to the employees.

Agnes Uhereczky: What would be the most important advice from your book to a CEO?

Dan Cable: The phrases that I use in the book are humble leadership and servant leadership. What this refers to is leaders remembering that they are just overhead. Leaders are a cost to the business. The only way through which the leader can create value is by serving the people that actually do the work. That is not normal, I know. Most leaders are power tripping or ego tripping. They feel like they are at the centre of the universe and feel like the employees are only there to serve them. The most powerful and important thing to hear is something that lot’s of leaders don’t want to hear, which is listening, try to understand the pain points that the actual workers are facing and work hard to remove those.

Work hard to understand what the people that create the real value are experiencing. Try to understand how the world is changing so to adapt and change the way through which your organisation creates value. I love the phrase of a volunteer army. I love the idea that they become a purpose-driven, mission-focused, innovation group, that is always trying to make the company better rather than begrudgingly accepting that you have got some new ideas that you need them to try to do.