The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 111

Daniel Cable

Alive at Work

How can we encourage creative problem-solving in our teams? By creating safe spaces that activate the “seeking system” part of our brains, says Daniel M. Cable, professor of organizational behavior at London Business School and author of Alive at Work. Discover his theory on balancing innovation and execution, how you should redefine failure for your team, and one feedback exercise that activates growth mindsets.


Book: Alive at Work
Bio: Daniel M. Cable (@DanCable1) is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at London Business School. He 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.



Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.

I am here with Dan Cable and I know that we’re fortunate to have him on the podcast today because I’ve already spoken with him for a little bit and he’s a joy. Dan is a professor of Organizational Behavior at London Business School and he’s written most recently the book Alive at Work. This is what it looks like if you’re looking at the video, Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do. Dan, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Dan: Thanks a lot. This is going to be fun.

Peter: You write in this book that happiness at work isn’t a motivational problem, it’s a biological one and it’s based on what neuroscientists call our seeking systems. That’s the basic premise. What is the seeking system? How did you come to learn about it and why is it engaging you right now?

Dan: Well, I wish somebody had told me about it a long time ago, to be honest. I was a psychology undergrad and it’s just not something that we ever talked about. Maybe they didn’t know about it yet, I’m not sure. It is the case that a lot of these things we now think we know about the brain, I think came about through these FMRIs and trying to track where the blood is moving. To be honest, that’s a kind of new inventions.

But as near as I can tell, there is a part of our brain that urges us to go out and explore what we don’t know. It urges us this from being a baby. One of the things that I like to think about is if you have a little kid and you give it some great toy. It can be sparkly and it can sing to them. They get really into it and then after about two days, they’d be more interested in your car keys. It’s just that boredom with the old and that interest in the new and it’s not just humans.

It also, for instance, if you have a bear. It’s in a cave, it’s got food, it’s warm. It goes out ambling. It’s got shelter, it’s got food, it goes out looking. It doesn’t even know what it’s looking for. It just ambles around or like if you’ve got zoo animals and you give them the food on a plate, they become depressed and aren’t as happy as if you hide it or let them chase it.

This part of our brain, not just our brain, it seems to cause us to seek out information and experiences and it’s really relevant to work as I think maybe we’re going to talk about a little bit.

Peter: Yeah, so let’s spend a couple of minutes just testing this idea because I think it’s a really interesting idea. While I see it, I can see it really clearly myself. I could see it in other people. I also see this other urge, or this other drive for people for conformity and routine and I think about conversations I’ve had with people who are experts in diet and talk about how part of the reason we have obesity is because our bodies are wired to eat high calorie foods because it’s the most efficient thing we can eat the most in the shortest amount of time. And that we try to drive for efficiency and repetition.

These two ideas, if they’re both biological urges, it seems to be two competing biological urges and I’m curious whether you’ve done any research around this or seen that or what your thoughts are.

Dan: Yeah. Well, one of the things that’s really, I think, worth putting out there is I’m not a neuroscientist. I’m a psychology guy that stumbled on this literature. I read a lot of it but it doesn’t mean that I am sort of the expert in this, but given that, let’s talk about-

Peter: And I appreciate that already, so thank you.

Dan: Yeah. But one of the things … There are these competing mechanisms. It appears really clear. For example, that there is a seeking system and there is a fear system and they fight. Meaning that if we feel anxious and we feel that there are some threat and let’s say that that threat come from within our own group. There’s almost no question right now that, A, that anxiety focuses us on the threat and screens out the bigger world; and B, if the threat comes from within your group, there is a tendency to conform, to fit in, to put your head down because I can tell you, for most of the time ostracism meant death.

Peter: Right. And you see that all the time. As soon as an organization starts talking about layoffs [inaudible 00:04:45] through our times, everybody gets smaller and everybody starts to conform.

Dan: I really like how you’re bringing this up because it’s always more complex than we humans think it is. We’re only so good at understanding things and I’ve also read and also interviewed Jaak Panksepp. He’s the affective neuroscientist that I dug into the most. I read his textbook and all of these. He thinks of it almost as a gas pedal which might be seen as the seeking system. It drives us to get out there and explore. And the brakes which slow us down and keep us safe and you can push down on either but if you put them both to the floor, the brakes always win. Meaning, that the fear is stronger than the seeking system, that anxiety will beat out curiosity.

Peter: You talked about fear as kryptonite in the book?

Dan: Yes, the fear is kryptonite, that’s exactly it that it’s sort of bad is stronger than good and throughout evolutionary history, staying alive is more important than play.

Peter: This seems like such a key thing to talk about, Dan, because we all feel both of those things and fear often wins out. There’s often things that happen in our lives that seem to post-event rationalize the intelligence of the fear, because I see like it’s a good thing. The seeking system is by definition risky and adventurous.

Maybe we’re jumping the gun here, and we should talk a little more about the seeking system first, but I’m curious about what you’ve learned or what you’ve seen and this is a psychological question maybe as much as a neuroscience question, what you’ve learned or what you’ve seen about balancing those two so that we don’t think when someone yells at us, that it’s saber-toothed tiger. We’ve heard that a lot that we’re constantly in the state of adrenalin because everything rises to threat level that produces fear when it really doesn’t need to. How do we check and balance these two systems?

Dan: Yeah. And my favorite way to think about that is in the context of work. If you’re willing, if you’re interested in using that at least as an example, I think it can teach them things. I bet you it generalizes but in a work setting and specifically how would a leader get the most out of people by deploying the right emotions. I think that is a really interesting and important question right now.

And for me, the thing that’s so compelling is I think that the answer has changed. That’s what’s really neat. If I was to put it out there in one minute and then you can keep digging in whatever-

Peter: No, go for it, that’s great.

Dan: I think it’s so interesting to think about how during the industrial revolution, we did this experiment. We kind of beta tested this thing where said, “Let’s take work processes and instead of having five people do them or three people like in a shoe cobbler, let’s have 30,000 or 50,000 or 150,000. And then let’s not let everybody see the whole work process. Let’s snap it into these tiny little bits where everybody does repetitively the same basic thing, sometimes 10, sometimes 100 times a day. And let’s cause them to be ruthlessly efficient at getting that sort of repetitive thing done so they get really, really good at it.”

Well, if what you want is targeted focused work where you screen out the rest of the environment and you cause people to conform, then it makes to provoke a lot of fear. And so we started … And I don’t mean to be evil, mind you. I just mean that we want consistency. We want quality. We want things shipped on time. We got a lot of people to manage and we can’t trust them. What we’re going to do is we’re going to measure the heck out of them and we’re going to dangle extrinsic rewards and if they don’t need it, then we take away the extrinsic reward.

Peter: By the way, less listeners think that you’re just talking about old style, 1900s factories and manufacturing situations. I work in a very, very large consulting firm that was based on that very principle. It was not based on created solutions to client problems. It was based on replicating methodology across 30,000 people and making sure that everybody is doing it in the same way.

Dan: And the idea … I’m really glad you brought that up. The idea can be that you’re doing very intellectual work say as a lawyer or as a consultant. But they’ve got their processes and they mean for you to follow them into the letter. And to the people doing that, it often does feel a bit like the industrial revolution in the sense that they don’t really see the beginning of the work and they don’t always see the end of the work. And there’s a really strong routine or script that they need to follow to get the work done.

Even though it’s using cerebral instead of manual, it often ends up feeling that same way. Thank you for bringing that up.

Peter: Very interesting.

Dan: It’s a nice catch, because I do think that there is a tendency to say, “Oh, yeah, but I mean, we’re not talking about truck drivers or people that load iron.” This isn’t pig iron that we’re talking about. Anyway, that’s great. Here’s the thing that I think is an insight. The insight is that today leaders seem a lot more keen to get things like creative solutions that the leader doesn’t have to tell your … Or at least, that’s what they tell me they want.

They tell me the world is moving so quick that they need proactive engaged employees that think like owners. This is exactly the words that they used, that we need innovation and creativity from the ground up. We need that organic innovation. That’s what they say, but they’re still provoking the old school fears and anxieties. And what I’m really passionate about is this idea that we’ve got the seeking system right there under the surface. It’s built for this. It’s built for exploration. It’s built for innovation but to activate it, we need to stop activating the anxiety and the fear.

This whole notion of the brakes and the gas and thinking about the how do we balance them is very ripe. That’s a really virtual area that we could keep going at for a while.

Peter: Great. Now, let’s talk about that intersection because we all know people who you really need to push to experiment and to explore and to learn and that they sort of want this. That’s why it’s called the comfort zone. They’re in their comfort zone. What you’re saying is the seeking system naturally drives people out of their comfort zone, and yet we have organizational structures and cultures. And also, our own internal biological systems also competing that say, “Let’s say inside of our comfort zone. It’s safer.” And if you’re saying it’s safer and then the organization is saying, “Experiment but don’t make mistakes. Take risks but don’t fail,” that we’ve got all of this sort of competing dynamic. Help us out of here, Dan, we’re all stuck.

Dan: Wow. First off, I love that you use the word safety because the concept of psychological safety is one of the most robust phenomenons that we’ve seen to know about if you want to drive innovation and creativity. The idea that a leader can create that culture, I find compelling and interesting. It’s almost like a spider weaves a web and you almost can’t see its thread but then when it’s done, it’s doing something that is incredible and beautiful. And that sometimes, I think about psychological safety or other constructs that you can’t see it and you can’t grab it but we know that leaders are able to weave it and we know that when they weave it, it sort of catches good ideas. It’s a really interesting analogy for me.

Peter: I love it and it’s so … I was just talking with the team yesterday about the need for … You look at the Google teams that have this psychological safety that creates psychological safety in a way that really great ideas come. What do they do? What are a couple of things you can teach leaders to weave that web?

Dan: I love it, man. This is really getting into the meat now because when you get tactical and practical with it, you’re really talking, for example, about using growth mindset language and creating these safe spaces. I call them sandboxes or playground. Everybody calls them different things. It doesn’t matter but if we just talk briefly about those two things, that gets us off the ground. That like gets the thing levitated and then you can just keep going deeper-

Peter: Right.

Dan: So, let’s talk about growth mindset language. A lot of people know about growth mindset now. This is Carol Dweck’s classic work on how do you think about learning? And as you just emphasized really nicely, in many organizations that are large, structured and use extrinsic rewards, they think about learning as failure. Things that are not predicted often mean that we are startled. And innovation means we’re not sure how it’s going to go.

Now, when it goes great, they call it a success and they’re more than happy to celebrate a success. But when they learn something they didn’t expect and it goes badly, they call that a failure. They call that a mistake. They call that an error and it’s not just that they want to beat people up. They actually see it that way.

That seems to be the root of the magic and I actually mean magic here. I find it to be incredibly interesting that we can change the reality by how we think of the reality. If you think, if you see mistake, then you often start talking and acting as though it’s an error and then what gets communicated is don’t do that anymore, which means to stop innovation and creativity is not safe.

If you as a leader see learning how interesting, I wouldn’t have expected that. What else can we learn? How can we keep the bits that worked and get rid of the bits that didn’t work? Isn’t this interesting?

Peter: Right.

Dan: That way of thinking and communicating and even by the way, the nonverbal expressions. Even the most minor that you walk by and you’ve done something wrong and the boss gives you that as opposed to a-

Peter: Yeah, I want to say not just even but especially like I think those have more of an impact.

Dan: That’s a great point.

Peter: What I’m curious about, Dan, is there’s two ways to go. One is to stop using the word failure. There are no failures. They are just learning opportunities and things to work at. The other is to redefine what we mean by failure, is to say, yeah, that failed which is really helpful to us because it informs us of what works.

Dan: That’s better, I think.

Peter: That’s what I wanted to know. You think that’s better. Don’t try to avoid failure because otherwise people sort of feel like you’re being fake and new agey and whatever it is. But instead, to say that was a failure which is really helpful to us because of x, y and z.

Dan: That’s right. And the idea that if we rack up failures and we are learning from each of them, what we’re learning is how to win and we’re also learning how to learn. I feel like this notion of modeling growth mindset which is there’s no one way to do it. It’s not like what we’re trying to do is craft the exact language that leaders use but this idea of getting it inside your brain, that innovation means that we don’t know how it’s going to go. And if you’re never surprised, it means you’re not actually innovating.

That’s a really important start and there’s a thousand things we can say about that. A very connected piece of this is building a safe space to practice, to learn, to try, meaning that if you’re going to try to go to a different sales mechanism away from like, “Oh, we’ve got these sweet sales items and then we’re going to teach each salesperson the attributes and then we’re going to send them out there to try to sell those.” And now, we want to move to consultative selling where it’s more of a conversation to try to understand the client’s needs and then we try to invent or reuse different products to solve their problem.

Before we just send people out there, let’s do a bunch of role plays, something as easy as that. Let’s bring some of the customers that are closest to us and to be part of those role plays. Let’s define what we mean by winning and losing in the context of an offsite where it’s kind of fun, we’re laughing. Nobody is getting hurt. Nobody is losing their sales bonuses. And I think that while that’s not very hard, it is dedication. It’s an investment. It is time away from the work. And so many leaders forget that you can’t just automatically know the new behavior perfectly. I almost-

Peter: Yeah. There’s something really important about what you’re saying which is that it’s very hard to stay in business as usual which … And you talk in the book about the freedom in the frame and I want to talk about that too because I think that’s useful here because if everybody was just out there experimenting, innovating, doing everything individually on their own, the organization will be all over the place. And that you need some collective direction and alignment of people who are moving in the same direction working together and can expect things from each other and kind of routine and habit becomes important.

But literally taking people out of that space, removing them from the time and the space of efficiency to a place of inefficiency and lack of productivity in order to then take that leap in productivity feels really, really critical which is what I’m hearing you say.

Dan: Yes. And I like how even the language still feels awkward, doesn’t it?

Peter: Like inefficiency.

Dan: Yes. And I really like what you just did right there because many leaders that I work with still would be extremely uncomfortable saying, “I’m going to invest in an inefficient process.” It’s just not a way that we have cut our teeth. We’re really still students of the 1950s and it doesn’t mean we’re bad. It just means that as the world changes quicker and quicker, we’re seeing that those styles and that vernacular have a set of assumptions that we aren’t in touch with.

And as we raise those assumptions up and look at them, we can say, “Oh, no, no, no. We don’t want to be that,” but we are still that in some interesting ways.

Peter: Yeah, and to be fair, I think it’s not just the 1950s. Every leader who’s listening to this both wants that kind of learning and growth and innovation, and they’ve got targets, and they’ve got goals, and they have to produce something, and they have to be accountable to deliver something to a client somewhere. It’s this balance like it’s balancing the seeking system with fear and like it’s balancing sort of productivity with creation and innovation which is by nature inefficient.

It’s this balance that says I’m going to give up some of that efficient productivity in order to take a leap. And in order to do that, it’s going to feel like I’m taking a step back.

Dan: That’s right. To throw a little bit of science under this thing, Roy Baumeister wrote a really cool article that was called Bad is Stronger Than Good. And it’s one of the things that I get tripped up on a lot which is if we have the opportunity to trigger both the fear and the seeking system, that fear system is generally going to dominate our perceptions and our emotions.

When we talk about balance as you just said it, my mind was doing something where we have to sort of almost intentionally unbalance it in order to balance it. It’s a really interesting thought. It’s this idea that the default is going to be policies, rules, controls, KPIs, regulations, conformity, following process. That’s heavy. If you think of it as a teeter-totter, that’s a heavy, scripted, following the rules, conforming to the process, know that if I don’t, somebody’s carefully watching and catching me up on it. Then, if we’re going to balance it, we probably have to shift pretty hard.

We have to shift a lot of energy and momentum toward being playful. Here’s an example of this. We know that in the 360 literature, when people go out and get these reports saying, “Here’s where you thought you were good and here’s where other people thought you were good.” Conceptually, those reports give you both good and bad news. There’s a couple of surprises where you’re a little better than you thought and people write little nice things about you.

And then there are some things that we’re not quite as good as you thought on this and they write some things that are sort of daggers. It’s been demonstrated that we remember and think about those daggers a lot more than we remember the good stuff. It just goes [inaudible 00:22:14]. I believe that to overwhelm that, what we have done is we started giving out reports where we only focus on the positive.

It’s not saying that we don’t have limitations. It’s not saying that we can’t all get better, but in this report, we call it the best self-report, we’re just going to have a bunch of people write about when they’ve seen you in flow, when they’ve seen you at your very best when you’ve contributed the most to them. And so they get 20, 30 stories written about them where they’re sort of looking for the negative. They’re so used to find … But to be honest, what it ends up being is just an overwhelmingly positive appreciation jolt.

It’s not to say that we don’t also have to improve, but it’s to say that that’s invigorating, that that lets the dopamine flow, that that causes you to be enthusiastic about changing. People want to be their best self more often. They feel … Yeah. This conversation is-

Peter: And here’s the question that I know a lot of people … It’s going to be in a lot of people’s mind as they’re listening to it, does that drive performance and learning and growth?

Dan: It seems to develop self-growth. There’s a lot of evidence that suggests that negative information causes people to put up defenses around themselves. If you want to internalize the learning and have it affect their self-definition, that seems to be really good. It’s almost like the evidence around … This is kind of a weird thing. I’ve never thought this too much but like did you ever hear that thing about if you want to train an orca whale, you got to go with praise, not punishment?

Peter: I believe you. I haven’t actually heard that but I believe you. I just haven’t done a lot of work training orcas.

Dan: Orcas, dogs, apparently it’s pretty clear that you want to catch them doing something right. So many of us don’t really believe that. So many of us as parents, so many of us as leaders, so many of us about ourselves, I think that we have a perception that the way to get better is to focus on what I’m weak at. And there’s some pretty good evidence suggesting that if you confine what we’re the best at and then use that to leverage into becoming better, it creates hope rather than fear and what seems to happen is once you want to get better, once you have that internal need or drive or motivation, then you have to fix up weakness to improve.

Peter: That’s interesting. You’re not telling a story about ignoring the weaknesses and just follow your strengths and leverage that. You’re saying get to the point of groundedness where you are confident enough to then look at the things that you need to fix.

Dan: Yes. The fancy word for that is self-affirmation. That you feel good enough about yourself that you’re ready to take on the bad news. That’s pretty interesting. But this conversation, I think, starts to clarify how hard it is to balance all of these especially in an organization where you might have, for example, six people with the same job and a limited pool for raises.

Peter: Right.

Dan: Now all of a sudden, we can all play to our strengths but who gets the raise?

Peter: Right. I think that’s the reality of it and that’s the challenge. And I think that what I’ve loved about this conversation, Dan, is there’s a lot of data here. There’s a lot of really interesting insights that you have and you don’t sugarcoat the ultimate complexity. And the ultimate complexity, it feels to me is that there’s a lot of balancing that needs to happen. There’s adventure seeking, risk seeking and also fear and trepidation and resistance. And there’s sort of reasons to go out of the comfort zone and to stay in the comfort zone and there’s strengths and there’s weaknesses.

We’re trying to sort of fine tune around the edges to make sure that we’re leveraging our systems in such a way that we continue to grow and learn and move forward and are self-motivated. It’s complicated. It’s not so simple because there are competing biological needs and there are competing structures. It seems like the more we’re aware of them, the more we can begin to see how they play it and the more we can push this lever here or tweak that a little bit over there in order to get that balance right.

Dan: I think that’s very good. And my sense is that these three levers that I mentioned in the book, I like the word leverage and I like the word tweak. It’s not that you try to change the whole organization at once. It’s that, for example, if you can get people to consider and think about who they are when they’re at their best and then to start thinking about their job as a platform for trying some of those activities that light you up the most. Not that you don’t have the frame of the job, not that you don’t have the customer that has to get a good product on the right date but just saying that the way that you go about doing it might be different from the way that I go about doing it. That’s not shifting everything-

Peter: No, but it’s what you call freedom in the frame. And you talked about this three self-expression, experimentation and purpose which is an ability to play with all of those.

Dan: That’s it. I think it’s great to think of those as nudges or tweaks or a high leverage maneuvers because I think it’s a bit overwhelming otherwise, and I’m thinking like if I was working at Accenture or if I was working at some big, a hundred, two hundred thousand person organization and then the whole thing is, “Now, we got to play. Now, we got to just let people be free.” What goes to your mind is sort of chaos.

It’s what you brought up a little while ago at Google. It’s great when you have a hundred engineers and you give them all 20% of their time just to play. When you have 18,500 engineers, 20% of the time playing means a lot of flowers blooming but nobody is harvesting.

Peter: Right.

Dan: I think that Sergey said that thing about we have too many arrows and not enough wood behind them.

Peter: That’s interesting. Right.

Dan: It really does go back to that concept of balancing innovation with … Well, I guess you could use the word execution. It’s how do we deliver the right thing on the right date following the regulations that government gives us. How do we do that job and also make people feel lit up, that they’re adding something unique to the team, that it’s not all scripted, that there’s areas where they can play and push on the edges of knowledge. That balance is really what we’re talking about.

Peter: That’s great, Dan. And just mentioning arrows and talking about this frame, it brings me to a lot of the work that we do which we call Big Arrow, which is to create a frame to say what’s the most important thing to achieve over the next 12 months. And then who are the key contributors and coaching each of them to make that key contribution. But there’s the individual piece where you’re coaching them individually and there’s the collective piece of where you’re all moving in the same direction.

I feels like, I mean, that’s the balance I am constantly trying to work on in the work that we’re doing which is how do you bring out the best in people but in an aligned way where they’re collectively moving together to achieve some shared mutual outcome.

Dan: That’s right.

Peter: And your book really informs that in many ways. It’s about what are some of the levers that you can push in order to keep people moving in that direction, the freedom within the frame that keep people moving in that direction, that it’s a direction and they’re self-motivated because they’ve got some of those natural, neurological, biological systems that are working in their favor.

The book is Alive at Work, Dan Cable is who we’ve been talking with, The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do. Dan, I loved what I’ve been doing for the past 30 minutes in talking to you. Something’s working about this book. It’s a great book, and thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Dan: What a joy. Thanks for having me.

Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow process.

For more information about that or to access all of my articles, videos and podcasts, visit Thank you, Clare Marshall for producing this episode. And thank you for listening.