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BOOK REVIEW: Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do by Daniel M. Cable

| 9 October 2018 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do by Daniel M. Cable

Harvard Business Review Press
June 2018
Hardcover, $44.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / Business & Management


A lot of people proudly proclaim that they work to live and not live to work. Daniel M. Cable is a social psychologist and professor of organisational behaviour at the London Business School and he has seen this kind of thing in practice. There are an alarming number of people who claim to be completely disengaged from their work. In Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do, Cable explores this phenomenon and presents some possible ways that we may rectify this issue. This book is an informative and important look at human psychology and behaviour.

According to both US and global Gallup polls, about 80 percent of workers don’t feel that they can be their best at work, and 70 percent are not engaged at work. What this means is that an overwhelming majority of the workforce is not “involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work.” And 17 percent of that group are “actively” disengaged: they are repelled by what they do all day. Another recent study shows that over 87 percent of America’s workforce is not able to contribute to their full potential because they don’t have passion for their work.

Cable presents some interesting ideas in this volume. He has clearly completed a lot of research into this subject. Cable describes a number of different scientific studies and shares his own personal anecdotes and stories. These include things like the power of allowing people to choose their own job titles and the results from an assembly line at a factory where the workers were allowed to engage in more agile and flexible work processes.

As the Gallup studies suggest, a majority of employees don’t feel they can be their best selves 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 are letting down their employees. We can do a much better job at maintaining their 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.

The crux of this book is that a lot of organisations are structured in ways that are befitting an environment borne during the industrial revolution but that this is analogous with the needs of modern employees. This means that workers are controlled, measured with KPIs and given very little autonomy. Cable argues that in many contemporary organisations this is having a calamitous effect on a section of our brains called the seeking system, which he describes in more detail below:

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 world, learn about our environments, and extract meaning from our circumstances. 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…When our seeking system is activated, we feel more motivated, purposeful, and zestful. We feel more alive.

The ideas presented here are intriguing but may have been sufficiently covered as a series of articles rather than a whole book. There are times where this doesn’t feel detailed enough to warrant an entire volume in order to describe this information, especially as this title is a short one, which gets a little repetitive at times. The information can essentially be summed up by three key points. That is, that employees need to be given enough freedom to express their own ideas at work. They also require autonomy in order to experiment with new ideas (and enough space to fail, should this happen) and they also need to feel their own personal sense of purpose. If this is achieved, then people produce enough dopamine and experience feelings of personal satisfaction from a job well done; a factor that can be more motivating than money alone.

Most of all, you’ll get an in-depth look at how employees think and feel about their work, and you’ll discover ways to tap into their full potential. Activating the seeking system is 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.
Here’s the best part: it may sound crazy, but finding ways to trigger employees’ seeking systems will do more than increase the enthusiasm, motivation, and innovation capabilities of your team. By improving people’s lives, your own work as a leader will become more meaningful, activating your own seeking system.

Alive at Work is a clever little volume that covers what it means to be human in our places of employment. Cable certainly is an authority on the topic and he offers up a great deal of food for thought for the most part. While some points feel like they are repeated a little, this guide is still ultimately an insightful one. It should challenge people to rethink their approaches to work and management, and should help create a more vibrant and switched-on workplace. With our hats off to Timothy Leary and thanks to Messer Cable, we can turn on, tune in but not have to drop out.

Category: Book Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at:

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