How-Tos on Creating a Purposeful Work Environment

Published 19 July 2018

HQ Asia spoke with Professional of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, Dan Cable, about how to help employees find purpose at work. He shares findings from his latest book, Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do.

How leaders can create an environment that lights up employees’ brains

Poor employee engagement in the workplace is not a motivational problem, it is a biological one. The seeking system is the part of the brain that drives humans’ natural impulse to explore and learn about their surrounds, and extract meaning from them. In short, it is what lights up their brains, and dopamine is the neurotransmitter.

The beauty of this system is that organisations can activate it with relative ease by allowing employees to express themselves, experiment, and find purpose through their work. For instance, allowing employees to create job titles that reflect their unique talents and identities can improve their wellbeing. Employees with activated seeking systems feel zestful and excited about their work, they follow their urge to learn new things and become more productive and creative. It is a win for the employee and the company.

How companies can encourage long-term employee engagement

The organisational realities of many modern workplaces can kill employee engagement. The top-down, assembly line style of management that emerged in the industrial age ensured standardisation and efficiency –which prevented self-expression and experimentation. Today, most people still work in organisations that do not allow for experimentation or their creative input.

But here’s the rub: asking workers to operate within this type of top-down system — and undertake tediously repetitive tasks — will almost certainly ensure they turn off their seeking systems. One way to balance the needs of an organisation with the needs of its employees is to give workers freedom within the corporate frame. A company will naturally have expectations or goals it wants to achieve, but an effective workplace will create space for employees to experiment and express themselves in ways that support those aims.

How employees find purpose at work

Feeling a sense of purpose in their work is important for employees’ health. And because it increases workers’ enthusiasm and resilience, it is also good for the health of organisations. The difficulty is that, because purpose is personal and emotional, it is not always easy for leaders to instil in others.

So employees need to witness the impact of their work to understand their personal impact.

Employees get more by connecting directly with an end user than they do by merely reading the corporate mission statement or hearing about the organisation’s purpose from a manager. It is about helping employees personalise purpose.

How to manage employee expectations

All humans have seeking systems, and the triggers of the seeking system are self-expression, experimentation, and personalising purpose. However, newer generations seem to care about these triggers more than older generations — which aligns with organisations’ increasing needs to adapt to changing environments.

This is why employers can benefit from workplaces that activate peoples’ natural zest and curiosity. Because the triggers of the seeking system are highly personalised, it can be particularly useful in helping engage employees from diverse backgrounds and across diverse roles.

How to help employees express themselves at work

None of us wants to feel like “just a number.” We seem to have a natural impulse for others to know who we “really are” so that we do not have to fake ourselves at work. Thus, self-expression is an important way employers can help ensure their employees remain alive at work. Practically speaking, organisations might choose to promote self-expression by creating individualised onboarding experiences for new employees, in which new starters share their ideas and stories about when they were their best self with others. We know from existing research that this type of approach connects employees more closely with their new organisation, improves performance, and increases retention.

Companies that think of themselves as platforms for employees’ self-expression create environments in which work becomes an outlet that employees embrace. These organisations activate their workers’ seeking systems, resulting in enthusiasm and intrinsic motivation to invest their best back into the company.

How to encourage curiosity in employees

Curiosity is a powerful emotion. When everyone on a team is curious, they are more likely to move away from their comfort zones, and work together in new ways. To encourage curiosity and learning through experimentation, leaders can model humble leadership. A good place to start is with the humble purpose of serving others and being open to learn from those around you (including those who are junior to yourself and who may have specialist skills). This open approach contrasts with bureaucratic forms of leadership that rely on certainty, decisiveness and positional power — all of which can instil fear in employees and shut down curiosity. Humble leadership helps to instil a mindset of growth and learning, which benefits the organisations as well as individuals.

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