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There’s a biological reason you’re bored at work

REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
The human brain was not made for the modern workplace, writes Daniel Cable.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

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. An overwhelming majority of the workforce is not “involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work.” And 17% of that group are “actively” disengaged—they are repelled by what they do all day.

Employees don’t usually succumb to these negative responses for a lack of trying. They want to feel motivated. They seek meaning from their jobs. Their lack of engagement isn’t really a motivational problem. It’s a biological one.

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. 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.

It’s the same part of the brain that encouraged our ancestors to explore beyond Africa. And that pushes us to pursue hobbies until the crack of dawn 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.

How modern management zapped the life out of work

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 suppress our natural impulses to learn and explore.

Think about it: in order to scale up organizations in the late 1800s, our species 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. Most leaders today don’t personally believe that people work best under these conditions. But each generation of managers walks into organizations where there are deeply entrenched assumptions and policies about control through standardized performance metrics, incentives and punishments, promotion tournaments, and so on. 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.

It doesn’t have to be this way

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. Jaak Panksepp, the late pioneer of affective neuroscience, said it best: “When the seeking systems are not active, human aspirations remain frozen in an endless winter of discontent.”

During the Industrial Revolution, limiting workers’ seeking systems was intentional. Scientific management was considered rational and efficient because it helped ensure employees did only what they were told to do.

Things are different now. Organizations are facing the highest levels of change and competition ever, and the pace of change is increasing each year. Now more than ever, organizations need employees to innovate. They need employees’ insights about what customers want. They need new ways of working based on technology that employees understand better than leaders. They need employees’ creativity and enthusiasm in order to survive, adapt, and grow.

They need to activate their employees’ seeking systems.

I know this is possible. I’ve studied organizations as a professor and a consultant, and I have seen firsthand how they can work better. And it doesn’t take a massive overhaul of a company’s structure to make it happen. With small but consequential nudges and interventions from leaders, it’s possible to activate employees’ seeking systems by encouraging them to play to their strengths, experiment, and feel a sense of purpose.

So how do you activate the seeking system to improve people’s enthusiasm toward experimentation, innovation, and learning at work?

  • Self-Expression: The more our colleagues know who we are when we’re at our best, the more likely we can feel like ourselves at work. Employers should create best-self reports for employees and for new teams, and then encourage employees to re-craft their jobs so they can play to their strengths. Employers can legitimize self-expressive job titles from the top down, as employees customize their jobs and their job titles from the bottom up. Leaders can encourage teams to openly discuss the unique qualities of each team member and include members’ perspectives into the group’s decision making. These are evidence-based ways that employees can engage meaningful parts of their s elf-concepts within the standards of their business environment.
  • Experimentation: Build a culture of curiosity where employees feel encouraged to play around with their intrinsic interests and personal strengths within the frame of the organizational demands. This leads to more flexible thinking that most leaders today say they want in their employees, and that most employees would love to exhibit. The result is not just better products and services, it also is more enthusiasm and zest
  • Purpose: Because purpose is personal and emotional, it can be difficult for leaders to instill in others. But that doesn’t mean that leaders can’t help instill purpose in others and encourage them to find greater meaning in their work. When we personally understand and believe in the why of our actions, we have greater resilience and stamina. Our sense of purpose ignites when we can offer insights to our team about the environment and what might work better or experience first-

Unlike the short-term motivation of extrinsic rewards such as financial bonuses, an activated seeking system has longer-term impacts on our motivation and our mental and physical well-being. When we’re working and living in environments where exploration and experimentation are encouraged, we’re happier, healthier people. Isn’t that what we all want?

This article has been reprinted with permission from Harvard Business Review Press and adapted from Alive At Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do.

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