Bring your curiosity to work

Human beings are wired to innovate, yet most organisations stifle those urges


Historian Yuval Noah Harari says in his bestselling book Sapiens that, even though our distant ancestors only lived to about 30, they had better lives. From our comfortable 21stcentury standpoint, this seems laughable. The lives of cavemen and women were nasty, brutish and short. But every day was different and they directly saw the impact of the work they did. Two million years of evolution have shaped our brains and bodies for these conditions.

When employees are tiny cogs in a huge wheel and they can’t see what effect they’re having on the people and the environment around them, they’re bored. Boredom is an emotion your brain has cooked up to tell you that you’re better than this and that you’re meant for more. “Stop doing what you know how to do!” it advises – and sometimes it screams it.

The world has changed so fast over the last 50 years that the corporate system we’re used to no longer works. Even at the start of the industrial revolution, people knew that humans would not thrive doing boring, repetitive tasks all day. But it suited the times – robots and machine learning hadn’t been invented yet – so people buckled down or starved. Regulation, standardisation and fitting in used to solve business problems. The emotion behind competitive advantage used to be fear. Now, it’s excitement, curiosity and enthusiasm. How much of that do you see in your workforce?

Wired for fun

Human beings are wired for innovation. We’re the only animal that refuses to accept our limitations: we don’t have wings, but we liked what they did for birds, so we made machines that enabled us to fly. Other animals that don’t have wings? They just walk around. To be human is to innovate.

Look at our organisations. In the US, growing up, if we needed anything, we bought it at Sears. If your washing machine broke, you went to Sears for a new one. It was Sears for the back-to-school shop, Sears for tools and Sears for all the family essentials. In October, Sears died with billions of dollars of liabilities. A decade ago Kodak was a US$92 billion company. It really is a case of innovate or perish – and it’s happening faster.

If we want to understand what truly motivates people and why, we need to look beyond psychology to neuroscience. In the 1980s it didn’t even exist as a field of study, but today, through technology like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), we can see what parts of the brain connect to which emotions. For innovation, it’s all about the ventral striatum, or seeking system. As the part of the brain that gives us an urge to extend beyond what we already know, it’s where curiosity is born.

‘The emotion behind competitive advantage used to be fear. Now it’s excitement, curiosity and enthusiasm.’

We share the emotion of curiosity with most of the animal kingdom: curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s also kept it on the earth for six million years. Zookeepers know that animals are happier when they have to find their food. When it gets put in front of them on a tray, they get sick and depressed. When we – and the other animals – succumb to the urge to explore, we get a hit of dopamine, nature’s legal cousin of cocaine.

Dopamine dearth

Dopamine makes you enthusiastic and engaged. It makes you feel life is better. But our bodies were not stewed in the soup of the modern age and today the dark side of dopamine manifests in addiction: to gambling, to porn or even a phone. Our brains don’t understand the difference between finding honey in a tree and getting 100 new followers on Instagram: they’re both giving us lovely hits of dopamine.

Dopamine makes time go by faster. Mornings glide by when you’re in dopamine flow and crawl when you’re bored. The industrialists who built the first corporate systems obviously knew repetitive jobs were not fun for workers. For them, the seeking system was something they had to subdue.

Around 1890 we started to divide work into ever more specialised roles. When three people worked in a shoe shop, they made shoes for people they knew. When they went into town, they saw their handiwork on the feet of their customers.

But we wanted bigger. Why sell five pairs of shoes a week when you can sell 50,000? Why have three employees when you can have 3,000? Nike has 64,000 employees and most of them have nothing to do with shoes: someone might upload pictures of shoes for nine hours a day, or negotiate prices with someone in China for even longer, but nobody sees much impact of the work they do as an individual. They are following processes and scripts. Their seeking systems are asleep.

When the seeking system is out of play, extrinsic motivation might work. Doubling someone’s salary will certainly give them a temporary push, at the least. But extrinsic motivation is fuelled by fear of not getting the reward, of losing the promotion, of getting fired. Fear is the enemy of creativity and innovation. If you know the KPIs for your narrow role at work and you know there’s a queue of people waiting to replace you if you fail, you’ll probably focus and deliver.

So what’s changed? In Henry Ford’s day, making the model T for 13 years in one colour was fine. Today, I’m not sure we’d have 13 months. In the tech world, you wouldn’t have 13 weeks. So why are we still using punishment, ostracism, withholding rewards, public humiliation and demotion to motivate people? If the seeking system is the accelerator pedal, then fear is the brake. If you push the accelerator and the brake to the floor in a real car, the car doesn’t move. That’s how it is for us. Fear is stronger than curiosity – and unfortunately anxiety beats excitement.

If you want people to have a very narrow focus and just do what they’re told, fear is awesome. But if you want people to experiment and try new ideas, it’s awful.

When the cat’s away...

Did you know that mice laugh? It’s inaudible to human ears but, in one study, scientists recorded mouse laughter at 50 GHz. When they play, they laugh – and they do it a lot. The same scientists put cat fur in half of the cages in the experiment and play went down to zero: the mice hid in the corners and became hyper-vigilant. They started playing again, gradually, when the cat fur was removed, but it took weeks for play to return to normal levels.

For human employees, the cat fur is the boss who might let them experiment within reason but gets angry if the customers don’t like it. Or who punishes people when experiments don’t turn out as planned. Psychological safety is the soil that innovation springs from. Fear is kryptonite to the seeking system – and organisations slowly kill people with it.

Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, went into hospitals to study mistakes. We don’t like to think about mistakes happening in hospitals, but processes are not error-proof and humans make errors. Hospitals, doctors and nurses are no different. Edmondson measured psychological safety among staff by responding to statements like: “It’s safe for me to take a risk in this organisation.”

In the situations where there was high psychological safety, people more readily admitted their mistakes. Without it, there were more mistakes, but people were hiding them for fear of punishment. Across time, the staff who felt psychologically safe did better and better. They found themselves on an upward spiral because they could acknowledge and correct the problems. The performance of the fearful staff went downhill because their jobs were based on misinformation.

The biology of success

Human motivation and our ability to grow and succeed is intrinsically connected to what chemicals we ignite in our brain. As a leader, this realisation is so powerful because you have the ability to stimulate these emotions in employees. Are you activating people’s seeking systems? Are you accessing their unique strengths and their unique perspectives? If I hooked you up to an MRI and asked you to write about household objects, I wouldn’t see much action in your ventral striatum. A researcher at UCLA did this. She asked people to write about what was important to them; their unique values. Their seeking systems lit up. Humans are switched on just by thinking about our strengths and personal values.

My research partners Francesca Gino, Brad Staats and I explored this in India at a global outsourcing fi rm. The first thing we did was have three new recruits write down a time when they were at their best and tell each other about it. Those recruits made customers 11% happier and were 32% less likely to quit six months later. Getting people to think about themselves and their strengths is a power generator.

For too long in big companies the aim has been to de-individualise: to make people into robots. Nowadays, we’ve got robots – clever robots that can do surgery and diagnose legal cases and make home loans. If you’re in the investment world and you’re not using machine learning, you won’t stay in it for long because the machines are doing a better job than the traders now. If you can script a behaviour, it won’t be a job for long because a machine can do it for you. But forging relationships, innovating, creating and engaging emotionally is difficult for a robot.

Meaningless, repetitive work makes us unhappy and unproductive because our brains live in our evolutionary past, when activating our seeking systems kept us exploring and kept us alive. The good news is that, as a leader, you’re able to activate your people’s seeking systems, too – and it doesn’t take relocating your organisation to a cave to do it. It doesn’t even take much money. Maximise the curiosity and passion that lives within your people – starting with yourself.

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