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When was the last time you heard your employees laugh?

Fear at work is a good thing, right? If employees are not afraid of you, they will just take advantage of you, no? They’ll slack off work, they’ll run side hustles using your time and resources, they’ll even steal from you – correct?

A question, though: many business bosses have been making their employees feel afraid every day for decades. How come it is those very businesses that have perennial problems of low productivity, low engagement and low ethics?

Dan Cable, Professor of Organizational Behaviour at London Business School, has an answer for you. But before that, we must consider rats.

Did you know that rats laugh? I only found that out by reading Professor Cable’s excellent new book, Alive At Work. If you put two young rats together, they will engage in play: pouncing on, chasing and wrestling each other. While they do this, they laugh – and this is measurable. Happy rats utter chirps at 50 kHz. They are no different from young humans.

This play the youngsters engage in – whether rats or humans – is very important for their development. This is how they experiment, learn the limits of their strength and agility, and figure out their place in the world. As the author puts it: “Play is how we learn what we’re capable of.”

The book then takes us to an experiment where rats’ play was measured before and after a key incident. That incident was the placing of a small tuft of cat fur in the rats’ play area. The smell of the fur activates the rats’ innate fear system – it sets off their inner alarm bells. As you would expect, it completely inhibits their play – invitations to play actually drop to zero.

But here’s the thing: it takes a full three days after removing the fur for the rats to even start to play at all again. And the levels of play never return to pre-fur sessions.

As Professor Cable explains, the body’s fear system overwhelms the seeking system. The latter is the part of our brains that creates the natural impulse to explore, to learn about our world, to extract meaning from our work and lives. The seeking system is what makes humans break boundaries, try out new stuff, grow ourselves.

The seeking system is our brain’s accelerator; the fear system provides the brakes. Both are important. But you are not going anywhere in a hurry with your brakes always jammed to the floor.

Let’s get back to your workplace. What kind of management prevails? The fear-based variety, or the one that encourages autonomy and self-expression? After all my decades of working with organisations across the globe, I can confidently predict the answer. In all likelihood, you are running fear-based management. Because most organisations do exactly that. They create environments in which people have to follow orders from above without question; where rewards are given for meeting preset performance indicators; and punishments apply when very specific targets and expectations are not met.

Fear rules. Fear of failure, fear of not matching up, fear of losing out, fear of being vilified, fear of being left behind.

That may have worked well in the old world of top-down command-and-control leadership, but do you really think it will help you today, when disruption of business models is rapid and unforeseeable, when quick innovation is your only way to survive, when no one really has all the answers? The answers certainly will not come from the top floors and in boardrooms – they will be generated at the interfaces with customers and new technology.

To make it in this world, your leadership has to encourage play: creative problem-solving, team spirit, joint responsibility, experimentation. Impose controls, by all means – to not do so would be stupid. But don’t let the quality of your braking define your journey. Boost the accelerator a little, and let people activate their seeking systems. How will you know it’s working? When there is laughter at work. Lots of it, often. Not clouds of fear and gloom.

To end today: Dan Cable’s book resonated hugely with me. My own recent release, The Bigger Deal, asks employers to let human beings come to work, not just human resources. That was based on observation and conviction, because I have seen fear-based management hold hundreds of organisations back, while a few who activate “the human in the being” transform the game. The good professor provides the science behind it all.

(Sunday Nation, 28 October 2018)

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