An account of how a walk into the unknown and the plight of late 19th-century farmers in the southern Netherlands provided a powerful means of injecting purpose into employees of Rabobank, from the book Alive at Work
At some point, we’ve all felt underwhelmed by what we do at work – bored and creatively bankrupt. In these moments, we’ve lost our zest for our jobs and accepted working as a sort of long commute to the weekend. Yet even though we’ve all been there, it can be frustrating when our people aren’t living up to their potential. It’s exasperating when employees are disengaged and don’t seem to view their work as meaningful. It can be hard to remember that 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.
But their organisations are letting them down. 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. Here’s the thing: many organisations are deactivating the part of employees’ brains called the ‘seeking systems’. 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 systems, they release dopamine – a neurotransmitter linked to motivation and pleasure – that makes us want to explore more.
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.
The power of purpose
One of the triggers that activates the seeking system is purpose. Purpose is energising. It lights up our systems and gives us that jolt of dopamine. But because purpose is personal and emotional, it is difficult for leaders to instill it in others. It’s one thing to read about something in a business book and another to put it into practice. So how do we create the feeling of purpose and make sure it lasts? To have a shot at success, you need to help employees witness their impact on others, as the case of Rick Garrelfs shows.
Rick, who was a leader at Rabobank for 18 years, told me about an experience he developed to help high-potential employees understand the meaning of their work. Working with a consulting organisation, Garrelfs and his team told the 60 employees: ‘At 5am, be at Eindhoven [a city in the northern part of the Netherlands] Central station.’ They did not divulge any further information to the participants, which naturally caused some curiosity and concerns. Some of the people called and protested: ‘But the trains are not running at 5am’ or ‘I live far away, so I will need a hotel.’ The team responded to these concerns by saying: ‘Yes, that is correct’ to retain the mystery.
People started arriving at the station from 4:30am, and the team made sure the café was open and coffee and rolls were available. Around 5:15am, Garrelfs started walking from the station (the group followed naturally at that point) into a waiting coach, which took them on a 30-minute drive into the dark, away from town. The bus stopped, the group exited and started walking into the fields, with Garrelfs in front with a light, and someone from the consulting firm with a light at the rear.
After 30 minutes, they arrived at a line of trees, where they saw a man standing with a candle. As the group gathered around him, still in the dark of early morning, the man started to speak about the situation of farmers in the late 19th century in the southern Netherlands. He spoke about the farmers’ daily problems, their poverty, and the harshness of their existence. He described how the Dutch priest, Pater Gerlacus van den Elsen, used his local influence to bring farmers together, so that those that had some money could lend it to those that didn’t for investment.
As the man spoke, the sun slowly started to light the scene – the landscape and the group of people – and the group recognised the speaker. He was Bert Mertens, Senior Executive of Cooperative Affairs and Governance of Rabobank, and a direct report to the executive board. Bert was seen as the ‘conscience’ of cooperative thinking in the bank. His core message: Rabobank emerged from the misery of farmers, and we should never forget that.
Bert then walked the group across the farm fields, to a house where they were served breakfast by the farmers, who were long-time members of Rabobank. The farmers talked about the life of farming now, the difficulty of keeping a medium-sized farm alive, and what they did to make ends meet.
Although this had only been the start of the first day of a programme, years later the participants picked out this particular moment as perhaps the most important experience for them in terms of understanding the meaning of Rabobank.
Changing the way employees think and feel about their work
It is one thing for a leader to talk in a meeting about the mission of connecting banking to agriculture. This can be logical and strategic, and a leader can even put pictures of farms on the PowerPoint deck. It is another thing to have a personal experience: to walk in the fields, to connect with nature in the early morning, to eat and talk with the farmers who you serve as a bank.
Imagine how this firsthand experience could change employees’ stories about why they do what they do, and how it might help newcomers fashion their own purpose story. This sense of purpose could help employees make decisions that align with Rabobank’s purpose, but also help them see their work as something worth doing.
This is the power of purpose: it activates the seeking system and makes life feel better. When we understand the powerful humanistic results of purpose – not to mention the economic benefits of building purpose into businesses – then our quest as leaders changes. Our mission moves from ‘how can I make this job more efficient, predictable, and controlled?’ to ‘how can I give my team firsthand experiences that allow them to personalise the meaning of their work?’ This is a powerful new way to think about employment – as a chance to light up employees’ seeking systems instead of shutting them down.
This is an edited excerpt from Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do by Dan Cable (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018).