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Nine Lies About Work

Another recent book that is a great one for all of us to read is Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World, with authors Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall


Here is a quick overview of the lies that the authors say people typically believe about work, and what they believe their research shows is truth. Check them out, and see what your experience tells you.


Lie #1: People care which company they work for.

Truth #1: People care which team they are on. Because that's where the real-world work happens. An employee’s experience of work will always be viewed through the lens of their team and manager. In this chapter, the authors present evidence to back this up. No doubt, potential recruits care about the company initially. But once in, the way team leaders interact with new recruits is everything. Churn and productivity are not evenly spread—they tend to correlate with the effectiveness or otherwise of team leaders. Engagement is a function of the specific team’s dynamic. There is nothing that an executive team can do, no lever that it can pull, that isn’t related to team leaders.


Lie #2: The best plan always wins.

Truth #2: The best intelligence wins. Because the world moves too fast for plans to matter much. Plans can become irrelevant very quickly. Establishing a regular rhythm to help with planning and achieving goals can help, like having regular evaluation times to see if this is still the smart thing to do. Changing the cadence can be powerful. Buckingham and Goodall say that instead of a 3- or 5-year plan, it’s better to have flexibility so that people aren’t demotivated or demoralized by not hitting goals. Agility is important. The plan is less important than planning.


Lie #3: The best companies cascade goals.

Truth #3: The best companies cascade meaning. Because people want to know what they all share. The authors are saying that great companies roll goals down, making sure they pass all the way through the company. They make sure everyone is on board with all the goals at all times. The authors insist that meaning and purpose is what everyone MUST share. It is when we understand why we are here and how we are making a difference that the goals actually become pertinent and motivating.


Lie #4: The best people are well-rounded.

Truth #4: The best people are spiky. Because for humans, uniqueness is a feature, not a bug. There’s a common perception that to do well in life, you need to be good at everything. In the corporate world, this manifests in managers focusing on weaknesses, using them as a reason why someone isn’t promoted or given a pay rise. It’s the opposite of a strengths-based approach. We all have innate strengths. The authors talk about Lionel Messi, the best footballer in the world, who happens to be left-footed. In his early life, his coaches didn’t force him to play more with his right foot. They allowed him to perfect his left foot. This starts early in life. As parents, we say we want well-rounded children. But do we really? If your child is good at the guitar, surely they should focus on that, not on learning a different instrument.

Successful people are often amazing at one thing—so amazing that they attract followers who forgive them any weaknesses because their main strength is so amazing. Don’t expect a goalkeeper to score goals. Encourage strengths and celebrate excellence and forget about well rounded.


Lie #5: People need feedback.

Truth #5: People need attention. Because we all want to be seen for how we are at our best, not our worst. The authors argue that feedback puts people’s brains into fight or flight mode, which means they don’t absorb any learning from the experience.


Rather than telling people how they’re doing and suggesting corrective action, ask them how they feel. We are more likely to get to the root of an issue if we understand it more deeply. You may get some insight into why your own behavior is having a certain impact on someone. This may not be your intention, but now that you know about it, you can do something about it. Or maybe you can agree and understand that you both approach the same thing in different ways.


When you give personal attention and focus on feeling, you can discuss performance in a different way.


Lie #6: People can reliably rate other people. Truth #6: People can reliably rate their own experience. Because at the end of the day, that's all we have. Buckingham and Goodall argue that, because all opinions are subjective, it’s impossible for one person to rate another at work. One person’s definition of what good looks like can be very different from another’s. This is why interviews are often inconsistent. There is always unconscious bias. The person being interviewed will have a completely different set of skills but will be measured against a subjective viewpoint. We can only evaluate on the basis of what our own experience has been.


Lie #7: People have potential.

Truth #7: People have momentum. Because we all move through life differently. As a leader you will inevitably have to rate your people on their potential and put them in a grid somewhere. Are they high or low potential? Then you will allocate their development and investment based on where they sit in that grid. But, “high potential is the corporate equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket: You take it with you wherever you go and it grants you powers and access denied to the rest of us.” The problem is potential is not a trait. Plus, we have already seen that people cannot reliably rate other people. Evidence shows that the ability to learn exists in all of us, it shows up differently in each of us and none of us will ever be able to rewire our brains to excel at everything. To say you have potential simply means you have the capacity to learn, grow, and get better like every other human being. It’s not about whether people can grow. It’s about helping team leaders learn about human growth and promoting them to discuss careers with people in terms of “momentum”—who each team member is and how fast each is moving through the world.


Lie #8: Work-life balance matters most.

Truth #8: Love-in-work matters most. Because when you look at it, that's what work is really for. A phrase that has been used in HR more than most others in recent years is work-life balance. We lose ourselves in work and rediscover ourselves in life. We survive work and live life. “The answer to the problem of work is to balance it with life.” The assumption is that work is bad and life is good. The problem is balance. In the real world, does anyone find balance? Striving for it can be as hard as the work we are blaming. Balance is just a coping strategy. Love-in-work is what you should strive for. This is not finding work you love, it is the skill of finding love in what you do. What we really wrestle with is not work and life but what we love and what we hate.


Lie #9: Leadership is a thing.

Truth #9: We all follow spikes. Because strangely enough, spikes bring us certainty. There’s a common perception that to do well in life, you need to be good at everything. In the corporate world this manifests in managers focusing on weaknesses, using them as a reason why someone isn’t promoted or given a pay rise. It’s the opposite of a strengths-based approach. We all have innate strengths. The authors talk about Lionel Messi, the best footballer in the world, who happens to be left-footed. In his early life, his coaches didn’t force him to play more with his right foot. They allowed him to perfect his left foot. This starts early in life. As parents, we say we want well-rounded children. But do we really? If your child is good at the guitar, surely they should focus on that, not on learning a different instrument.


Successful people are often amazing at one thing—so amazing that they attract followers who forgive them any weaknesses because their main strength is so amazing. Don’t expect a goalkeeper to score goals. He’s 6 foot tall with really big hands! Encourage strengths and celebrate excellence and forget about well rounded.


If the summaries here have intrigued you, get the book! It may make a huge difference in your own work and the way you lead.

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