April 5, 2019
Editor's Choice: Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World
Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World by Marcus Buckingham & Ashley Goodall, Harvard Business Review Press, 304 pages, Hardcover, April 2019, ISBN 9781633696303
There are many ideas and practices that have become so ingrained in the business world that they are now taken for granted, taken as truths, things companies must do, even when it would be wise to stop doing them. I’d say that they’ve become almost invisible, but they so frustrate most workers that they are anything but. They’re simply not seen. It’s become heresy to question them. Which makes Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall heretics. There new book, Nine Lies About Work, calls out some of the most pernicious, and their impact on our work:
[T]he world of work today is overflowing with systems, processes, tools, and assumptions that are deeply flawed and push directly against our ability to express what is unique about each of us in the work we do every day.
You may be wondering, why would any company want employees to express what is unique about themselves? Isn’t what we really need a group of people who can get with the program and get their work done? Replacing the unpredictability and complexities of people with the simplicity of systems and best practices seems like it makes good business sense. It may breed corporate conformity, but corporations breed conformity for a reason, don’t they? After all, you know what you want, and want to know what you will get from people—because it is efficient, predictable, something you could set your watch to and plan around. It is why it makes business sense to replace human beings with automation.
If you’ve been following us for any amount of time, you know that we don’t believe any of that here at 800-CEO-READ. Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall are kindred minds on the matter. They believe the world of work today is predicated not just on faulty assumptions, but on lies—yes, nine of them, to be exact—and that:
As you read, you’ll realize that these Nine Lies have taken hold because each satisfies the organization’s need for control.
Well, of course an organization needs control. Right? It does need to control the quality of the products and services it offers. It does need to control the message it is sending, and how it shows up in the market. It would go to reason that to do that, companies also need to have control over the workers who contribute to that and the work they’re doing. But Buckingham and Goodall believe that, throughout the book:
You’ll see, as well, that the strongest force pushing back against these lies, and the force that we all seek to harness in our lives, is the power of our own individuality—that the true power of human nature is that each human’s nature is unique, and that expressing this through our work is an act, ultimately, of love.
Love? What in creation are these men talking about? It turns out, they are talking about the creation of a more empathetic, ethical, and improved way of leading a workforce. They explain how, as they were imagining the audience for the book, they first imagined it to be a new leader trying to do their best to do right by people, but were being “confounded and stymied by the Nine Lies—by all the things we know for sure but just ain’t so.” I’ll let them explain:
We came to think of our audience not as the new leader but as the freethinking leader. A leader who embraces a world in which the weird uniqueness of each individual is seen not as a flaw to be ground down but as a mess worth engaging with, the raw material for all healthy, ethical, thriving organizations; a leader who rejects dogma and instead seeks out evidence; who values emergent patterns above received wisdom; who thrills to the power of teams; who puts faith in findings, not philosophy; and above all, a leader who knows that the only way to make the world better tomorrow is to have the courage and the wit to face up to how it really is today.
So what are these Nine Lies? The first of them, and the one that sets up the others, is that “people care which company they work for.” That sounds right. Where we work, after all, is a defining piece of our lives, and even of our identity. But, as is often said, people leave managers, not companies, and the authors provide evidence that bears that out. Their research measuring day-to-day work experience and satisfaction shows that there is more variation within companies than between companies, that turnover can be predicted more by what team you’re on than what company you’re with. As we all know, it is the “ground-level stuff” that matters most in our work lives. Our (what they call) local experiences—our interpersonal relationships, daily interactions with those closest to us, and our team experiences—are “significantly more important than company ones.”
The caveat here may be that, in small companies like ours and so many others, the culture really is the “ground-level stuff,” how we interact with and treat one another. But in large corporations, the “culture” is often a construct set by executives and conveyed to the workforce and the outside world, and often has little to no impact on the daily lives of workers. In fact, on that scale, companies don’t have a uniform culture. They have many different local cultures, and your experience working for a company is largely dependent on the team you end up working with. So, in larger corporations and multinationals, while corporate culture and image may help attract talent and customers:
The truth is that, once there, people care which team they’re on.
Culture, no matter how well-intentioned and championed, is too abstract. Not only that, culture tends to conform, while teams are at their best when “unlocking what is unique about each of us.” The best teams, as we know, are diverse in background, experience, and perspective, and it is, in fact, “only on a team can we express our individuality at work and put it to the highest use.”
The rest of the Nine Lies are, in essence, about how to build and lead great teams by discarding the practices that have become almost universal in the workplace, and seeing things in a new light—allowing you to see people and access what is unique to them. They explain making plans is more helpful in understanding where you are now, and what challenges you face than in telling you what you need to do next, and why an intelligence system to gather information on the ground is better than a planning system. The authors are more succinct:
Many plans, particularly those created in large organizations, are overly generalized, quickly obsolete, and frustrating to those asked to execute them. It’s far better to coordinate your team’s efforts in real time, relying heavily on the informed, detailed intelligence of each unique team member.
Next, they tell us that “The best companies don’t cascade goals; the best companies cascade meaning.” Even sales goals, they insist actually act as a ceiling on the performance of top performers, as they tend to dial back their efforts once the goal is met. For those that can’t meet the goals, it creates pressure that can lead to unethical and fraudulent behavior to make what are arbitrary numbers. “Sales goals are for performance prediction,” they write, “not performance creation.” They suggest companies simply track performance instead.
In the real world, there is work—stuff that you have to get done. In theory world, there are goals. … Work makes you feel like you have agency; goals make you feel like a cog in a machine.
They go on to explode the myth that the best people are well-rounded, showing how real-world excellence is idiosyncratic. Instead of trying to round out people, we should instead focus on building well-rounded teams. And…
The more diverse the team members, the more weird, spiky, and idiosyncratic they are, the more well-rounded the team.
They explain why people need attention, not feedback—which most people hate—and why people can more reliably rate their own experience than other people. They ballyhoo the much touted truism that people have potential, asserting that what we really have is momentum, “because we all move through the world differently, and why “love-in-work” (there’s that word again) is more realistic than work-life balance.
The final lie is that “leadership is a thing.” They don’t tread the well-worn path of pointing out the often contradictory qualities ascribed to leadership in the vast amount of literature on the topic. Instead, they offer:
The lesson from the real world is not that there is any particular collection of qualities that every leader has, but rather that every leader we can think of has obvious shortcomings—that leaders aren’t perfect people …
And that is the beauty of the book throughout. It is about the real world. I don’t agree with the authors at every turn, but I recognize the world they are writing about, because it is the one I exist in—even though the companies they write about tend to be large companies. It is not theoretical, and the mind doesn't have to perform any tricks to understand what it is they’re talking about. It simply has to let go of some preconceived, all-too-common notions that have been fed to us about the world of work, and think freely and clearly about it.
One of the lessons of the Nine Lies is that when we blind ourselves to what’s around us, and instead theorize about how the world ought to be (or how we’d prefer it be if only it were tidier), our people vanish. We stop seeing them. We mute our curiosity, and we replace it with dogma and dictum. The same happens with the people we call leaders—the moment we start theorizing, they vanish, too.
The act of work is human. Leading and following and working together is about human interaction and human relationships. The workplace, and the marketplace beyond it, is about emotions and attention and the desire to be seen. It is about trust and, yes, it is about love. I am always grateful to be reminded of that, to see it again clearly, to have it acknowledged. Nine Lies About Work is a great reminder, and a great guide.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books, and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.