Nine lies about work

Book review on Nine Lies About Work

Florian Sauter

10 minute read

Recently I read “Nine lies about work - A freethinking leader’s guide to the real world” by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall. The book’s provoking title caught my attention. I was not disappointed, although I have to admit that the book occurred a bit lengthy to me at times. Let me share some of my take-aways in this summary.

People care about their experiences in a team, not the company they work for

The first of the “nine lies” reads “People care which company they work for.” The book’s statement, in a nutshell, is that both, for people themselves and for people’s performance it doesn’t really matter which company they work for and what the company claims to have in terms of “company culture”. What really matters, instead, is said to be their individual experiences in the team they are working in. The argument goes on by the author saying that “company culture” is way over-emphasized. In the end all the nicely crafted company values and perks are just there to create a “shared fiction” and to attract certain kinds of people to the company (the term “shared fiction” references Yuval Harai’s “intersubjective realities”). For practical work these shared fictions are of little to no importance anymore. What really counts, so the book teaches, are the answers to questions like “how disputes get resolved, whether real meetings happen only after the formal parts of a meeting are over, how territorial teams are, how large the power distance is between senior leaders and everyone else, whether good news or bad news travel fastest, how much recognition is there, and whether performance or politics is most prized.” The book’s recommendation to leaders is to always have 8 very distinct questions in mind. The answers to those questions are said to predict in a valid way the sustained performance of a team:

  1. I am really enthusiastic about the mission of the company
  2. At work, I clearly understand what is expected of me
  3. In my team, I am surrounded by people who share my values
  4. I have the chance to use my strengths at work every day
  5. My teammates have my back
  6. I know I will be recognized for excellent work
  7. I have great confidence in my company’s future
  8. In my work, I am always challenged to grow

These questions are remarkable in that they do not ask team members to rate their peers or their leader. Instead they rate people’s very own experiences and by that also fight the phenomenon (which is elaborated later on in the book) that people cannot accurately rate other people, but they can give a reasonable answer to how they experience inside themselves.

Information sharing and team empowerments trumps planning

The second chapter takes on the company rituals of extensive planning. The main theme of this chapter is that planning, while not being totally useless, just gives us information about where we are today and what challenges we need to solve, rather than an instruction what to do. The reason being the fast pace of change around us which renders plans obsolete the minute they get in touch with reality. My feeling is that most organizations today have already realized this, so my personal conclusion is that this “lie” is one of the less controversial ones. The authors’ recommendation how to do better is to make information as freely available as possible to the teams and both, empower and trust the teams to take the right conclusions from it.

Cascade meaning instead of cascading goals

We all know goals from our professional lives. They first emerged in 1954, coined by Peter Drucker with the term “management by objectives”. And they had different incarnations since, the latest one being OKRs (Objectives and Key results). Companies usually aim for three effects: * Stimulating performance and align everyone’s work * Tracking progress (“percentage complete”) * Evaluate performance

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any scientific proof that “goals” are a suitable tool for any of these targets. The book claims that in fact, “the weight of evidence suggests that cascaded goals do the opposite: they limit performance”. Interestingly, the authors claim that this is also true for salespeople, where a long standing myth tells that salespeople need this kind of push to work properly. “[..] sales goals don’t beget more sales; they just anticipate what the sales will be. Sales goals are for performance prediction, not performance creation.” Making them a pure forecasting device, not a tool to enhance performance.

So what to do? The book suggests to “cascade meaning”, not goals, because people want to know what they all share. The rationale is that leaders need to bring to life the meaning and the purpose of their work. This then would lead to an emerging alignment (versus a coerced one, that does not work). Some techniques to implement this include lived values (not the one on the wall), rituals and stories (which we tell every day, if we want to or not - so better craft them well).

The myth about “well-rounded people” (uniqueness is a feature not a bug)

This chapter comes down to the “classical” question of whether to work on your weaknesses or rather honing your strengths.

The authors paint a devastating picture of the “competence models” which you find all around as an HR tooling. The book claims that the approach of competence models in fundamentally flawed, because they are underpinned by a theory of work that assumes we live in a world of machines, code, and process and in order to create great performance we would just need to identify the faulty lines of code, repair them and we’re done. Taken to its logical conclusion, high performance and excellence come from an absence of shortcomings and is, consequently, a synonym for “all-round high ability: well rounded people are better”. The authors call this an outright lie.

First of all they claim that these competencies are impossible to measure, because they are a mix-up of traits (something inherent and quite stable) or a state (something variable and in flux), which would require totally different kinds of assessment. Secondly, “research into high performance in any profession or endeavor reveals that excellence is idiosyncratic. The well-rounded high performer is a creature of theory world. In the real world each high performer is unique and distinct, and excels precisely because that person has understood his or her uniqueness [..]”.

“The competency model is the unmeasurable in pursuit of the irrelevant.”

The “feedback lie”

It seems to be universally agreed that people need feedback, even crave for feedback and feedback is the one universal performance improvement tool.

The authors challenge this claim. They say: “The truth, then, is that people need attention” instead of feedback - and they cite studies which show that positive attention (including positive feedback) has a 30 times more positive impact on productivity than negative attention (including negative feedback). Interestingly, the study also shows that if a leader totally ignores their teams this as an even more negative effect.

The book cites neuro science work which shows that negative feedback does not enable learning. Quite contrary, the physiological processes even inhibit learning when faced with negative feedback.

So how can that be used in practice? A practical way of applying this is to focus on things people really did well. Often times that happens in a state of “flow” and people are barely aware of how exactly the did what they did. So instead of just praising the great performance, it’s much more effective to “tell the person what you experienced when that moment of excellence caught your attention”.

So shall we eliminate negative feedback completely? A sports coach quoted in the book says he would only ever replay the player’s winning plays. But research seems to have shown that a ration of 5 (positive) to 1 (negative) piece of feedback seems to be best for digestion.

Rating people: we can only reliably rate our own (!) experience

This chapter talks extensively about how bad of a rater humans are and that it’s just impossible to reliably rate another person.

The book gives a couple of pretty convincing reasons and studies on why that is the case. And interestingly, the rating does not even become more reliable if there is a group of raters. It boils down to the fact that humans cannot be trained to be reliable raters of other humans and that the ratings collected this way reveal more information about the rater than the person being rated.

And if you let this base assumption sink in, the consequences are quite dramatic: basically all the performance evaluation schemes that rely on these ratings are suddenly more than dubious.

So how can (knowledge workers) be rated? The book suggests the following: “[..] the trick is to invert our line of inquiry. Rather than asking whether another person has a given quality, we need to ask how we would react to that other person if he or she did - we need to stop asking about others, and instead ask about ourselves.” Example questions in that format cloud look like this: Do you always go to this team member when you need extraordinary results? Do you choose to work with this team member as much as you can? Would you promote this person today if you could?

“We tend to think that subjectivity in data is a bug, and that the feature we’re after is objectivity. Actually, however, when it comes to measurement, the pursuit of objectivity is the bug, and reliable subjectivity a feature.

Individuals and their potential

In short summary, this chapter tells us that it’s a bad idea to speak about the people’s “potential” and separate off “high potentials” – even if that happened for very noble reasons and with good intentions. The authors claim that its counter-productive to assign people a certain “potential”. Besides some neuro-science reasons of how the brain works (and that it evolves continuously and in different directions, making everyone excel at different things), the book claims that we should rather think of momentum and have ongoing conversations about development. And not put “hi-po” stickers on anyone that work as golden tickets and create a false impression that this is someone who would excel at everything.

Work life balance

It starts getting a little esoteric from here. The authors’ claim in this chapter is about the faulty assumption that this “balance” between work and life can never be reached and it’s even doubted whether the concept makes sense at all. Instead, they suggest to develop the “skill of finding love in what you do”. They encourage us to not shy away from this word even in a business context and allow people to really find what they love doing.

Is Leadership a thing?

The final chapter deals with leadership. Also here, the book takes a provoking stance: leadership is, according to the authors, misunderstood altogether. Many of the existing literature on leadership iterates on all the positive attributes a good leader should have and that one can neve have enough leadership skills. However, some examples of some of the great leaders of our time reveal that all of them also have a lot of flaws. And are everything else than “well-rounded”. They’re spiky and full of exceptions. So they are not really useful to study and learn how to become a great leader.

The book resorts to a different and simple definition of a leader: “a leader is someone who has followers.”. The difference to classical leadership speak about strategy, vision, execution, etc. is stunning: it does not at all talk about the followers! And it turns out that no two leaders create followers in quite the same way.

The book thus suggests, to really understand leadership we must ask ourselves “why do we follow?”. The authors point back to the 8 items listed in the first section and in general to the need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. They conclude that we “follow people who are really good at something that matters to us. We follow the spikes”.