Nine Lies About Work - Here's the Summary

The year's best management book, "Nine Lies About Work" by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, calls into question some of the ideas that underlie today's management practices, a lot of which are decades old. Read a short summary of each.
Natalia Rossingol

Modern business leaders are flooded with techniques and strategies on how to productively organize work and achieve maximum effectiveness. Every day they hear about “successful success” – yes, so often that it has acquired ironic connotations. And there would be nothing wrong with it… if these techniques really worked. But why are we so sure they aren’t just reflections in funhouse mirrors that distort the true nature of things?

“Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World” debunks the most popular myths about leadership. The authors, Marcus Buckingham, a motivational speaker and business-consultant, and Ashley Goodall, a leadership expert, are certain that most of the widely accepted ideas about leadership are counter-productive and do a lot of harm. Instead, they provide alternatives, using real-life examples and research data.  

In this short one-page summary of “Nine Lies About Work,” we will go through each of the lies in the list, showing why they are not effective and presenting methods that should replace them. Let's dive in:

  1. People care which company they work for
  2. The best plan wins
  3. The best companies cascade goals
  4. The best people are well-rounded
  5. People need feedback
  6. People can reliably rate other people
  7. People have potential
  8. Work-life balance matters most
  9. Leadership is a thing

🤥 People care which company they work for

An assumption that companies shape our experience is deeply planted in our minds. But the idea of the company is very vague and abstract. A particular company may have some good reputation, and as a job candidate, you may find it attractive. 

However, when you actually start working there, you realize that what you care for is recognition and support, opportunities to face challenges that would let you grow, and people who would share your values. This is not about companies in their ideological sense. This is more about teams.

Unlike companies, teams are very practical.  All work for the company is done in a team, where unique contributions of each member and effective cooperation go together. Teams unlock “what is unique about each of us, in the service of something shared.” 

Giving meaning to work, they have a lasting impact on its quality – much more lasting than perks and other promises like promotion from within, so-called cultural plumages, whose real purpose is to lure candidates into a certain workplace, and which always fade.  

And even though leaders can't control how company influences teams members, they can control what people really care for - their teams: 

You can set clear expectations for your people, or not; you can position each person to play to his or her strengths every day, or not; you can praise the team for excellent work, or not; you can help people grow their careers, or not. 

This is a very effective and healthy approach.

🤥 The best plan wins

Planning is one of the key pillars of success. It gives us a feeling of control and certainty, and relieves the feeling of insecurity. However, things rarely turn out the way we planned. The speed of change has increased dramatically, and the paradoxical truth is that “We aren’t planning for the future, we’re planning for the near-term past.”

A planning system lacks the ability to react to current, often unexpected events. As opposed to it, Buckinglam and Goodall suggest an “intelligence system” that does not lack it. It is focused on collecting and sharing real-time information instead of planning that often appears useless. In a business environment, an intelligence system can take the form of a check-in, which is a one-on-one conversation with a team member. Discussing the near-term future, you as a leader can listen, give advice, help enhance skills etc. Check-ins can be short, but they must be frequent. 

The more people you can fit in your schedule, the better, believes Buckingham.

Checking in with each person on a team—listening, course-correcting, adjusting, coaching, pinpointing, advising, paying attention to the intersection of the person and the real-world work—is not what you do in addition to the work of leading. This is the work of leading. If you don’t like this, don’t be a leader.

🤥 The best companies cascade goals

Another thing that gets repeated over and over again is the importance of setting goals. We visualize a desirable outcome, adding details and timelines, and it inspires us and guides our actions. In large organizations, strategic goals, set at the higher levels, go down the chain, turning into smaller versions appropriate for each level of the company hierarchy. 

This structure gives leaders confidence that everyone is moving in the same direction. At the same time, cascading goals puts a lot of pressure on employees, making them feel that trying to achieve goals imposed from above is mechanical and even fake.

People need to know the meaning that stands behind their work; they need to have a clear understanding why it is important to do it. 

Chick-fil-A, a large American fast-food restaurant chain, created a policy according to which a franchisee can own only one location, this way staying close to the community. They communicated values, showing they were interested in each guest and each team leader. As the authors say, 

Our prevailing assumption is that we need goals because our deficit at work is a deficit of aligned action. We’re mistaken. What we face instead is a deficit of meaning… and of the values we should honor in deciding how to get it done. 

So let your people know what is important to you. Create certain rituals, like talking to your employees about their private lives. Tell them stories that convey your real values. Remember that what truly matters is cascading meaning, not goals.

🤥 The best people are well-rounded

A competency model that requires workers to possess certain competencies (leadership, management, individual etc) and proficiency levels, used by the majority of companies, is desperately flawed. 

It is impossible to measure competencies using scientific approaches since we do not even know if competency is a state or a trait. Logically, it is impossible to prove a set of standard competencies will bring you success. 

Unfortunately to those who believe in the idea of well-roundedness, “The well-rounded high performer is a creature of the 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 and cultivated it intelligently.” 

One of the studies by Selected Research, Incorporated, dedicated to the analysis of pub managers’ characteristics, showed that managers who excelled did not share a specific pattern of abilities; they rather demonstrated a unique combination of abilities. This way, the results proved that excellence is a highly individual phenomenon.

Admitting that each worker is unique can be overwhelming for a leader. However, fitting the work to the person, and not the other way around, is very productive. Diversity at the workplace is not an obstacle — “rather, it’s the fundamental ingredient without which a great team cannot exist.”

🤥 People need feedback

We are all convinced that feedback is crucially important as it helps to improve. We learn how to give it and how to take it with grace. However, feedback is close to judgment, and judgment is close to threat. How does our brain respond to a threat? It activates survival mechanisms. And they do not promote learning. 

It may seem that people crave for feedback because this is what happens on social media sites. But is that so? Snapchat is a platform where no one can rate you. Yet it is very popular, because it lets you get what you really need – attention. 

Negative feedback is negative attention. But the statistics provided by Gallup Organization, analytics and advising company, showed that positive attention is thirty times more powerful. So how can you, as a leader, provide it? 

The goal is to consciously spend your days alert for those times when someone on your team does something so easily and effectively that it rocks you, just a little, and then to find a way of telling that person what you just saw. 

In other words, be available and open to your team members. Observe and praise them. Ask them how they solved problems in the past and how they solve them in the present. This is how you motivate your people.

🤥 People can reliably rate other people

Rating each other at a workplace sounds like a great instrument of measuring skills and performance. The problem is that the accuracy of these results is very doubtful. 

Trying to evaluate our colleagues, we inevitably come to evaluating ourselves – this is called the Idiosyncratic Rater Effect, the authors explain. Sociologists tried to minimize it, creating increasingly detailed scales, but got the opposite result showing that “the more complex the rating scale, the more powerful the influence of our idiosyncratic rating patterns.”

Buchingham reveals the simple truth that the image of you that your manager has is more important than all the figures presented by false tools. In this sense, team leaders can always rely on their own experience and ask questions about their reactions to each team member.

Being bad raters of others, we are good raters of ourselves, so here's what the book suggests doing: 

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… asking the leader about what he would do, or how he would feel

As a team leader, what do I feel in the presence of this person? Would I promote him or her? Your subjective reaction can be not accurate. But it will be reliable, because we cannot be wrong about our feelings.

🤥 People have potential

According to Buckingham and Goodall, the mere definition of the word “potential” is pretty odd: it is described as a quality that helps you “consistently outperform peer groups… and show a strong capacity to grow.” 

But every human has the capacity to grow and improve. Potential does not specify what kind of person you are, and what prospects you have: 

To say that you have potential means simply that you have the capacity to learn, and grow, and get better, like every other human. Unfortunately, this won’t reveal anything about precisely where you can learn, and grow, and get better, or how, or how fast, or under what conditions.

Unlike potential, the idea of momentum does help specify who you are, the authors admit. In the world of physics, momentum is a combination of mass and velocity. When we apply this to the world of teams, mass will be our unique aspirations, and velocity – our experiences. 

Here's one example from the book. In the experiment performed at Cisco, a multinational technology corporation, a manager asked his team members to imagine their dream job and compare their current skills to the skills they needed to acquire. The results were surprising: instead of trying to get another job, people started to think about how to become better professionals in their current positions. 

This is how managers should discuss growth: in terms of momentum, showing team members where they are on their paths, and how they can accelerate.

🤥 Work-life balance matters most

Balance is a thing we all strive for, yet it is unachievable – for a simple reason that it is next to impossible to stay static in a world that is ever changing. Life will never be in balance, nor will you ever be, Buckingham and Goodall think. 

Humans are not almighty. Instead, each of us is a unique creature who “takes inputs from the world, metabolizes them in some way, produces something useful, and does so in such a way that you can.”

Professional burnout is a wide-spread outcome of an unhealthy work-life balance. Buckingham and Goodall prove it with the data received from one of American clinics, 52 percent of physicians reported being burned out. However, he finds an interesting detail: the same report revealed that physicians who spent at least 20 percent doing things they enjoyed had significantly lower risks of burnout. This leads us to a conclusion that love-in-work matters more than we thought it did.

Things you love doing at work are like red threads giving it color and meaning. Every time you feel burned out,  “Watch for your red threads. Take them seriously… And when you feel run down, or burned out, or at risk… cling to them tightly.”

🤥 Leadership is a thing

We hear that leaders possess leadership qualities. But let’s be honest… It sounds like “your cat has catness because he is a cat.” As the authors ironically point out, “it might be true, but it’s hardly helpful to your hamster if he dreams, someday, of being a cat.”

What specifically makes you a leader, ask Buckingham and Goodall? The story of Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of anti-racist movements in 1960-s, is not only a story about a person who struggled for his convictions and succeeded. It is also a story about the crowd that followed him, the crowd who believed him, because he knew their needs, fears, and hopes.

We follow people who give us confidence in the future, the authors admit. People who value us for our strength and make us feel connected. People who are inspirational and able to formulate strategies. They do not necessarily have to be well-rounded. They have to be 'spiky.'

The lies discussed above in “Nine Lies About Work” synopsis are clichés and stereotypes that resulted from overtheorizing what the business world should look like. However, the true state of things is different. If leaders refuse to see it, they will put the well-being of their teams at risk, hindering development. Without being open-minded, it will be impossible to succeed.  

Other reviews by readers about the “Nine Lies About Work” are also available online. If you find it interesting, read the full version, you can buy Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall “Nine Lies About Work” paper editions, or “Nine Lies About Work” audiobook.

📚 Read other book summaries on management from Runn:

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