'Nine Lies About Work': Book challenges everything from goal-setting to feedback
In a time of worker shortages, it may be an opportunity to rethink everything we thought we knew about workers and workplace culture. “Nine Lies about Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World,” by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, challenges common misconceptions, like the importance of a corporate “culture,” employees don’t really care what company they work for, and performance reviews are infamously unreliable.
FARGO -- I’ve worked in many different work settings in my career. All these different experiences have been valuable in their own way and I’ve appreciated the diverse skills they’ve taught me.
But sometimes I’ve wondered why I felt compelled to leave certain positions. In some cases, a new person joined the team and seemed to change the whole dynamic. At least once, I felt like the wrong “type” — like I didn’t fit the culture or mission of the workplace.
Perhaps this is why the book, “ Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World ,” caught my eye. Published by the Harvard Business Review Press, the book was written by Marcus Buckingham, a strengths guru and author, and Ashley Goodall, Cisco Leadership and Team Intelligence head.
At a time when less than 20% of global workers report feeling fully engaged at work, I’ve wondered what the core issue is. Economists, scratching their heads while examining why productivity has declined worldwide since the mid-1970s, argue that some long-held tenets about performance-enhancement are no longer working.
The authors’ research into the topic shows that as the organizations in which we work have grown increasingly larger and more complex, its leaders have sought ways to make systems simpler and more orderly.
But this desire to simplify management processes often leads to conformity, which eventually squelches the individuality of people, along with their unique gifts.
“Before we know it, the particular talents and interests of each person are seen as inconveniences, and the organization comes to treat its people as essentially interchangeable,” the authors write.
Here are a few of the “lies” that especially resonated with me.
People care which company they work for
Judging by the number of jobseekers who feverishly scan sites like Glassdoor, most of us do care a lot about a company’s work culture.
Culture is important, the writers say, in that it helps determine where a company wants to go.
But when we see a company from the outside, we’re really responding to its “cultural plumage” — the fact that the workforce seems young and cool, the number of big-name attorneys who have won high-profile cases. That plumage is intentional, as it’s designed to attract the kind of employees that will align with that culture.
When it comes down to the nitty gritty of daily work, it isn’t so much the culture, or even the overall company, that matters to the employee as the teams they work for.
“When people choose not to work somewhere, the somewhere isn’t a company, it’s a team,” they write. “If we put you in a good team at a bad company, you’ll tend to hang around, but if we put you on a bad team at a good company, you won’t be there for long."
The bad news is that companies tend to underestimate the fact that teams are the true engine to their success.
The good news is that what most people care about most at work — their teams — are something that team leaders can influence and control.
One of the best ways team leaders can keep workers engaged is by building trust. A 19-country study on the nature of engagement at work found that employees who felt their team leaders had their backs were 12 times more likely to be fully engaged at work.
The best plan wins
We’ve all worked at places where it was all about “The Plan,” a huge, complex strategic initiative that bandied about terms like “synergy” and “thought leadership” while predicting each step we would take for the next 10 years.
More often than not, these highly ambitious plans fill underlings with anxiety, confusion and a sense of complete overwhelm.
We’ve been taught to believe that an ambitious, overarching plan — hammered out by the top people in the organization — is the key to vision and success.
The problem, these authors argue, is that these “big plans” within large organizations are too often overly generalized, quickly obsolete and frustrating to those expected to carry them out.
“Plans are often made by higher-ups who don’t understand the day-to-day, real-world realities their frontline people face,” the authors write. “As a result, leaders sometimes resort to creating an assumptive plan with very generic details, which doesn’t prove to be helpful.”
Instead, the authors recommend that leaders “coordinate your team’s efforts in real time, relying heavily on the informed, detailed intelligence of each unique team member.”
“Their underlying assumption is that real people are wise, and that if you can present them with accurate, real-time, reliable data about the real world in front of them, they’ll invariably make smart decisions,” they write.
How to do this? They suggest several approaches:
Instead of big, rigid plans, rely on detailed, real-time inputs from your team members.
The “intelligence” in an intelligent system lies not in a select few, but instead in the “emergent interpretive powers” of all front-line team members.
Don’t restrict data to a need-to-know basis. Liberate info: Share as much data as possible, as fast as possible. Make sure your team is swimming in real-time information, all the time.
Use short, frequent check-ins (at least once a week) to deal with real-time issues. The authors found that weekly check-ins increased average engagement by 13%, while monthly check-ins weren’t nearly as effective.
The best people are well-rounded
Bad hires can cost companies a lot of money. So it makes sense that they’ve come to rely on tools such as “competency models” to define the qualities for an ideal candidate.
These competency models typically look at different attributes — such as business acumen, teamwork, strategic thinking, etc. — and measure how an individual’s competency in those different areas align with the desired competency attributes for a certain job. These are then used as a basis for hiring, training and evaluating performance.
Unfortunately, Buckingham and Goodall say, this approach is fundamentally flawed. Their research says an employee’s performance actually depends on a complex mix of traits (like our personality) and states (our mood and circumstances). They add that it’s very difficult to determine how one’s state of mind at the time might affect how they respond to a competency-measuring question. They also say that terms like “strategic thinking” are highly subjective and difficult to measure accurately.
Their argument is that high scores across-the-board in a competency model can’t always predict “winners” anyway. Instead, some employees excel because they are “spiky,” they write. “They nurture and apply their unique strengths to their work.”
These high achievers would likely fail on at least a few dimensions in a competency model. Instead, they know their strength — that activity that makes them feel strong and which brings them joy. And the more often they are called upon to use those unique strengths, the happier and more productive they will be.
“So instead of forcing people into standard templates or trying to fix their weaknesses, we should focus on helping them to identify and leverage their unique strengths,” they write.
People need feedback
We all need to be seen and heard — and some generations, such as millennials and Generation Y — reportedly crave this even more than others.
But before assuming constant, brutally honest feedback is the key to workplace happiness, the authors recommend keeping a few things in mind.
Why millennials report to prefer Snapchat is revealing. Unlike Facebook, it doesn’t depend on “likes” or feedback. It allows them to participate, connect and be seen without feeling judged. Even better, their snap disappears after 24 hours, so there’s no permanent record of judgment.
Perhaps millennials aren’t so much looking for feedback as they are seeking an audience, they write. “All of us — not just millennials — seem drawn to places that provide us with a way to meet our audience and gain its approval.”
Another reality is that humans tend to base their feedback on a flawed filter of perception known as the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” This ingrained behavior reflects our natural tendency to attribute another person’s mistake to shortcomings in their personality (“she’s late because she’s just lazy”), while justifying our own shortcomings to situational factors (“There was so much traffic!”).
Too often, we wind up focusing our remedies on others instead of looking at how we could have done better, the authors say.
Some other guidelines:
We focus too much on the negative. Too often, managers take for granted what their reports do right and fixate instead on what they’re doing wrong.
Unfortunately, negative feedback blocks learning. When people feel criticized or judged, their defenses kick in and their problem-solving skills freeze up. But when an employee is given a chance to operate in their area of strength — and also receives positive feedback for it — their ability to learn soars.
People need to be seen. The human animal needs attention. Likewise, your employees fare best if they are given attention in a safe, non-judgmental environment. Gallup research shows that managers who ignored their people created a pandemic of disengagement. Negative feedback was 40 times better than ignoring people, but positive feedback was 30 times more powerful than negative criticism in maximizing performance.
The bottom line: Engage your team
Team leaders often find that they can’t influence the big-picture items, like whether an employer offers child care or if there’s a generous family-leave policy.
Yet Buckingham and Goodall insist that there are still many ways to evaluate how your team is doing, and whether adjustments need to be made.
As part of their research, the authors interviewed the top and bottom performers in hundreds of organizations. They found eight conditions associated with the most engaged and productive team members:
This list of conditions represented the engaged team members’ connection to their company, and included factors like:
I am really enthusiastic about the mission of my company.
In my team, I am surrounded by people who share my values.
My teammates have my back.
I have confidence in my company’s future.
This also included the employee’s perceptions of their individual experience at work:
I clearly understand what is expected of me.
I have the chance to use my strengths every day.
I know I’ll be recognized for excellent work.
I am always challenged to grow.
“What we, as team members, want from you, our team leader, is firstly that you make us feel part of something bigger,” they write, “that you show us how what we are doing together is important and meaningful; and secondly, that you make us feel that you can see us, and connect to us, and care about us, and challenge us, in a way that recognizes who we are individuals.”