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A Freethinking Leader's Guide To The Real World

I'm a big fan of Marcus Buckingham's work, teachings and books, so I was eager to read his book, co-authored by Ashley Goodall.

Titled, Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader's Guide to the Real World, the book debunks what we've come to believe as basic truths in the workplace. What at first may seem provocative and counter-intuitive, you'll learn why the nine lies "cause dysfunction and frustration, ultimately resulting in workplaces that are a pale shadow of what they could be," explain the authors.

Keep an open-mind as Buckingham and Goodall take you through these nine lies (each a chapter in the book) with engaging stories and incisive analysis as they reveal the essential truths behind these lies:
  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
Buckingham and Goodall answer the following questions about their book, which piqued my curiosity to read the book and to discover more about the lies, distortions and faulty assumptions.

Question: Lies is a strong, loaded word. Why did you choose it rather than misconceptions or myths to describe the disconnect between the way we know we work best and the ways we’re told to work?

Buckingham/Goodall: First, the wrong-headed ideas that we have about work are so strongly ingrained—try telling a leader that critical feedback isn’t helping his or her people grow, and watch his or her reaction!—that we wanted a strong word to push back against them.

Second, as someone once said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” In that sense, what we’re writing about are very much lies—they’re the fake news of work, and we’re suffering, today, because of them. We wrote the book to point the way to what actually works, at work.

Question: The revelations in the book are grounded in a wealth of data. Could you give us a sense of the research behind your book?

Buckingham/Goodall: We both know that if anything we suggest is to have value, it has to be grounded in the real world, and we’re both students of the real world. There’s a lot of pseudo-research in the world of work, sadly—a lot of theorizing about what we should do—that is strangely untethered from proof and falsifiability. Very few organizations can measure knowledge-worker performance, for example, and so pronouncements about what leads to it are invariably wrong-headed.

The research in the book is the latest installment in a body of work stretching back decades that both of us have been part of, first at Gallup and then at ADP (Marcus) and at Deloitte and Cisco (Ashley). This research is the most precious knowledge we have about what animates great teams and their leaders, and is the foundation of the book. 

 Marcus Buckingham

Question: What’s fundamentally wrong with our current emphasis on workplace culture?

Buckingham/Goodall: It’s just not particularly helpful to the people who actually create our experience at work—our teams and their leaders. The idea of culture is abstract and high-level, whereas real work in the real world is neither of those things. And the idea of culture presumes the experience of work at a particular company is uniform—that everyone has a similar experience—whereas the data tells us that the opposite is true. Whether your work lifts you up or pulls you down; whether you’re supported by your peers; whether you’re learning new ways to do what you love; whether you’re productive; whether you’re innovative: all these depend not on company culture but on the team you’re on.

In emphasizing broad ideas about culture instead of trying to understand how to make more great teams, we’re missing what’s most valuable to our companies and our people.

Question: How can we figure out where we want to work if a company’s culture isn’t a good barometer?

Buckingham/Goodall: The best question to ask of a company is this: “What do you do to build great teams?” If the answer is generic or fuzzy, move on. If a company can tell you what it knows about its best teams, what it does to support each team, and how it plans to invest more, then that’s a very good sign.
  
Question: What’s the harm in pushing people to improve their weaknesses?

Buckingham/Goodall: Simply this—that shoring up your weaknesses, if you’re even able to, results at best in adequacy. Excellence doesn’t result from removing the most shortcomings—it’s the result, instead, of figuring out what works for you and turning that up to 11. Focusing on weaknesses is fine if we want to be in the business of adequacy; to get into the excellence business we need to uncover, for each person, their moments of weird brilliance, and amplify those.

Question: How exactly does feedback, even when intended as constructive, hinder learning and performance?

Buckingham/Goodall: First, it puts the brain into flight-or-fight mode, which actually impairs learning rather than impelling it. Second, it imagines that learning is a question of telling you what you can’t do, rather than helping you understand in more detail what you can. And third, it presumes that excellence is the same for everyone, so we can give you feedback on how you fall short of it, whereas the lesson from the real world is that excellence is profoundly and wonderfully different for each of us.

Ashley Goodall

Question: Why do you take issue with placing a priority on “work-life” balance?

Buckingham/Goodall: To be clear, in a world where busy is the new black, and where to maintain our sanity we need some way to stem the never-ending tide of emails and action items and urgent requests, talking about how to preserve a place for our own interests and obligations outside of work is surely a good thing. But we’ve been talking about it for a long time, and things don’t seem to have improved very much, if at all. 

We argue that this is because we’ve got the categories wrong. If we treat work as generally bad, and life as generally good, and imagine that somehow we can balance these two out, we’re embarking on an impossible mission. If, however, we focus on doing more of what we love, and less of what we loathe, at home as well as at work, then over time we can express more of what we value in the world in more ways. That’s a more achievable and ultimately more rewarding goal.

Question: How can every leader, at any level in any type of organization, begin to engage and motivate his or her team? 

Buckingham/Goodall: Get curious about the people on your team. Ask what lights them up and what they run towards; ask what they’re doing when time seems to fly by; help them uncover what’s going on in their heads when they do something brilliantly well. Pay attention to who they are, and how they express that through their work, each and every day. And then help them make their essence and their loves a bigger and bigger part of their work.

Whether you are at a large company or small, wherever you are on the career ladder, the truths Buckingham and Goodall uncover are what you need to perform at your best and find fulfillment each day at work.

Buckingham is the author of best-selling books, First, Break All the Rules (coauthored with Curt Coffman; Now, Discover Your Strengths (coauthored with Donald O. Clifton; and The One Thing You Need to KnowHe addresses more than 250,000 audiences around the globe each year.

Goodall is Senior Vice President of Leadership and Team Intelligence at Cisco. He is the coauthor, with Buckingham, of "Reinventing Performance Management," the cover story in the April 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review.

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