Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World

by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall 

Conventional management practices are based on a mindset of conformity and control. The authors, in contrast, argue the key to optimum performance is encouraging individuals make the most of their idiosyncratic strengths. The authors study team performance and employee engagement for ADP Research Institute and Cisco respectively.

Lie #1: People care which company they work for. “If it is true that in large part people’s experience at work is driven by the company they work for, then when we ask these eight questions to every person in every team at a particular company, we should get, generally, the same responses. There shouldn’t be variation from team to team, because the day-to-day experience of working at this particular company should remain mostly consistent. But that’s not the case… We’ve found that these scores always have a greater range within a company than between companies.”

“While people might care which company they join, they don’t care which company they work for. The truth is that, once there, people care which team they’re on… Those team members who said they trusted their team leader were 12 times more likely to be fully engaged at work.”

Lie #2: The best plan wins. “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 intelligence of each unique team member.” The authors point to General Stanley McChrystal’s weekly Operational and Intelligence meetings, elaborated in his book Team of Teams.

“Doing a check-in once every six weeks or even once a month is useless, because you’ll wind up talking in generalities. Actually, the data reveals that checking in with your team members once a month is literally worse than useless. While team leaders who check in once a week see, on average, a 13% increase in team engagement, those who check in only once a month see a 5% decrease in engagement.”

Lie #3: The best companies cascade goals. “As it happens, no research exists showing that goals set for you from above stimulate you to greater productivity.”

“Work makes you feel like you have agency; goals make you feel like a cog in a machine. Work makes you feel trusted; goals make you feel distrusted.”

“The best companies don’t cascade goals; the best companies cascade meaning… Whereas cascaded goals are a control mechanism, cascaded meaning is a release mechanism. It brings to life the context within which everyone works, but it leaves the locus of control—for choosing, deciding prioritizing, goal setting—where it truly resides, and where understanding of the world and the ability to do something about it intersect: with the team member.”

Lie #4: The best people are well-rounded. “All of the major Human Capital Management tools… are built around competency models… The competency model is the unmeasurable in pursuit of the irrelevant… And to be clear, it isn’t just the competency models that are dubious but the ideas behind them. There is the idea that improvement comes from repairing our deficits.”

“As we’ve seen, what’s most striking when we look at excellent performance is not the absence of deficit but, rather, the presence of a few signature strengths, honed over time and put to ever greater use… A strength is not where we are most ‘finished’ but in fact where we are most productively challenged.”

“The 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 and cultivates it intelligently.”

Lie #5: People need feedback. This chapter cites research going back to the 1920s at the Hawthorne Works Western Electric plant. Researchers increased lighting and saw productivity increase. Then they reduced the lighting and productivity improved again. They continued numerous experiments like this. When the research ended, productivity went back to normal. The conclusion: workers thrived on the attention they were receiving.

Gallup research quantifies this phenomenon. When people are ignored, there is one engaged worker per 20 disengaged workers (1:20). When leaders focus on fixing shortcomings (negative attention), there are two engaged per one disengaged (2:1). When employees are given mainly attention to what they did best (positive attention) the ratio skyrockets to 60:1.

“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… Praise leads to performance more than praise reflects performance.” Aim for “three to five moments of appreciative attention for every one piece of negative feedback.”

Lie #6: People can reliably rate other people. “So far, we’ve seen that 1) human beings can never be trained to reliably rate other human beings, that 2) ratings data derived in this way is contaminated because it reveals far more about the rater than it does of the person being rated, and that 3) the contamination cannot be removed by adding more contaminated data. And this means, in turn, that ratings-based tools, be they annual engagement surveys, performance-rating tools, 360-degree surveys, or any of the many other varieties at large, do not measure what they purport to measure.”

“Although we are not reliable raters of others, people can reliably rate their own experience… We could then simply ask team leaders, every quarter or at the end of every project, what their experience was like with each team member… ‘Do you always go to this team member when you need extraordinary results?’… ‘Do you think this person has a performance problem that you need to address immediately?’… These questions generate reliable (and subjective) data.”

Lie #7: People have potential. “This sort of apartheid does terrible things to a company. The careless and unreliable labeling of some folks as [high-potentials] and others as [low-potentials] is deeply immoral… It’s also unproductive.”

“Momentum, on the other hand, represents the opposite of ‘up-or-out’ thinking. And it’s the best concept to address one of the key survey items that measure engagement and performance: ‘In my work, I am always challenged to grow.’ Potential doesn’t do that—it doesn’t challenge you to grow. It tells you that you either will, or you won’t.”

In physics, momentum = mass x velocity. In the authors’ metaphor, “he was helping each of them to get clear on who they were and where they wanted to go [mass] and on the measurable skills and experiences they had and wanted to acquire [velocity]. His presumption was that everyone had momentum, and that it was his job to help them figure out how to direct it. ‘I think there’s a lot of energy within our teams that isn’t being used,’ he told us, ‘and I have a lot of people who, given the right circumstances, the right engagements, the right customer—whatever it is, we can find what enables them to share that energy, to bring it out’… And this, surely, is what any truly people-maximizing company would want.”

Lie #8: Work-life balance matters most. “While initially it might seem that certain elements need to be in balance… when we look more closely what we find is flow.”

“We’d like to share the truth that—more than striving for balance between work and life—love-in-work matters most… The skill of finding love in what you do, rather than simply doing what you love—leads us directly to a place that is the epitome of pragmatism… Burnout isn’t the absence of balance but the absence of love.”

“This person didn’t find the work… Instead, she made it. She took a generic job, with a generic job description, and then, within that job, she took her loves seriously, and gradually, little by little and a lot over time, she turned the best of her job into most of her job. Not the entirety of it, maybe, but certainly an awful lot of it, until it became a manifestation of who she is.”

Lie #9: Leadership is a thing. “Leading is the same as all other fields of human endeavor—high performance is idiosyncratic, and the higher the level of performance the greater the level of idiosyncrasy.”

“Leadership isn’t a thing, because it cannot be measured reliably. Followership is a thing, because it can… The act of following is a barter—we entrust some part of our future to a leader only when we get something in return. That ‘something in return’ is confidence.”

“More specifically, we follow leaders who connect us to a mission we believe in, who clarify what’s expected of us, who surround us with people who define excellence the same way we do, who value us for our strengths, who show us that our teammates will always be there for us, who diligently replay our winning plays, who challenge us to keep getting better, and who give us confidence in the future. This is not a list of qualities in a leader, but rather a set of feelings in a follower.”

“Your challenge is to find and refine your own idiosyncratic way of creating in your team these eight emotional outcomes. Do this well and you will lead well.”

“So we need to stop with the models. Stop with the 360-degree assessments… Stop with the one-size-fits-all.”

Buckingham, Marcus, and Ashley Goodall. Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World. Harvard Business Review Press, 2019. Buy from

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