In Nine Lies About Work, authors Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall examine what we might consider "common theories" about aspects of contemporary organizational life—and they debunk those theories. The book's so-called "lies" are, therefore, not really lies but rather common beliefs about work that simply aren't accurate in actual working environments today.
In this review, I'll outline all nine of those misconceptions and explain what the authors believe is really true in the case of each one. But then I'll focus more on explaining the misconceptions that are especially relevant to open organizations.
Buckingham and Goodall address the following nine "lies" about work.
Lie #1—People care about which company they work for. The authors believe that people really care about which team they're directly working on. That is where we find engagement.
Lie #2—The best plan wins. The authors believe that the best front-line intelligence and feedback wins. In this rapidly changing world, plans only tell you where you are now and where you may be in the very near future (that is, in a few weeks or months).
Lie #3—The best companies cascade goals. The authors believe that the best companies disseminate downward meaning (that is, public purpose) to their staff.
Lie #4—The best people are well-rounded. The authors believe that the best people are good only at specific tasks (and not necessarily other tasks).
Lie #5—People need feedback. The authors believe that people need nonjudgmental, uncritical attention, and to be recognized; they don't need criticism.
Lie #6—People can reliably rate other people. The authors believe that people can reliably rate their own experience and evaluate their own performance often better than others can.
Lie #7—People have potential. The authors believe that every person possesses individual needs and individual feelings of forward momentum and progress. Therefore, their potential cannot be determined.
Lie #8—Work-life balance matters most. The authors believe that love-in-work matters most. Companies should promote each individual finding the love of what they do at work, then expand on that love. Companies should promote having fun at work, but they rarely do.
Lie #9—Leadership is a thing. The authors believe that we each follow people with a vision in which we believe. To say a person is "a good leader" is, therefore, only situational according to individual followers. No universal criteria, rule, or model for effective leadership exists.
Teams over companies
Now let's take a hard look at Lie #1. The authors believe that someone seeking a job will care about the quality of a company, their status inside that company, and their pay, but as soon as work begins, team engagement becomes far more important to them. That's because teams focus on what we do on a daily basis. Those teams might even be unofficial groups inside an organization—"internal communities," we might call them. Buckingham and Goodall provide eight characteristics of great teams, and these characteristics would ring equally true in open organization communities. The authors present them separated into two categories—"We"-related and "Me"-related):
- The members are enthusiastic about the team mission ("We").
- Each is surrounded by people who share the same values ("We").
- Their teammates will stand behind them when needed ("We")
- The members feel confident regarding the future of the company ("We").
- Each member understands what is expected ("Me").
- Everyone feels they have a chance to use their particular strengths ("Me"). According to a 2018 study from ADP Research Institute, cited in the book's appendix, if we can use our strengths that bring us joy and energizes us 20% of the time at work, total work engagement skyrockets.
- All members can be recognized for excellent work ("Me").
- The members are challenged to grow ("Me").
All these characteristics describe a healthy culture in an open organization community.
According to the authors, a company should explore what informal, unofficial teams it has and learn what they're involved in. Usually, they say, the average person is on five teams, each with different purposes. Ask people if they have these types of teams (or a single mentor) with whom they can consult inside the company. Larger, more formal groups are less important.
More important, however, are lunch meetings between informal team members or chats in corners discussing how they can help each other. When I was providing sales seminars, for example, I would walk around the company cafeteria and have these discussions with global sales departments. By doing this, I developed strong communities over a 20-year period. The quality and quantities of these teams are directly connected to employee engagement and are extremely important to the success of a company, according to the authors. An organizational leader's primary job is to create an environment where these teams can grow and thrive.
Next, let's turn to Lie #2: the best plan wins. Buckingham and Goodall believe the best front-line intelligence wins. Open organizations rely a great deal on bottom-up management techniques, which fits nicely into what the authors are saying here. All the action is on the front-line, and real-time reporting to management on situational developments is extremely important, according to the authors. Conditions are changing so fast that by the time some plans are introduced, they are already out-of-date. That is why open organizations strongly believe in cultivating ground-level decision-making practices. People closest to the issues know what's happening.
Regarding open organization principles, we might note the emphasis on getting front-line information in real-time and broadly distributing it as much as possible (inclusivity, transparency, broader community), as well as encouraging and reporting front-line suggestions (collaboration, adaptability). Communication is two-way. To share information efficiently and understand when it's needed, Buckingham and Goodall believe that many small, short, frequent meetings are always more productive than large, long, infrequent ones.
Next, let's examine Lie #5: People need feedback. The authors do recognize people's need for nonjudgmental, uncritical attention, and their desire to be recognized. A leader's level of uncritical attention is directly connected to the level of staff engagement. Just asking, "How are you doing in your work?" and "Well, how can I help?" is all that is needed.
The authors believe that the worst managers are those that ignore people. Average managers don't ignore people, but they give negative feedback, which weakens their teams' feelings of engagement. The best managers, team leaders, or community leaders don't ignore and don't judge. At least weekly, they simply ask questions and provide help if needed. A high degree of managerial attention directly improves front-line engagement. The authors believe that it makes members feel connected, supported, and understood.
Buckingham and Goodall believe that looking at a staff's negative qualities is a natural tendency. Therefore, leaders and managers must make strong efforts to avoid doing so. This effort is worth it, the authors argue, as it results in greater performance, engagement, and growth. For example, when I was giving sales manager training, I frequently needed to address the situation of handling sales staff coming to the manager to help them with a customer problem. I recommended that the manager just ask the sales staff a simple question: "What did you do and say when you met the customer, and what would you do differently if you could visit the customer all over again?" This forced salespeople to come up with their own advice.
Nine Lies about Work has much to teach anyone interested in open organizations. Buckingham is a global researcher in human strengths development and performance; Goodall is a senior VP in leadership and team intelligence at Cisco. It is amazing how closely their beliefs align with open organization principles. The ways they articulate those beliefs in this book are enlightening.
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