Book Review: Nine Lies About Work

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When Nine Lies About Work recommended to me, and I immediately reserved it from the library. As soon as it came in I put down what I had been reading (The Culture Code) and dove in.

Each chapter deals with one of the lies about work. They are:

  1. People care about 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.

Each of these is a pretty strong claim, in the current world of leadership and engagement and feedback giving. It’s also a strong claim to call these “lies”, which the authors address in the introduction, on page 3:

We could call these things “misconceptions,” or “myths,” or even “misunderstandings,” but because they are pushed at us so hard, almost as if they’re being used to steel us away from the world as it truly is, we’ll call them “lies.”

I’m pretty mixed about this book. It starts and ends strong, but the middle chapters felt a little weak to me. Overall, I do encourage others to read it. What follows are selected quotes and some of my thoughts about the lies presented in the book. I don't have a clear take-away from this book just yet. It’s a short, easy to read book that will take me a lot longer to fully consider and ingest.

People care about which company they work for.

This book is written by people deeply familiar with the Gallop Q12, the twelve questions that have been determined to most accurately identify employee engagement. Indeed, they share that there are really only eight questions that matter most for identify whether an individual will be fully engaged at work.

  1. I am really enthusiastic about the mission of the company.
  2. At work, I clearly understand what is expected of me.
  3. In my team, I am surrounded by people who share my values.
  4. I have the chance to use my strengths every day at work.
  5. My teammates have my back.
  6. I know I will be recognized for excellent work.
  7. I have great confidence in my company’s future.
  8. In my work, I am always challenged to grow.

The authors point out that the odd numbered items are all focused on the shared experience of work, and call these “The Best Of We”. questions. The even numbered items are all focused on the individual and what is unique about them, labeled “The Best Of Me” questions.

“These two categories of experience — We experiences and Me experiences — are the things we need at work in order to thrive. They are specific; they are reliably measured; they are personal; they reveal a local individual experience intertwined with a local collective experience.”

The authors share some really interesting data about how companies across the world and across industries answer these questions; and then dig into how teams within those companies vary against other teams within the same company. Their summation: “… we’ve found that these scores always have a greater range within a company than between companies. Experience varies more within a company than between comapnies.”

Here is a chart of how 5,983 teams within Cisco answered the question, “At work, I clearly understand what is expected of me.”

… these nearly six thousand teams had a widely varying sense of what was expected of them.

And here is a chart of how 1,002 teams at Mission Health answered the question, “I have great confidence in my company’s future.”

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People’s responses to this question vary significantly depending on which team they’re on, within the same company: different team, different level of confidence in the future.

“Instead local experiences — how we interact with our immediate colleagues, our lunching-on-the-patio companions, and our huddling-in-the-corner partners — are significantly more important than company ones. At least, that’s what all this research is telling us.”

Teams simplify: they help us see where to focus and what to do. Culture doesn’t do this, funnily enough, because it’s too abstract. Teams make work real: they ground us in the day-to-day, both in terms of the content of our work and the colleagues with whom we do it. Culture doesn’t.

The authors spend a good bit of time exploring — and celebrating — individuality and the quirks that individuals bring to their teams. “Whereas culture’s focus lens toward conformity to a common core of behaviors, teams focus on the opposite. Teams aren’t about sameness… they’re about unlocking what is unique about each of us, in the service of something shared.”

The Best Plan Wins

The lie about the best plan isn’t terribly surprising. The world changes fast, and the traditional “make a plan” approach generally falls apart. Several interesting examples are given for a reduction in plan and an increase in simply sharing information. The authors suggest that sharing more info to more people in positions to use that info produces better results. The front-line individual contributors have a closer connection to the real goings on in most work places, so relying on executives or managers several layers removed from the actual work results in inefficiencies and wasted effort. “Liberate as much information as you can.” “[W]atch carefully to see which data your people find useful.” “[T]rust your people to make sense of the data.”

The best companies cascade goals.

In the real world, there is work — stuff to get done. In theory world, there are goals. Work is ahead of you; goals are behind you – they’re your rear-view mirror. Work is specific and detailed; goals are abstract. Work changes fast; goals change slowly, or not at all. 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. Work is work; goals aren’t.

We should let our people know what’s going on in the world and which hill we’re trying to take, and then we should trust them to figure out how to make a contribution.

Tl;dr goals are poor motivators. Sharing the why of what needs done, and developing a shared purpose, drives better engagement and produces better output.

The best people are well rounded.

This lie, and this chapter, were especially challenging for me. As a liberal arts major — Philosophy, no less! — being well rounded has always been an important element of my life. I like being relatively competent in a lot of things. As one friend once described it, the pond is very wide, but not that deep.

The authors don’t explicitly discourage pursuing a general well-roundedness in life, but in the context of work they absolutely discourage any pursuit of well-roundedness.

If you want to maximize your successfulness at work, you should do as much as possible of the things at which you are good. You should especially focus on those things at which you’re good and which you enjoy doing! You should play to your strengths.

A strength …. is ‘an activity that makes you feel strong.’ This sort of activity possesses for you certain definable qualities. Before you do it, you find yourself actively looking forward to doing it. While you are doing it, time seems to speed up, one moment blurring into the next. And after you’ve done it, while you may be tired and not quite ready to suit up and tackle it again, you nonetheless feel filled up, proud. It is this combination of three distinct feelings — positive anticipation beforehand, flow during, and fulfillment afterward — that makes a certain activity a strength.

The boils down to question #4 above: “I have the chance to use my strengths every day at work.”

No matter what kind of work your team is doing and no matter which part of the world you’re working in, your team will always be most productive when more team members feel delight and joy in what they do every day.

[C]ompanies are not, in fact, built to help us pinpoint and then contribute our unique strengths. In their systems and processes and technologies, in their rituals and language and philosophies, they evidence exactly the opposite design: to measure us against a standardized model, and then badger us to become as similar to this model as possible.

A fair bit of text is spent exploring the difference between states (something that is variable and subject to flux) and traits (something that is inherent and relatively stable over time).

[W]hat’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.

The following quote really helped me better understand this chapter:

To be clear, we are not, here, making an absolutist argument: we are not saying there there is nothing to be gained from trying to improve our shortcomings, or that we shouldn’t try new things for fear of failure. We are, however, arguing for priority, for focusing first, and predominantly, on our strengths and our successes, because that is where the greatest advantage is to be had.

The book reiterates here and in later chapters that people are “spiky”: they have peaks of skills and valleys of deficiencies; and that embracing this spikiness is better than trying to smooth it out.

People need feedback.

Following right on the lie of well-roundedness, the authors discount the need for feedback. The argument they put forward is that people need attention.

Positive attention … is thirty times more powerful than negative attention in creating high performance on a team. … So while we may occasionally have to help people get better at something that’s holding them back, if paying attention to to what people can’t do is our default setting as team leaders, and if all our efforts are directed at giving and receiving negative feedback more often and more efficiently, then we’re leaving enormous potential on the table. People don’t need feedback. They need attention, and moreover, attention to what they do the best.

But development means nothing more than doing our work a little better each day, so increasing performance and creating growth are the same thing. A focus on strengths increases performance. Therefore, a focus on strengths is what creates growth.

This is a false syllogism: the authors are implying that a focus on strengths is the only thing that creates growth. It might produce the best growth, or it might produce faster growth for your existing strengths; but it is entirely possible to grow in important and useful areas in which you’re not already strong.

From the economic perspective of the employer, sure, focus on improving the performance of your people’s strengths, so long as their deficiencies are not causing problems, I guess. But to imply that that is the the only way to grow, or indeed even the most important kind of growth, is a problematic claim to me.

This chapter dives into a little bit of the brain’s biology, and how we can use what we know of the brain to produce better results. “[P]ositive, future-focused attention givers your brain access to more regions of itself and thus sets you up for greater learning.”

We’re often told that the key to learning is to get out of our comfort zone, but this finding gives the lie to that particular chestnut - take us out of our comfort zones and our brains stop paying attention to anything other than surviving the experience. It’s clear that we learn most in our comfort zone, because that’s our strengths zone, where our neural pathways are most concentrated. It’s where we’re most open to possibility, and it’s where we are most creative and insightful.

I struggled with this when I read it; and I still struggle now upon deeper reflection. Not being in your comfort zone does not mean instant activation of fight/flight. Getting out of comfort zone to learn something new can be done carefully, supportively, and productively. I get the point the authors are making, but feel maybe they went too far in their worst-case-scenario example in order to make their point.

If you want your people to learn more, pay attention to what’s working for them right now, and then build on that.

This chapter then spends a little time exploring examples of leaders who do this, like the football coach who only shows highlight reels of successful plays, to get the players to focus on what they did right in order to reinforce that.

It then wraps up with a weird detour into how to give advice. “…much of what we call ‘advice’ is perhaps better understood as The Recitation of A Set of Tactics That Work For Me and Only Me.” I really dislike this characterization: advice is not instruction!

After setting up this straw man argument, the authors do present some useful tools for advice giving:

  1. Ask the person for three things working right now
  2. Ask “when you had a problem like this in the past, what did you do that worked?”
  3. Ask “what do you already know you need to do? What do you already know works in this situation?”

Don’t ask “why” questions (Why didn’t that work? Why do you think you should do that?). Instead ask “what” questions (What do you actually want to have happen? What are a couple of actions you could take right now?) These yield concrete answers, in which your colleague finds his actual self doing actual things in the near future.

People can reliably rate other people.

This was a pretty self-explanatory chapter. What does it mean to rate someone else on a one to five scale for “performance” or “potential”?

The chapter spends a lot of time setting up how hard all of this is, exploring the “Idiosyncratic Rater Effect” and some other interesting bits; but ultimately I felt this chapter dragged on. The summary is “people can reliably rate their own experience.” So rather than ask me to rate you on abstract qualities, ask me instead how I would respond to situations involving you: “Do you turn to this team member when you want extraordinary results?” “Do you choose to work with this team member as much as you possibly can?” “Would you promote this person today if you could?”

People have potential

This chapter also bothered me a bit. The authors do a reasonable job articulating the fact that “potential” is a vague word, and impossible to measure. They spend a little time setting up their response to this lie: people have momentum. This is the combination of a person’s mass (their traits, the things they have that are resistant to change, loves and aspirations) and their velocity (current and past record of performance, how they did things, how well they did them, and how quickly).

The question isn’t whether you inherently possess a lot of [momentum] or not. Instead, when it comes to momentum, the question is how much of it you have at this very moment, right now. … the speed and trajectory of her momentum at this very moment are a) knowable, b) changeable, and c) within her control. When you talk to her about her momentum, you help her understand where she is at this moment in time, not so that she can be catalogued and categorized and put into one box or another, but so that she can understand what paths are possible next. Her career is moving on a particular trajectory at a particular speed, and she — with your help — can take the measure of her accomplishments, her loves and loathes, her skills and knowledge, and see where can accelerate, or shift the path slightly, or even attempt a great leap.

I don’t have any real qualm with any of that: it makes sense. But it also feels like splitting hairs so that the authors could have another chapter in their book. I can be perfectly happy accepting “potential” as a reasonable linguistic proxy for “momentum” as the authors have described it.

Work-life balance matters most

This also felt like a bit of a stretch to me. Their summary is that “love-in-work” is most important, what the Greeks called eudaemonia.

Because love — specifically, 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.

The authors point out that the people we identify with as “most successful” (for whatever our own personal definitions of that might be) didn’t fall into their success by accident: they worked at. They made it happen.

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. She tweaked and tweaked the role until, in all the most important ways, it came to resemble her — it became an expression of her. You can do the same.

Leadership is a thing

This was a fun chapter, and also a pretty powerful piece of writing for a business book. After much examination, the authors discern that what makes leaders is followers. While a bit pithy, it’s true: the only thing that all leaders have in common is that they have followers.

The authors encourage us instead to look at followers, and ask why we follow.

Each truly effective leader cultivates his or her mastery in a way that communicates to us something certain and vivid. It’s as if we trust leaders only when they’ve proven to us that they’ve opened more doors then we have, seen around more corners than we have, dived deeper than we have, taken themselves more seriously than we have. We trust the seriousness of this. We trust its predictability.

“And here are the truths…

The truth that no two leaders do the same job in the same way.

The truth that as much as we follow spikes, they can also be antagonizing.

The truth that leaders are frustrating — they don’t have all the abilities we’d like them to have.

The truth that following is in part an act of forgiveness — it is to give our attention and efforts to someone despite what we can see of their flaws.

The truth that not everyone should be, or wants to be, a leader — the world needs followers, and great followers at that.

The truth that a person who might be a great leader for me might not be a great leader for you.

The truth that a person who might be a great leader for one team, or team of teams, or company, might not be a great leader for another.

The truth that leaders are not necessarily a force for good in the world — they are simply people with followers. They aren’t saints, and sometimes their having followers leads to hubris and arrogance, or worse.

The truth that leaders are not good or bad — they are just people who have figured out how to be their most defined selves in the world, and who do so in such a way that they inspire genuine confidence in their followers. This isn’t necessarily good or bad. It just is.

The truth that leading isn’t a set of characteristics but a series of experiences seen through the eyes of the followers.

The truth that, despite all this, we reserve a special place in our world for those who make our experience of it better and more helpful.

The truth that, through it all, we follow your spikes.”

“Leading and following are not abstractions. They are human interactions; human relationships. And their currency is the currency of all human relationships — the currency of emotional bonds, of trust, and of love. If you, as a leader, forget these things, and yet master everything that theory world tell you matters, you will find yourself alone. But if you understand who you are, at your core, and hone that understanding into a few special abilities, each of which refracts and magnifies your intent, your essence, and your humanity, then, in the real world, we will see you. And we will follow.”

Nine Truths

  1. People care which team they’re on
    (Because that’s where work actually happens.)
  2. The best intelligence wins
    (Because the world moves too fast for plans.)
  3. The best companies cascade meaning
    (Because people want to know what they all share.)
  4. The best people are spiky
    (Because uniqueness is a feature, not a bug.)
  5. People need attention
    (Because we all want to be seen for who we are at our best.)
  6. People can reliably rate their own experience
    (Because that’s all we have.)
  7. People have momentum
    (Because we all move through the world differently.
  8. Love-in-work matters most
    (Because that’s what work is really for.)
  9. We follow spikes
    (Because spikes bring us certainty.)

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