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Nine Lies About Work

July 22, 2021 by Twan van de Kerkhof

Marcus Buckingham is great in debunking myths about leadership and work. He set out to do so in First, break all the rules, his first book, published in 1999, and continues this approach in his latest, Nine lies about work, which he co-authored with Ashley Goodall, an SVP at Cisco. Buckingham is a researcher at ADP, a motivational speaker and a bestselling author.

Lie #1 is People care which company they work for. They don’t. They might join for the purpose or the reputation of an organization, but they stay (or leave) because they love or hate their manager and fellow team members. “If we put you in a good team at a bad company, you’ll tend to hang around, but if we put you in a bad team at a good company, you won’t be there for long.” Company culture is “a useful fiction”, but team experience is what counts. Therefore, “when a CEO sets out to build a great company, all she can do – and it’s a lot – is strive to build more and more teams like her company’s best teams.”

Lie #2 is The best plan wins. Plans are outdated as soon as they are made. “The thing we call planning doesn’t tell you where to go; it just helps you understand where you are. Or rather, were. Recently.” Leaders should provide the best intelligence to their teams, give them decision-making power and get out of the way.

Lie #3 is The best companies cascade goals. Goals are overrated. “In the real world, there is work – stuff that you have to get done. In theory world, there are goals (…) Our people don’t need to be told what to do, they want to be told why.”

Lie #4 is The best people are well-rounded. Not true. “Excellence is idiosyncratic. Each high performer is unique and distinct, and excels precisely because that person has understood his or her uniqueness and cultivated it intelligently.” The best people are weird and spiky in their own way.

In this lie, the authors explain convincingly why it is impossible to measure competencies or performance and deplore the “soul-crushing” nonsense of competency models. “We have no way of knowing what drives performance, because we have no reliable way of measuring performance.” They also write that what you are good at makes you happy and vice versa. “A strength is an activity that makes you feel strong. It is a combination of three distinct feelings – positive anticipation beforehand, flow during, and fulfillment afterward. A strength is far more appetite than ability. (…) People who contribute most are those who find what we love about what we do, and cultivate this love with intelligence and discipline.” I don’t agree. I love to sing for example; I enjoy the atmosphere before I am going to sing, I love doing it, and I feel great afterwards. But I can assure you that I am not a good singer.

Lie #6 is People can reliably rate other people. (I switch the order of #5 and #6 because it makes more sense.) “People are horribly unreliable raters of other people. When we ask someone to rate someone else, their responses tell us more about the person doing the rating than the person being rated. (…) The idiosyncrasy of the rating pattern stems from the uniqueness of the rater, and doesn’t appear to have much of anything to do with the person being rated. In fact, it’s pretty much as though that person isn’t there at all.” As a consequence, data from ratings cannot be trusted, regardless of how many you have. “The contamination cannot be removed by adding more contaminated data.” The only thing that people can reliably rate is their own experience.

Lie #5 is People need feedback. “We have poor theories of others”, so it is nearly impossible to give feedback that makes sense. We make stories about who people are based on isolated elements of their behavior, which often involves fundamental attribution errors. As a consequence of this error, leaders should help find their team members their own unique way to perform better and not guide them onto the path that they have taken themselves.

So people don’t need feedback, but they do need attention. When you give it to them in a safe and nonjudgmental environment, they “will come and stay and play and work”. They especially appreciate attention for what they do the best. “Get into the conscious habit of looking for what’s going well for each of your team members.”

Lie #7 is People have potential. The authors loathe the “careless and unreliable labeling of some folks as hi-po’s and others as lo-po’s”and consider it “deeply immoral”. “This lie is a product of organizations’ desire for control, and their impatience with individual differences. (…) We have sacrificed common sense and humanity at the altar of corporate uniformity.”

Lie #8 is Work-life balance matters most. It does not. Work is about “finding love in what you do, rather than simply doing what you love. Even the most hard-nosed, performance-oriented organizations desparately want you to find great love in what you do. When you’re in love, you are simply magnificent.” I find this too romantic. As I wrote earlier: you are not always good in what you love, and even the most satisfying work contains chores that have to be done but are hard to be loved.

Lie #9 is Leadership is a thing. “Leading is the same as all other fields of human endeavor – high performance is idosyncratic, and the higher the level of performance the greater the level of idiosyncracy. (…) The best people have honed one or two distinctive abilities that they use to make their mark on the world. (…) The lesson from the real world is not that there is any particular collection of qualities that every leader has, but rather that every leader we can think of has obvious shortcomings – that leaders aren’t perfect people, not by a long way. (…) You cannot define good leadership. In the real world, you encounter exception upon exception upon exception. The only determinant of whether anyone is leading is whether anyone else is following. (…) We follow mastery. It doesn’t much matter how this mastery manifests itself, as long as we, the followers, find it relevant. ”


Marcus Buckingham, Ashley Goodall. Nine lies about work. A freethinking leader’s guide to the real world.  Harvard Business Review Press, 2019