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

By Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall

Harvard Business Review Press, April 2, 2019, 256 pages, Hardcover: $30

Reviewed by Chris Wendel

In a Nutshell: People care which company they work for. The best people are well-rounded. Work-life balance matters most. These might seem like solid theories for a workplace. “Nine Lies About Work” calls out these old standards (and several others) as lies that need to be replaced by more rational approaches.

Who’s it for? Originally intended for first time managers, “Nine Lies About Work” is relevant for anyone working in a medium to large organization.

Author’s Quote: “The world of work today is overflowing with systems, processes, tools and assumptions that are deeply flawed and push directly against our ability to express what is unique about each of us in the work we do each day.”

Think about the ways your view of a work environment was formed. It likely came from the classes you took, managers or companies you worked for, or business-related articles and books. Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, authors of “Nine Lies About Work,” found in their research and experience that many of the workplace beliefs remain in place for the sake of company control at the expense of employee fulfillment. Over time these myths or lies grew in acceptance to the point where they become standard practice. “Nine Lies About Work” dismantles these well-ingrained practices and explains why each is essentially bunk.

Buckingham is well known for research and writing in the area of employee engagement and a key player in the development of the Gallup Inc. “StrengthsFinder” personal assessment franchise. Goodall has extensive experience as an executive, leadership expert, and author. Together they arrange the book’s chapters by explaining the shortcomings of one work myth after another. In an early chapter, “People care what company they work for,” the authors provide evidence that employees care more about ground level things like their work team and manager than the larger company itself. When a company tries to create their “company culture” it can be a fool’s errand. The idea of culture is tied closer to conformity than helping employees with diverse talents form high-performing teams who simply want to get good work done.

In the chapter “The best plan wins,” Buckingham and Goodall explain how strategic planning tells more of where an organization is presently, not where it needs to position itself going forward. Strategic plans traditionally originate from upper management as broader strategies that ignore people in the trenches, who know most how work gets done. By the time the plan percolates down through the company it’s been maligned enough to render it useless. It’s better to simply focus on building teams of intelligent people who can adjust to a rapidly-changing world than a slow-moving planning process.

The final chapter, “Leadership is a thing,” explains how the power of leadership is vastly misunderstood. All leaders have weaknesses that make them fallible but they are also reliant on the strengths of others. What good leaders do is accentuate their strengths, or “spikes” while creating a detailed picture of what “hill to climb” that the rest of the team members can rally around. At the same time good leaders look for exceptional skills in the people they oversee, challenging their team members to consistently improve (which results in higher employee satisfaction).

Other myths the book dispels include: “The best people are well-rounded,” “People need feedback,” “The best companies cascade goals,” “People can reliably rate other people,” “People have potential,” and “Work-life balance matters most.”
“Nine Lies About Work” isn’t just a critique of our work culture, it also serves as a guide for managers looking to retain employees and build efficient teams. Other readers will recognize how they can grow their skills, find their roles, and enjoy their work.

Chris Wendel is a Business Advisor with Northern Initiatives, a Community Development Financial institution based (CDFI) based in Marquette, Mich. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org.