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  • Rich Haglund

What lies do you tell yourself about work?

Updated: Apr 7

During the holiday break, I read about lies. Lies we tell ourselves at work.


Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall wrote Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader's Guide to the Real World.

Buckingham and Goodall spent many years studying and implementing research about personality, performance, and engagement for Gallup, Deloitte, and Cisco. The authors include a lengthy bibliography and notes, but make the content digestible by walking through each of the nine "lies" - principles that underlie much of the way we organize and measure the effectiveness of individuals, teams, and leaders in organizations. They spell out the thinking behind each "lie," then dismantle, with data and logic, each of these principles. Thankfully, they also provide alternative approaches that can make our work and our relationships at work more productive and satisfying.


Below, I'll list the nine "lies" and share some of highlights related to each.

I encourage you to read the entire book, reflect on your experience with each principle, and decide what you can change to make your workplace more enjoyable and successful.


1. People care about which company they work for.

Actually, Buckingham and Goodall explain, people care about teams. Teams are "about unlocking what is unique about each of us, in the service of something shared. A team at its finest, insists on the unique contribution of each of its members . . ."

In light of that, team leaders should work to ensure that each team member can answer yes when asked these questions:

  • I am really enthusiastic about the mission of my company.

  • At work, I clearly understand what is expected of me.

  • In my team, I am surrounded by people who share my values.

  • I have the chance to use my strengths every day at work.

  • My teammates have my back.

  • I know I will be recognized for excellent work.

  • I have great confidence in my company's future.

  • At work, I am always challenged to grow.

And, the next time you're considering joining a new company, don't ask about culture, ask if they have great teams.

2. The best plan wins.

In fact, the team that intelligently shares information broadly and quickly, enabling team members to decide what to do with that information, will be most effective. So, the authors propose, "liberate as much information as you possibly can." Let your team show you what information is most useful, and trust them to make sense of the information.

3. The best companies cascade goals.

The best leaders realize that their people are wise, that they do not need to be coerced into alignment through yearly goal setting. . . . People don't need to be told what to do; they want to be told why.

"We cloister information in our planning systems, and we cascade directives in our goal-setting systems. Instead, we should unlock information through intelligence systems, and cascade meaning through our expressed values, rituals, and stories. We should let our people know what's going on in the world, and which hill we're trying to take, then we should trust them to figure out how to make a contribution. They will invariably make a better and more authentic decisions than those derive from any planning system that cascades goals from on high."

4. The best people are well-rounded.


"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 performer is unique and distinct and excels precisely because that person has understood his or her uniqueness and cultivated it intelligently.

"Growth, it turns out, is actually a question not of figuring out how to gain ability where we lack it but figuring out how to increase impact where we already have ability. And because our abilities are diverse, when you look at a great performance you see not diversity minimized but rather diversity magnified; not sameness but uniqueness."

5. People need feedback.


"Excellence is not the opposite of failure: we can never create excellent performances by only fixing poor ones. . . . To conjure excellence from your team requires a different focus for your attention. If you see somebody doing something that really works, stopping them and replaying it to them is not only a high priority interrupt, it is arguably your highest priority interrupt. Get into this habit and you’ll be far more likely to lead a high-performing team."

6. People can reliably rate other people


"When it comes to measurement, the pursuit of objectivity is the bug, and reliable subjectivity the feature. . . . The key to understanding performance is to stop thinking of it as a broad abstraction, and instead start finding elements of it that we can measure reliably and act on usefully.


"If you're after good data, be on the lookout for questions that ask only that you rate your own experience, or intended actions." So, e.g., instead of asking a direct report if her manager knows the direct reports strengths, ask the direct report whether she feels that her job fits her abilities and whether she feels like she gets to use her strengths every day."

Instead of asking a manager if the direct report's performance is poor, average, or above average, ask the manager, "If you could, would you promote that direct report today?" Or, "Do you turn to this team member when you want extraordinary results?"

7. People have potential.


"We know a) that the ability to learn exists in us all, b) that it shows up differently in each of us, and c) that while we can all get better at anything, none of us will ever be able to rewire our brains to excel at everything. More simply, we can all get better, and we will all get better at different things, in different ways, and at different speeds.

So there is no such thing as having potential. Or rather, there is, but it doesn't mean anything.

"It's far better to invest in helping our team leaders do what we need them to, by 1) getting rid of ratings of potential, (2)teaching team leaders what we know about human growth, and 3) prompting them to discuss careers with their people in terms of momentum-in terms of who each team member is, and in terms of how fast each is moving through the world. This is harder, of course, than buying the latest piece of enterprise software and then imploring our people to use it, but it's the right thing to do."

8. Work life balance matters most.


"Neither you nor your life are in balance, nor will you ever be. Instead you are unique creature who takes inputs from the world, metabolizes them in someway, produces something useful, and does so in such a way that you can keep doing it. At least, you are when you're healthy, when you're at your best, when you are contributing all of your talents allow you to. When you're flourishing you are acting on the world and it on you."

Your world offers up to you raw material--activities, situations, outcomes-in all parts of your life, and some of this raw material invigorate you and gives you energy. You are at your healthiest when you find this particular kind of raw material, draw it in, allow it to feed you, and use it to contribute something-and when that contribution actually seems to leave you with more energy, not less.

9. Leadership is a thing.


"Leadership is not about being the most well-rounded of well-rounded people. We see [the best leaders] trying to make the best use of what they already have, with the result that whenever we look closely, we see them going about the task of leading in very different ways. In this way, 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."

A leader is someone who has followers, plain and simple The only determinant of whether anyone is leading is whether anyone else is following.

"So the question we should really be asking ourselves is this one: why do we follow? What is it that makes us work hard late into the night-to go beyond what's expected of us? What makes us move someone to the front of our queue? What makes us voluntarily place some part of our destiny in the hands of another human being? What makes us give our breath to another?"


"We can hold all good leaders accountable for creating these same feelings of followership in their teams. . . . We need not dictate how each leader should behave, but we can define what all good leaders must create in their followers. And since we measure this by asking the followers to rate their own experiences, rather than rating the leader on a long list of abstract leader qualities, this measure of leader effectiveness is reliable."

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.

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