Nine Lies About Work: Book Overview

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Nine Lies About Work" by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is Marcus Buckingham’s and Ashley Goodall’s Nine Lies About Work about? What are the main points you should take away from the book?

In their book Nine Lies About Work, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall expose the flawed workplace norms that are often misconceived as the traits to success. They sum up these norms into nine lies and explained why they’re so damaging to businesses.

Below is a brief overview of the key themes.

Lie #1: Corporate Culture Is Important

In their book Nine Lies About Work, authors Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall argue that an overemphasis on corporate culture can be damaging in two ways. First, perks and policies that highlight culture may entice people to join a company, but they’re not enough to make them stay. That’s because these perks only tend to address employees’ surface-level wants and not their deeper needs. Second, companies may force employees to shed their individuality to conform to and preserve the company culture.

Lie #2: Planning Leads to Success

The second lie that’s pervasive in organizations is that planning leads to success. The authors write that, in a typical company, senior leadership comes up with a strategic plan and then communicates it to their direct reports. The message is then passed down until it reaches your team, which makes its own plans based on the directives from the higher-ups. 

While the authors concede that planning allows senior leaders to gain a better understanding of the challenges the company is facing, plans are largely ineffective because the senior leaders who make them tend to be out of touch with the real world. They aren’t exposed to the daily issues that your team faces, so their plans are based on assumptions and second-hand information about things that have already happened. As a result, their plans quickly become obsolete and irrelevant to the team tasked to implement them.

Lie #3: Dictating Company Goals Stimulates Performance

The third lie has the same fundamental issue as Lie #2: that orders dictated from above are rarely effective. This time, Buckingham and Goodall argue that company-imposed goals—strategic, operational, people-related, and so on—are meaningless, because they don’t reflect people’s day-to-day work.

The writers also say that the reasons behind goal-setting tend to backfire: First, companies set goals to push people to perform, but research suggests that goals diminish performance—for example, top salespeople tend to slack off when they hit their quotas, while low performers may resort to unethical behavior to meet their targets. And second, companies rate employees’ performance based on goal achievement, but the authors argue that this is unfair as some employees’ goals are more challenging than others’.

Lie #4: Performance Appraisal Systems Are Objective

Almost halfway through the Nine Lies About Work summary is the fourth lie, which is that performance ratings are objective. According to the authors, companies use these systems to grade people on specific competencies (such as “execution” and “initiative”), determine the top performers, and reward them accordingly. Companies also use these systems to pinpoint the low performers who will then be put on a performance improvement plan and eventually let go. However, the authors state that these systems are flawed because of the human element: Raters can’t objectively rate other people’s competencies. Even with a numerical rating system, raters base their decisions on subjective rating scales (for example, two managers can have different ideas of what “collaborative” means) and unconscious biases, resulting in inconsistencies across the board.

Lie #5: People Should Work on Their Weaknesses

In the fifth lie, the authors describe how employees are typically evaluated on their core competencies, or specific skills required for the job. Those who are proficient at most or all of the competencies are given opportunities for advancement. Meanwhile, those who demonstrate weakness in some areas are held back from promotion, even if they have specific (though limited) strengths. These employees are then required to work on their weaknesses so that they become more well-rounded and, thus, have a chance to move up the ranks. However, the authors argue that focusing on improving weaknesses in this way erroneously equates excellence with well-roundedness.  

Lie #6: “High-Potential” People Will Perform Better in the Long Run

The authors argue that since performance appraisals are flawed, then the practice of classifying employees as high potential and low potential based on those appraisals is also flawed. To Buckingham and Goodall, “potential” is an abstract concept that means nothing more than the ability to learn and grow, which means that everyone has potential. Furthermore, each individual learns and grows in different areas, at different speeds—nuances that the high potential/low potential labels completely ignore. As a result, companies miss out on the unique strengths and possibilities that the so-called low-potential individuals have to offer.

Lie #7: Corrective Feedback Leads to Better Performance

As Lie #5 reveals, leaders traditionally believe that working on weaknesses leads to excellence. This means that they focus on giving team members corrective feedback to help them improve their performance. However, in this lie, the authors contend that negative, corrective feedback puts people on the defensive by activating their fight-or-flight response, which inhibits learning. While research suggests that negative feedback is 40 times more effective than giving no feedback at all, the authors say that delivering positive attention is much more powerful.

Lie #8: Work-Life Balance Leads to Fulfillment

Another pervasive lie at work is that people should strive to attain work-life balance—to toil enough so that we can have the money to support the people and the activities we love, but not too much that we burn out. Buckingham and Goodall argue that this mindset is flawed because it implies that work drains our energy and is therefore bad, while life outside of work replenishes our energy and is therefore good.

Lie #9: Strong Leaders Follow a Leadership Formula

The last lie in this summary of Nine Lies About Work is that strong leaders possess a common set of attributes, including being inspirational, strategic, and decisive. Employees who’ve shown that they have these attributes and have demonstrated well-roundedness and high potential are typically put on the fast track to leadership roles. However, the authors say that some of the greatest leaders actually lack some of the textbook leadership traits—for example, Apple’s Steve Jobs was driven, innovative, and focused, but he was also known to be impatient, petulant, and controlling. On top of that, they write that no two leaders lead the same way.

Nine Lies About Work: Book Overview

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall's "Nine Lies About Work" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Nine Lies About Work summary :

  • The nine organizational lies and what leaders can do to address them
  • Why free lunches and breakroom pool tables don't matter
  • Why you should stop seeking a work-life balance

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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