3 lies about work that have been damaging your career for years

Leadership is a thing. People need feedback. The best plan wins. These are some of the things you may have been hearing at work for years, and they’re also some of the “lies” identified by the authors of “Nine Lies About Work: a Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World,” by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall.

Buckingham, a best-selling author and the head of People and Performance research at the ADP Research Institute, and Goodall, the SVP of Leadership and Team Intelligence at Cisco, dismantle these notions in an evidence-based way over the course of the book and will have you looking at ideas like “people have potential” in a new way.

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Ladders spoke to Buckingham and Goodall about three of our favorite “lies.”

People care which company they work for

People care more about their local work experience, the authors wrote – the teams they work on.

It’s impossible to measure culture. “We were trying to look at the world in an evidence-based way rather than a theoretical way,” says Buckingham. “There are a lot of nice theories out there, but let’s look at the world as it actually is and where the evidence is, and then let’s draw our conclusions on how to work better with one another from there.”

“And one of the theories is that culture matters a great deal and that companies should build different kinds of cultures in order to get the best out of their people because that’s really what people care about.”

“But you look at the evidence and two things strike you,” says Buckingham. “One is that you can’t measure culture. There is no way of measuring what the culture at Chick-fil-A is, versus the culture of Tesla is, versus the culture of Goldman Sachs. There is no way to do that. We can’t see it.”

People care about their localized experiences of work – their teams. “The second thing that we do find when we go into companies and start measuring things, are really specific things, like voluntary turnover, or accidents on the job, or customer satisfaction,” says Buckingham. “We find range. We find a lot of range inside the same company. And along with that, we find a range in attitudes expressed by the employees in the company.”

“So when you put those things together, you go, “Gosh. When people say they care about something at work, at least in terms of how that caring is expressed in actual behavior, then the thing they’re caring about is their local team experience.”

“So that’s kind of the evidence of the world as it is. When you look at measuring things inside the same company, you find variations inside the same company, in which case yes, maybe people care which company they join, but once they’re there, they seem to care much more about their local experience.”

When it comes to working, it’s all about the “local-lived experience.” “What is your local-lived experience at work?” asks Buckingham. “You push on that, and you find a local-lived experience is the actual people who bring actual work into your little world every day. It’s not a theoretical thing written about in Fortune Magazine, it’s an actual thing that happens every day. People come into work, they bring stuff, they keep your confidences or they don’t, they’ve got your back or they don’t, they recognize you or they don’t, they understand what your unique strengths are or they don’t, you trust your team leader or you don’t.

“All those things are super important to your actual lived experience at work, are team experiences,” says Buckingham. “And so all this stuff that we read about company culture is a nice journalistic narrative, but it’s not true. It’s not real in the sense that a team is real.”

Company culture can be too broad to feel if you’re working inside it. “In a way [talking about culture] is like talking about nation-ness,” says Goodall. “It’s like saying there’s a thing called “American-ness” or “British-ness” whereas of course, and maybe it’s more visible if you look at the experience of living in a particular country that you’d read the news media and you realize very quickly that other people in the same country are having very, very different experiences of what that country is like then you are, which is to say that experience is a local thing and it’s true in country as much as it’s true in company.

People have potential

Potential as it’s currently interpreted by companies is elusive, non-evidence based, and leads to many people getting mislabeled as either high-potential or low-potential, write the authors. (Elon Musk is one famous example the authors used as an emp.oyee who was mislabeled as low potential). The myth of “potential,” according to the authors, is so dangerously open to interpretation that it’s bad for careers. Instead, it is better to think of career trajectories in terms of “momentum.”

Companies use the label to maximalize their human capital. “The ‘sin’, I suppose, at the heart of this whole idea of potential, is that companies want to be and believe themselves to be maximization machines, certainly of their physical assets, certainly of their financial assets, and certainly of their human capital,” says Goodall. “And yet it seems a very strange thing to do, and in something applied in the face of all the evidence for a company to say, ‘Well, our people are our most important asset, but hang on a second…Some of them have the potential to grow and some of them don’t. So we’re only really going to invest our attention on maximization attention in a few people.’ And usually, it’s very few. It’s less than half in most cases. It flies in the face of the evidence that every human brain can grow and continues to grow throughout life.

“The other contradiction, by the way, is that we do rate people on [potential] and we are probably as humans unreliable raters of other people. So that is bad data anyway. And then you can push a little bit further and say, ‘Well if [potential] is an inherent and unchanging quality in a human being, why would you re-rate everybody on it once a year? They’ve either got it or they haven’t.’ And as it turns out, the thing that every human being has is the ability to grow. The question is, how and in what direction and how fast?”

Potential is top-down, momentum is collaborative. “We argue in the chapter that the right ingredients for a conversation of these two categories of things,” says Goodall. “The first [about momentum] is, “What is unchanging about you? What energizes you? What are your aspirations? Who are you as a person? What is your mass?” And then secondly, “How fast are you moving through the world? How fast are you acquiring experiences and skills? What’s your current level of performance? What’s your past level of performance?” From those things we can help you understand how fast you’re moving. So if you put those together, who are you at your core and how fast are you moving through the world?

“And the big point is that a conversation about potential finishes up from a team leader to a team member running along the lines of, “Either you have it, in which case everything is happy and good things will shower down upon you, or you haven’t got it, in which case this is an awkward conversation because I’m telling you, you’re all washed up, which is (A), weird, and (B), inhuman in a moral sense, and (C), in a factual sense because all human brains can grow”.

“A conversation about momentum, on the other hand, is a joint exploration,” says Goodall. “It’s what we know about you, is what you know about you… How fast do you want to go? Where do you want to go next? How can we adjust your momentum so that it’s pointed in a slightly different direction or accelerated or slowed down? Those are real conversations in the real world, and the lie of potential is holding us apart from those genuine conversations.”

The idea of potential comes from a misunderstanding of maximization. Goodall says, “I think it comes from a misunderstanding of maximization in many ways. I think companies say, ‘Who should we invest in? We can’t possibly invest in everybody because there are only certain things that we can see from the center and we should cast our seeds on the most fertile soil… ‘

But if you if you say, ‘Well look. All of this stuff lives on teams. We don’t need to decide at an organizational level who merits investment and who doesn’t, and that’s in practice, a harmful thing for us to do. But what we do need to do is help our team leaders have the right sort of conversations with every person on the team so that everybody can explore their path to growth in whatever they want.’

Work-life balance matters most

Work-life balance puts workers in an impossible position, the authors say: that it’s possible to “balance” your life. It also encourages the notion that work equals bad and life equals good when there’s much more give-and-take to it than that. There’s love in work and life, and perhaps another way to sort your life is by maximizing doing things you “love” and minimizing doing things you “loathe.”

We are all inspired differently. “The funny thing about life is that it contains all we need is in it for each of us…and each of us is wired so differently,” says Goodall. “We get a kick out of different things, different situations, different contacts, different people. Some of us like confrontation, some of us hate it. Some of us like empathizing with the emotions of others, others hate it. Some of us like getting down on all fours with our kids and mucking around with them like that, and others are very…that’s not really how we parent.”

It’s not about balance. “Life offers up fuel to each one of us in really different ways… it’s ‘How do you move through life,’” says Goodall. “One of the challenges and balances is it’s all about stasis and stagnation. Balance is stationary. If you ever got that position, you’d want everyone to stop moving. If you ever got your life perfectly balanced, you would want there to be no movement at all in case it tipped over and fell away. So as a metaphor for life, it’s not only impossible to find that balance, but it’s a really bad metaphor because you keep moving through life. And so your challenge is not to find balance. What it means is the real aspiration for everyone is, “How do you move through life in a way that allows you to contribute, but do so in a way that fills you up…it doesn’t drain you and burn you out?”

“…The challenge for us is not to find balance and it isn’t just to figure out the purpose of your life or something, it’s to move through your life in a way that pays really close attention to those particular activities or situations that invigorate you, lift you up, that you lean into, get your blood going; and then leaning away from those that drain you, that bore you, drag you down,” says Goodall.

It’s about love/loathe. “If you can move through life paying attention to those particular situations or activities that we call the “red threads,” says Goodall. “If you can pay attention to your red threads…no one can identify yours but you. Yours are not the same as the 15 other people in your job… yours are really different. In terms of getting the categories right, we’d better move away from work and life…And instead, intentionally move to the different categories of love and loathe.

Work is part of life. Goodall says, “The Mayo Clinic research seems to suggest that even if you get 20% of your life like that, built with red threads, you are meaningfully less likely to burn out than someone who is at 19%, 18%, 17%, 16%. So the important thing in that category…let’s get the categories right. Your life is set up to speak to you in a language that only you understand. So we should be helping you as a child, as a student, as a worker to use life to fill you up. That’s a very interesting proposition and it’s a really meaningful and realistic aspiration, and none of us are talking about it. And instead, we are putting out in front of people this precarious aspiration called, “work/life balance”.

Work is part of life, so setting up work versus life, is a false category. Because work is part of life. Whether you’ve got your community life, you’ve got your family life, you got your work life you got your friend life…you got life. And then within life, you got some things you really loathe…that you lean away from… And then other things seem to draw you in.”

Work isn’t bad, life isn’t always great.
“The damage that this wrong categorization does, is that it tells us that work is bad and life is good,” adds Buckingham. “And if you’re not sure that that’s actually true, then let’s invert it and let’s imagine that we’re saying, ‘You need to achieve work/life balance because life is too toxic and work is so magnificent that you need to be working more’. That’s clearly not what it means. It means exactly the opposite…that life is the little spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of work go down if you like. And what that means is that we’re not having a conversation of where are you on fire at work? Where are you powerful at work? Where are you thriving at work? Where are you growing at work? What’s great about your work? Many people find it. Sadly, many other people don’t. And we need to help people around us in life which includes work, find their red threads because you only have a certain number of years on this planet and we should all live them as fully as we can.

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