Book Review: Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World

The nine lies about work that will help you become a better leader

Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall* are co-authors of the book, Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World. In it, they discuss reasons why the ‘established rules’ of business can actually hamper growth and cause businesses to fail.

*Marcus was a senior researcher at Gallup Organisation for nearly twenty years and is currently an advisor to the ADP Research Institute. Ashely is the Senior Vice President of Leadership and Team Intelligence at Cisco.

At this year’s EntreLeadership event, I attended Marcus Buckingham’s presentation on the disconnection between how we are told to work, versus how we actually work, in order to produce the best results for our companies. He spoke of nine commonly held misconceptions about business culture and leadership. I found his presentation to be thought-provoking and extremely relevant for mid-market business leaders. His insights question standard business practices employed in most New Zealand businesses and provide an alternative view to help you become a better leader and get the most out of your employees. I have summarised his presentation on the nine lies for you below and outlined key learnings to apply to your business.


Lie #1: People care which company they work for

Employees are attracted to a company because of the culture and values that the company promotes, but, it is the day to day experience of working at the company that makes them stay. In other words, a company may offer all the perks in the world, but if the reality of working there does not meet the employee’s expectations, they will leave. Buckingham also argues that within a company there may in fact be multiple cultures operating at once, and it is not possible to enforce a once-size-fits-all style of cultural management within a company.

Truth: People care which team they’re on.

Key learning: culture is vitally important to a business, but you must also invest in building great teams within your business. Spend time understanding your best performing teams and make sure you are clear on how to support each team to improve their performance. It’s ok for individual teams to have their own micro-cultures – as long as they sit within the core values of the business.


Lie #2: The best plan wins

A plan is useful for scoping and identifying a problem, but it cannot adapt fast enough to the current speed of changing markets. Therefore, you need to have more than a plan if you are to succeed in business. Plans are only one of the tools that a business manager needs to focus on. As Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

Truth: The best intelligence wins (because the world moves too fast for plans).

Key learning: Have a plan, but also have the intelligence and agility to move with trends, opportunities and threats when you need to. You also need to be great at execution – to turn your plan into a reality.


Lie #3: The best companies cascade goals

Yet in reality, according to Buckingham, only 5% of employees check in with their assigned goals regularly. They also spend a lot of time stressing about whether they are achieving goals set by someone else rather than focusing on the task at hand. As Buckingham says” Goals are useful when they enable us to manifest something inside of ourselves that we deem valuable. The only way for them to be valuable is if we set them for ourselves, voluntarily.”

 Truth: The best companies cascade meaning.

Key learning: Work together with your employees to set their goals and targets. Allow some ownership of the target. Make sure everyone understands the long-term goal – the vision. That will allow individual employees to see and move to opportunities when they arise.


Lie #4: The best people are well-rounded

At school, children are graded so that parents and teachers can see where more effort needs to be applied in order for a child to be good in all subjects. In the adult world, however, this is rarely required as most employees specialise in one particular area of work. Yet, employees are consistently expected in performance reviews to be well-rounded in order to receive positive feedback/rewards. Buckingham uses an example of Warren Buffet and Richard Branson, two well-known business people, who each possess qualities the other doesn’t. Both are successful businesspeople yet neither could be considered well-rounded because of their individualised strengths.

Truth: The best people are unique.

Key learning: I see this all the time in the mid-market. Very few people are good at everything. Play to your employee’s strengths and employ specialists to fill the gaps.


Lie #5: People need feedback

Feedback can actually impair performance and the Buckingham proposes three different reasons why this is so:

  1. No one can be the source of truth about another person because their own perceptions on reality may be different to others.
  2. People are not empty vessels that require filling.
  3. Excellence cannot be written in advance as projects may take a different tangent as they progress. The expectation of excelling at something may also impair learning. No one is perfect.

Feedback (constructive or otherwise) puts the brain into flight-or-fight mode and presumes that excellence is the same for everyone. The lesson from the real world is that excellence is different for each of us. Buckingham says “No two humans, doing the same job really well in the same field, achieve excellence in the same way. Instead, they achieve excellence by figuring out their unique advantages and how to use those to the greatest extent.”

Truth: People need attention.

Key learning: Building on your employee’s unique strengths and, without losing sight of the end-goal, open your mind to the fact that there are different paths to excellence.


Lie #6. People can reliably rate other people

Because of our individual frames of reference, i.e. different experiences and perspectives, it is extremely difficult for someone to consistently rate another person’s performance. Buckingham argues that ratings are not a reflection on the individual, but are instead, a reflection of the person who created the rating, and therefore cannot be applied to measure an individual’s performance accurately.

Truth: People can reliably rate their own experience.

Key learning: performance of your employees should be measured in different ways and always ensure you allow for self-assessment.


Lie #7. People have potential

People experience and possess an ability to learn things, but no one has actually been able to measure a person’s potential. Marcus argues that you cannot actually know if a person has the potential to do well in a job before they have had experience in it. He says that “If all humans have the ability to learn and grow (and they do), then potential is nothing more than just ‘human-ness.’ And to say that some employees are “more human” than others is unhelpful and immoral.”

Truth: People have momentum.

Key learning: Many things contribute to employee success. Set up your culture and your teams to succeed rather than creating expectations based on potential.


Lie #8. Work/life balance matters most

Why does there have to be a balance between work and life? This implies that your work is somehow separate to your life instead of part of it. The Buckingham argues that we should be focusing instead on leading as healthy a life as possible which incorporates all facets of our lives.

Truth: Work and life are intertwined.

Key learning: work life boundaries are diminishing and it’s important to understand your workplace in the context of contributing to the overall health and happiness of a person’s life. Happy and healthy employees are always more productive.


Lie #9. Leadership is a thing

There can be no single definition of what makes a good leader, as different situations call for different styles of leadership and not every leader possesses the same qualities.

Truth:  We follow different leaders for different reasons.

 Key learning: Lead in your own unique way, focus on your strengths and surround yourself with experts to help you with your weaknesses.


Everyone is unique and it is important to recognise your employees as individuals. The learnings from Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall will help you create better cultures and more engaged and productive teams.

I recommend reading Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World (you can purchase a copy here) and give me a call to arrange a time to discuss how it can be applied to your business.

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