Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Buckingham & Goodall, Nine Lies About Work

Okay, let’s cut to the chase. What are the nine lies about work that Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall identify in their book, subtitled A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World (Harvard Business Review Press, 2019)? They are: (1) people care which company they work for, (2) the best plan wins, (3) the best companies cascade goals, (4) the best people are well-rounded, (5) people need feedback, (6) people can reliably rate other people, (7) people have potential, (8) work-life balance matters most, and (9) leadership is a thing.

On the surface, many of these lies seem like truths. In this brief post I can’t, of course, explain what’s wrong with these statements. That’s what the book is for. But let’s look at a single point and see how the authors expose some of the problems with it. I’ve opted to go with #5: people need feedback.

One of the most extreme examples of a company that seemingly lives and dies by feedback is Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund. At Bridgewater, “employees are expected to rate their peers after calls, meetings, and daily interactions, and all the resultant ratings are analyzed (by the team that created IBM’s Watson, no less), permanently stored, and then displayed on a card that each employee carries with him or her at all times. Bridgewater calls this your ‘baseball card,’ and its intent is to hold you accountable for knowing ‘who you really are,’ and to give everyone else a radically transparent view of what you truly bring to Bridgewater—one of the metrics it displays is your ‘believability score.’” But, despite the millions of data points collected, the authors maintain, “Bridgewater still has no reliable measure of each person’s performance.” Of course, the obvious retort is that Bridgewater has been inordinately successful and that, even though its early turnover rate is high (30% leave in the first 18 months), those who stay must be contributing to the hedge fund’s excellent returns. Still, Bridgewater’s radical transparency is not a model that many firms have rushed to emulate.

The truth, the authors argue, is that people need attention. Even negative feedback is 40 times more effective than ignoring people. “For those employees whose leaders’ attention was focused on fixing their shortcomings, the ratio of engaged to disengaged was two to one.” But “for those employees given mainly positive attention—that is, attention to what they did best, and what was working most powerfully for them—the ratio of engaged to disengaged rose to sixty to one.” Of course, team leaders can’t overlook things their employees do wrong and focus only on the positive, but research indicates a ratio of three to five moments of appreciative feedback to one piece of negative feedback is probably about the right balance.

Nine Lies About Work is a thought-provoking book, well written and well argued. It might just shake up how businesses operate in the future.

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