Friday, July 21, 2023

Book Review: Nine Lies About Work

A few years ago, I read a New York Times article that changed my life. That may sound overly dramatic, but the effects of it show up repeatedly in my blog posts, including My Yearly Reflection and Planning and Writing and Labeling in a Journal. It’s why I knew Cookie Club was so important to me and it’s why I knew I should stop being a manager.

While writing one of those posts, I discovered that the article was based on a book. I was more than a little embarrassed to realize that I wasn’t crediting the ultimate source, and worse, that I hadn’t read that source.

I have finally rectified my mistake by reading the book Nine Lies About Work, and I’m so happy that I have. In this post, I share some of my notes from the book. Nine Lies About Work is nominally aimed at managers, but I think it is also useful for anyone who has a manager. Most importantly, I encourage everyone to read chapter eight about love in work.

Cover image of the book "Nine Lies About Work". The cover has 9 crumpled pieces of paper arranged in a 3x3 grid, followed by the subtitle: "A Freethinking Leader's Guide to the Real World". 

Below the subtitle, is the title: "Nine Lies About Work". Followed by the author's names Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall.


At first glance, this book appears to be a list of disconnected lies, with each chapter covering one lie. A deeper reading reveals that there is much more to this book, with a structure that flows from one chapter to the next. While the first chapter is listed as “LIE #1 People care which company they work for,” it actually sets the foundation for the rest of the book. The chapter introduces the idea that the most important feature of a company is not its culture, goals, or processes, but its teams. The most a CEO can do to build a great company is to build great teams. The book then focuses on what a manager can do to make sure their team is high performing.

Very briefly, high-performing teams are teams that are strong, well-rounded, and composed of unique–spiky, not well rounded–individuals. The manager’s job is not to make each team member uniformly well rounded. Rather, their job is to help bring out the best in each of their people, helping them to become spikier by improving their best abilities. They then need to provide their people with the information needed to make informed decisions (as opposed to top-down plans), the shared company meaning to make sure everyone is pushing in the same direction (as opposed to cascading goals), and the support they deserve.

The book concludes with “LIE #9 Leadership is a thing.” It matches chapter one, serving as a proper conclusion, bringing the book’s many threads back together. Just as the best team members are spiky, the best leaders are spiky individuals who are very good at specific things. How they use their strengths is what makes them great leaders.

Working with Strengths

Building up an employee's best abilities means building up their strengths. However, being good at something is not sufficient for it to be a strength. Instead, a strength is “an activity that makes you feel strong.” You look forward to using your strengths, you have a sense of flow while using them, and you are filled with satisfaction afterwards. You may be tired after using your strengths, but you look forward to doing more. Those are the things you will lean into and work to become great at. As employees lean into their strengths, they will become spikier rather than more well rounded.

Further, strengths play a strong role in employee engagement, which is highly predictive of productivity. When studying engagement, the authors found that agreement with the statement “I have the chance to use my strengths every day at work” was the most important factor for engagement. As such, they want to maximize the time employees are using their strengths, in addition to helping them grow their strengths.

To do this, managers need to know how to help their employees grow their strengths, and how to measure their employees’ progress. This touches on the lies “People need feedback” and “People can reliably rate other people.''

As for rating other people, we are all bad at it. Our ratings say more about ourselves than about the person being evaluated. The only things we can reliably rate are our own experiences. Therefore, the authors encourage asking questions solely about personal experience. Surprisingly, appropriately framed questions allow us to evaluate others. For example: “Do you always go to this team member when you need extraordinary results?” or “Do you choose to work with this team member as much as you possibly can?” are both questions about your experiences, not the team member. They are also questions that lead to constructive and actionable feedback for your team members.

Love in Work

Chapter eight is the chapter that changed my life. I encourage everyone to read it. It is the lie: “Work-life balance matters.'' Work-life balance is based on the idea that work is depleting and (non-work) “life” is restorative. The answer to stress is time off from work, to balance (bad) work with (good) life.

The authors take issue with the dichotomy that work is depleting and life is restorative. Instead, the right work can be invigorating–and sometimes life is draining. They call this “Love in work” and argue that it matters most, not work-life balance. They present evidence that if you can spend at least 20% of your time every day doing what you love, that you will be more engaged, less likely to burn out, and do better work.

“Love in work” differs from “Do what you love.” No one has complete freedom to choose their work. Instead, you have to find the parts of your work that you love, and find ways to do more of that. They encourage taking a piece of paper and splitting it into two columns: “Loved It,” and “Loathed it.” Then, spend a week filling in the table. Whenever you find yourself looking forward to something, enjoying it, and feeling satisfied afterwards–no matter how small–write it down in the “Loved It” column. Similarly, anything you dreaded or found yourself trying to avoid, write down in the “Loathed it” column.

Then figure out how you can do more of the things you loved, and less of the things you loathed. You will be happier and more productive for it.

Community-Building Instead of Managing

Performing the exercise described in chapter eight has let me spend more time in love with my work. It has helped me realize how much I love community-building at work, and how draining I found managing others. I love learning and getting better at things–so much so that reading this book made me (momentarily) want to become a manager again.

I hope you will spend more time in love with your work. If you are a manager, I hope you will also help your people spend more time in love with their work. They will be happier and your team will be more productive.

A special thank you to Heather Beasley Doyle for her feedback on this post. Heather is a gifted writer (on a completely different and higher level than myself) and you should read some of her writing here, here, or here.

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