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Nine Lies About Work

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure…that just ain’t so.” This quote, which opens the tome Nine Lies About Work by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, frames an important issue—namely: we think that we know a number of things ‘for sure.’ Reality, however, may be otherwise. Nevertheless, we continue to insist that we know things ‘for sure.’ As but one example, this opening quote is usually attributed to Mark Twain; in reality, however, we do not know who coined it. The author is anonymous; yet we continue to see it attributed to Mark Twain…even though we know better. We will return to this last phrase (“even though we know better”) in just a moment.

To provide us with some context, the authors share in their introduction that [they] “began the book with a paradox: Why do so many of the ideas and practices that are held as settled truths at work wind up being so deeply frustrating to, and unpopular with, the very people they are supposed to serve? Why, for example, is it a settled truth that having your goals cascaded down upon you from above is the best way to align and evaluate your work, when those of us in the trenches feel the yearly goal-setting process to be meaningless rigmarole with little connection to our actual work? Why is it a settled truth that you need critical feedback, when, in the real world, most of us lean away from such feedback, and feel more inclined to give it to the other guy than to get it ourselves? Why is it a settled truth that your manager can reliably rate you on your performance, when, on actual teams, none of us has ever met a team leader blessed with perfect objectivity? Why is it a settled truth that all the best leaders possess a defined list of attributes that you should aspire to acquire, when, in our everyday lives, none of us has ever met a leader with all of these attributes? This paradox led to the core idea and audience of the book. The idea is this: the world of work today is overflowing with systems, processes, tools, and assumptions that are deeply flawed and that push directly against our ability to express what is unique about each of us in the work we do every day.” (A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World: Nine Lies About Work . Harvard Business Review Press. 2019. Kindle Edition.) 

To return to the phrase at the end of the first paragraph above, “even though we know better” is a powerful point of inquiry for the reader who engages this book with the fresh eyes it deserves, despite it perhaps making the reader uncomfortable with existing tenets about K-12 international education, in terms of ‘what we know for sure’ about organisational culture in schools. For that is the lens though which I suggest you consider this book.

Permit me to share the authors’ ‘lies about work’ below, with the caveat that I’ve made a change in nomenclature, replacing the word ‘company’ with ‘school.’ 

  1. People care which school they work for

  2. The best plan wins

  3. The best schools 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

  9. Leadership is a thing

Does that list make you uncomfortable? There are some deeply-held convictions here that ‘we know for sure’ in schools. To keep this blog post reasonable in terms of length, I will underscore only two of the nine. (I commend the book to your summer reading list, if you’d like to discover the rest…)

  1. People care which school they work for. What each of us truly cares about might begin, at first, as ‘this school,’ it “quickly morphs into something else rather different” (Nine Lies About Work). If it is true, the authors assert, that “in large part people’s experience at work is driven by the [school] they work for, then when we ask these […] questions to every person in every team at a particular [school], we should get, generally, the same responses. There shouldn’t be variation from team to team, because they day-to-day experience of working at this particular [school] should remain mostly consistent. But that’s not the case—in fact, it’s never the case. The statistical measure of variation is called range, and we’ve found that these scores always have a greater range within a [school] than between schools. Experience varies more within a [school] than between [schools].” For all the effort talking about strategy and plans and priorities and themes [in schools], teams have a widely varying sense of what is expected of them. In fact, it is the local experiences [within a school], such as how we interact with our immediate colleagues or our lunch companions, that matter significantly more than high-level school experiences.

  2. The best plan wins. If you’ve recently been appointed to lead a team in your school, one of the first items you’ll need to sort out is: what is the plan for your team, relative to what the school wishes to accomplish? One thing you’ll realise immediately is that your team is “connected to a whole host of other teams, each with their own version of the plan.” We believe that, if we could just get the plan right, everything will work like magic, and all will be well. Except experiences teaches us otherwise! “The thing we call planning doesn’t tell you where to go; it just helps you understand where are are. Or rather, were. Recently.” […] So, though you are told that the best plan wins, the reality is quite different. Many plans, particularly those created in large organisations, are overly generalised, quickly obsolete, and frustrating to those asked to execute them. It’s far better to coordinate your team’s efforts in real time, relying heavily on the informed, detailed intelligence of each unique team member.” Instead, what we need are ‘intelligence systems,’ not ‘planning systems,’ providing real-time information so that teams can see and react to patterns.

And on it goes. The authors are gifted at engaging us as readers in that which is familiar to us, only to turn around and say, “actually, here is what research shows to be more prevalent.” A series of “a-ha” moments ensue, and give us true pause, as we think about the cultures we call ‘schools.’

The authors say it well, when they write the following:  “As you read, you’ll realise that these Nine Lies have taken hold because each satisfies the organisation’s need for control. Large organisations are complex places, and a strong and understandable instinct of their leaders is to seek simplicity and order—not least because this makes it easier to persuade themselves and their stakeholders that they are moving toward their objectives. But the desire for simplicity easily shades into a desire for conformity, and before long this conformity threatens to extinguish individuality. Before we know it, the particular talents and interests of each person are seen as inconveniences, and the organisation comes to treat its people as essentially interchangeable. This is why you are told that your organisation’s culture is monolithic, that the plan must be adhered to, that work must be aligned through cascaded goals, that humans must be moulded into well-roundedness and given constant feedback until they become so, and that each one of us must rate the others so as to conform most closely to the prescribed models of leadership, performance, and potential.”

For all the talk and intellectual sweet-shops out there that have variations on “why school” and “what is school for,” this book challenges us around those things that we believe to be true…so much so that we would never question them. It is refreshing, I think, to find ourselves on the back foot somewhat, saying “Wait a minute, I thought….”

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