Yesterday, I had the pleasure of hearing Ashley Goodall speak at an event sponsored by PSPS (Philadelphia Society of People and Strategy). He is co-author, with Marcus Buckingham, of Nine Lies About Work: A freethinking leader’s guide to the real world. He came well-prepared with common-sense questions, research-based counterpoints to widespread misconceptions, inspiring examples of successful people out of step with the norm, and a good bit of humor.
The book obviously outlines nine lies about work – practices we put into place because everyone knows them to be right and true.
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure, that just ain’t so.”
~ Attributed, probably and ironically inaccurately, to Mark Twain
While Ashley Goodall spent the better part of his presentation talking about the ninth lie: “leadership is a thing” – I want to talk about several of the other lies that particularly impact those of us who aim to develop people, especially those of us who aim to develop professionals in L&D.
Lie #4. The best people are well rounded
We tend to think that people with the same job title have to have the same skill set and job duties. We want to be able to assign projects by who is available rather than by who is best suited to the need. And so we look for people who can excel in many areas and hold them as the standard rather than work to create a team whose aggregated skill set allows us to achieve our goals. Having well-rounded team members sounds perfectly reasonable on paper, but is actually quite hard to do in real life, especially since we actually want them to be exemplary in many different skills.
Buckingham and Goodall point out that most successful people lack some of the skills that supposedly define success. And our competency models often describe skills that defy succinct definition and measurement. Instead, Buckingham and Goodall say that “excellence in the real world, in every profession, is idiosyncratic” (p 93).
The belief that people should be well-rounded results in the advice that we should spend our limited self-development time in trying to improve in our weaker areas. Instead, we should work to further strengthen those areas in which we have shown skill.
“Growth, it turns out, is actually a question not of figuring out how to gain ability where we lack it but of figuring out how to increase impact where we already have ability.” (p. 91, emphasis mine)
That doesn’t mean, of course, that we don’t have to work on those skill lacks that are potentially derailing. But it does mean that priority should be given to finding and honing our strengths because it is likely in that arena where we can make our greatest contributions.
The truth is that the best people are “spiky” (Buckingham and Goodall’s term) – they have areas that stand out, that are unique, often in ways that can be a bit rough around the edges. But Buckingham and Goodall contend that’s one of the kinds of diversity we need to cultivate in order to achieve high performance.
Lie #5. People need feedback
In his talk, Ashley Goodall pointed out that when we give people feedback, we’re mostly telling them how to get closer to doing things our way. Ouch.
Feedback is something of a holy grail in L&D. How can people learn if we don’t give them feedback, especially when they are doing something wrong?
Again, I think Buckingham and Goodall are highlighting misplaced priorities. Rather than move toward a culture of radical feedback, we need to spend more time simply giving people our attention. Data from Cisco (where Goodall is Senior VP of Leadership and Team Intelligence) shows that giving people positive attention sharply increased how engaged people are in their work (which correlates with high performance).
That doesn’t mean we don’t let folks know when their work is below par. Of course we do. But we should make sure that we are more often articulating where people excel. We should help them to recognize and parse their strengths and do more of that, whatever that is. Positive attention also comes from daily conversation about status project work (what are you working on?), progress (how are things going?), and further needs (what can I do to help you be more successful?).
“The truth, then, is that people need attention – and when you give it to us in a safe and nonjudgmental environment, will come and stay and play and work.” (p. 116)
The other lies in Nine Lies About Work are equally jarring and thought-provoking. For example, people actually can’t reliably rate one another. So what does that mean for performance review and competency assessment? And, actually, everyone has potential. So is it problematic to give special attention to “high potential” employees?
I am purposely limiting myself here, but I recommend the book. And if you have a chance to see either of the authors speak, you’ll come away with a changed perspective, I predict.
I’m still thinking about what these ideas might mean for the work that I do, especially my one-on-one coaching and my work to devise strategies to upskill L&D teams. I applaud the appreciative-inquiry approach here – the idea of recognizing, celebrating, and building on what we do well rather than beating ourselves up about what isn’t ever going to be a strength. There is so much for effective practitioners to know and be able to do, L&D can be a frustrating field until you find your niche and the environment in which you can shine. I suspect a truly tricky area is finding a workable way to allow for specialization rather than staffing up with supposed ambidextrous professionals, especially when we have small teams.
Another theme running through the recommendations in the book is that culture is a team level construct. There is evidence that it’s the manager who sets the tone for the team, not the organization as a monolith. Which means those who lead have real opportunity to help people to thrive. That’s an important aspiration, and the book provides clear advice on building a learning culture even if those words are not in the book’s headlines.
For more, read Nine Lies About Work by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall (2019, One Thing Productions), and follow the ongoing conversation at www.freethinkingleader.org, which hosts discussion guides, videos, and more. I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.