9 Lies About Work has two authors and was only published last year (2019). The first thing I think of is, as far as I can tell the authors are British but it seems the book was directed at an American audience. I understand this given the market is larger, but it does grate after a while – “He lives in the United Kingdom, where anaesthesiologists are called anaesthetists.”

Nine Lies About Work

I won’t go through all the lies since you can read them yourself but I can give a high level view of the ones that I found to be the most useful. 

The first ‘lie’ is that people care about which companies they work for – which you would think would be particularly pertinent for some of the younger generations of talent in the workplace – those looking for meaning and purpose in their work. While the authors don’t dispute the search for a cause or meaning, they say that instead people care much more about the teams they work with, that effectively, people join for a cause but stay for the team, perhaps. 

“When we push on the data, and examine closely its patterns and variations, we arrive at this conclusion: while people might care which company they work for. The truth is that, once there, people care which team they’re on” 

The book also mentions the drivers, or questions, that appear in ‘Strengths surveys’ conducted by the Gallup organisation such as, ‘In my team, I am surrounded by people who share my values’ and ‘At work, I clearly understand what is expected of me’ – which are a good set of questions that in my experience, companies use to measure overall employee engagement at work. The authors talk about these factors and how the results of a survey featuring these drivers can be used to explain or maybe even predict certain sentiment or behaviour. I’ve also seen it in action in my working life – and it is helpful to be able to pinpoint drivers or detractors of engagement but it’s much harder to do something about it. In the same vein, they also mention the importance of team leads – people that trust their team leader were more likely to be fully engaged at work. 

Another lie is that ‘the best people are well-rounded’ – this chapter deals with the idea that people should not necessarily try to become multi disciplinary and that competency models are a waste of time. This is similar to what companies who endorse the Gallup methodology promoting the idea that instead of trying to work on your ‘development areas’ or ‘weak points’ you should just try really hard to improve on your strengths and areas in which you excel – using Lionel Messi’s magic left foot as an example. I don’t necessarily agree with this in all contexts. Whilst there are people that excel at one particular subjects, most people benefit from being multi-disciplined and certainly having an awareness of areas in which they struggle. Particularly if you look at soft skills such as negotiation and empathy or emotional intelligence. Many things do take a lot of experience and practice, and people are perfectly capable of developing these skills over time. 

There are a few other things I don’t agree with. One is the book’s mention of the Hawthorne effect when discussing lie that ‘people need feedback’. Instead they purport that people need attention and use the famous 1920s psychological study to prove a point. Describing the study they talk about how when participants are being watching productivity goes up regardless of the changing conditions (lights on it goes up, and then further up with lights off) and talk about how this is due to the fact they enjoyed the attention: 

“Each of these interventions demonstrated to the workers that management was interested in them and their experience and they liked that’

However most people cite the Hawthorne affect when they talk about the fact that someone is being watched. So from what I’ve read in the past it’s not an enjoyment factor, more of the idea of the workers being on their best behaviour. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, and that really the crux of it is that it is that attention is what is important – even if not everyone enjoys it. 

The book also references other popular books  such as Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus and Jim Collins’ Good to Great, as well as the concept of ‘flow’ although they don’t mention Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi by name – this can be useful as it helps you understand how other theories fit with what they are proposing. 

The book is a very easy read, but it didn’t blow me away. Some parts seemed a little sensationalist (‘the idea that leadership is a thing is a lie’) Aside from a fairly alarming story about an anaesthetist (or anaesthesiologist?), many of the ideas here I have come across previously in various other forms. And whilst I agree with a lot of them, I think the book lacks a little on ways in which to enact the alternatives in some places… The lies they’re talking about are ingrained in working culture. I don’t see the theories changing the status quo within the workplace any time soon.