The Biggest Lies HR Should Stop Believing

Do cats really have nine lives? Well, that’s certainly debatable, but here’s something else that makes use of the number nine: Marcus Buckingham’s latest book. In Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World, the world-famous consultant (and opening keynoter at the HR Tech Conference a few years ago) offers his take on what’s holding back everyone at the workplace.

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The problem, Buckingham and co-author Ashley Goodall write, is that too many leaders (HR and otherwise) have bought into certain notions and stereotypes about what motivates and inspires people. This has led to processes and structures that serve only to reinforce these stereotypes and ultimately cause employees to simply disengage.

So, what are the nine biggest workplace lies that Buckingham is out to slay? Let’s explore a few (Buckingham’s not a bullet-points type of guy; if you want the comprehensive list it’s probably best to get the book).

One of them–5 on the actual list–is that people need feedback. “Feedback,” as in regular and continuous, has become all the rage in certain sections of the HR universe. It’s seen as a much-improved way to coach employees on their performance instead of the dreaded annual review. Many HR tech vendors have jumped on the feedback bandwagon and are offering mobile versions of tools designed to supply employees with regular (constant?) feedback. What employees really need, Buckingham writes, is advice and guidance, not feedback that can often take the form of unwelcome criticism. This advice does not need to be dispensed on a regular basis, he says, but should be offered when needed, include helpful examples and can even come in the form of questions–such as, “When you had a problem like this in the past, what did you do that worked?” What people really need is to excel, Buckingham writes. Feedback that is frequent, candid and critical can actually impede that.

Another lie–this one is #1–is that people care which company they work for. Not true, according to Buckingham. In this age of “best of” and “best places to work” lists, it may be easy to believe that people desperately care about this. Many HR leaders are desperately invested in getting their organizations onto such lists. However, he writes, although people do care which company they join, research shows that the quality of work you’ll get from them once they do join depends very much on the team they’re on, not the company. And the teams that are well led and well managed, not surprisingly, tend to get the best performers.

Then there’s what Buckingham calls the “people have potential” lie, on which high-potential programs are based. Workplace theory holds that some people have high potential (the “hi-po’s”) and others have less (the lo-po’s), he writes. Companies have invested in development programs for hi-po’s as a means of building their pipeline of future leaders and investing little to nothing in the lo-po’s. This amounts to what Buckingham describes as “a bizarre apartheid.” Corporate leaders often say that “our people are our best asset,” he writes. Wouldn’t it follow, then, that they focus on helping all their people–not just some–develop their abilities so they can thrive in whichever job they’re in?

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.