“Leadership is a thing.” “People need feedback.” “The best companies cascade goals.” These were termed lies by Marcus Buckingham during his invigorating presentation at this year’s World Business Forum in Sydney and in his latest controversial bestseller “Nine Lies About work”, co-written with Ashley Goodall. Marcus Buckingham is an award-winning author, global speaker and researcher. He is most known for his work in “strengths” and encouraging individuals all over the world to tap into their key strengths and leverage them for a fulfilling life. He voices concern over leadership theory, performance management and candid feedback and worries that by focusing on what’s wrong with ourselves and the workplace we are missing a golden opportunity to focus on what’s right.

Marcus Buckingham speaks at WOBI’s World Business Forum Sydney 2019

Marcus is an impressive speaker and communicator, heartfelt, passionate and rigorously academic.  As an audience member in Marcus’ talk at the World Business Forum Sydney, I was swept away by the stats, the stories and the bleakness of disengagement in the Australian workplace. But I was also struck by Marcus’ impact on those around me.  As he stepped through the “Nine Lies About Work” at times he evoked laughter, especially when he talked about cascading goals hitting staff like toxic rain. It was “he gets us” chuckles from the crowd, but at other times he hit a raw nerve which caused some uncomfortable seat shifting.

Because if you look at the reverse of lies there’s the truth. “Leadership is not a thing.” “People do not need feedback.” “Companies should not cascade goals.” (Confronting thoughts to consider at a leadership conference full of leaders!) But Marcus’ research and passion, virtually irrefutable brought the audience on board and his message was unequivocally received.

“Most of what we know and understand about work is just simply not true,” argued Marcus. “And we are in crisis,” he added, “a crisis of disengagement.”   Marcus has spent the majority of his career collecting data, all things knowable on people at work, who they are, what they do and why they do it. His recent research uncovered a mind-boggling statistic. 75% of people in Australia are actively disengaged at work.  Which means aside from the 15 % who are engaged, for the overwhelming majority of people, work is simply transactional. It involves showing up and getting paid. And globally the results are worse. The Global Study of Engagement, which Marcus’ team conducted by surveying 19,346 full-time and part-time employees across 19 countries, indicated that 84% of workers are just turning up to work instead of “contributing all they could to their organisations.”[1] I was staggered by this statistic. Aren’t we more qualified, educated and skilled than ever?  Aren’t organisations pouring funds and resources into wellbeing and professional development? What is going on here?

Marcus declared to us all that to be fulfilled you need to spend your life building on your strengths. He warned us we all have one super strength and some are lucky to have two, but that’s it, no more. Marcus fears that our culture of developing our weaknesses is doing us a disservice. “Your strengths strengthen you and your weaknesses weaken you,” Marcus said simply. And determining what strengthens or weakens you depends on how you feel about the activity. You may be good at something but if you don’t enjoy it and after engaging in the activity you are weakened, then it’s not your strength.  Which now explains why excel spreadsheets are my kryptonite.

So how do you figure out what that strength is? How does that connect with engagement at work? Fall in love pleaded Marcus with passion. Fall in love with what you do.  And how is that done? Try a love/loathe work audit, he told the increasingly attentive audience. Keep a log of your activities over a week noting which ones you love and loathe.  But for those who are disengaged, Marcus’ team’s research uncovered current approaches to increase engagement are off the mark.  They termed the problematic beliefs as lies.

The nine lies are as follows:

1. People care which company they work for

2. The best plan wins

3. The best companies 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

“People don’t care about which company they work for!” Marcus announced to his surprised audience. I wasn’t sure how well this would be received. “No, they don’t,” he affirmed. They care which company they join and after that, it’s about who they work with and whose team they are on.“The best plan wins?” Lie number 2. “No it doesn’t”, says Marcus, because by the time the plan is put into effect, circumstances have changed and industries could be disrupted. So the best plan doesn’t win.

As he continued through his talk the audience were letting down their guard.  As for the other lies? Well, you need to read the book for the details but one of the most controversial lies Marcus presents to the audience is “people need feedback.”

People need feedback

“People need feedback is a lie”, Marcus enlightened his now perplexed audience. No, no, no people were thinking in their heads, this can’t be right. We thrive on a feedback culture.

Feedback; receiving it, giving it, for some is just part of the job.  It’s expected you can take it and

it’s expected you can give it. There are even courses on it. However, in reality, most feedback is negative. A fact Marcus claims does more harm than good.  “Feedback actively impairs learning,”  explained Marcus which is the opposite of its intended effect.  And what’s more, feedback is arrogant.  You are the only expert of yourself.  Someone else’s opinion of you says more about them than you. And finally spending so much time as leaders on providing feedback is a misuse of energy. You are spending time on those actions and characteristics of your people that are not their area of strength. Instead, you should be focused on how they can strengthen their strengths.  Leaders should be leveraging the strengths of those around them by stopping and acknowledging when an individual is demonstrating their strength. He termed it

a “high priority interrupt” and the aim is to investigate why and how that person is flourishing in that exact moment.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? As human beings we like to be respected as individuals, we like to be praised and for most people, the idea of “feedback” is loaded and judgemental. Think of children and how they thrive with praise, not empty praise, but specific praise.  Their spirits soar.  Reward good behaviour, feed it.

As Marcus closed the conference, the atmosphere was electric. The audience poured into the lobby excited, motivated and ready to put two days of theory into action. On my way home, reflecting on Marcus’ visceral words and calls to action, I opened up my complimentary notepad and drew a rough line down the middle of the page. At the top of one side I wrote “love” and the other “loathe.” I reflected on the week and my tasks ahead and instantly I knew what would come first on my love list. Writing this story.

By Barbara Harvey

Marcus Buckingham with Ingrid Green, Jessica Symes & Barbara Harvey.

[1]ADP Research Institute – The Global Study of Engagement