The world of work is inundated with productivity systems, formulas, tools, mantras and beliefs that, instead of helping us, act as a sort of opposing force, eliminating any trace of individuality, limiting us from expressing what makes us unique.
These systems and beliefs are now so deeply rooted in our world that we accept them as fundamental elements of any process of recruitment, evaluation, training, remuneration, and so on.
If we pause to analyze them carefully, however, we will see that they are often based on incorrect conceptions, myths and misunderstandings. For convenience, we will call them “lies”.
Lie 1: Corporate culture determines our experience in the company
How can you describe what it means to work for a certain company?
Many companies love to advertise their corporate “culture”, a series of values that should be shared by all those who work there, and that should define what it means to work for that company. This is often a central topic in research and interviews, and serves to identify and attract the best candidates for a given position.
Once the recruitment process is over, however, the experience of each worker is configured in an extremely different way. How is it possible that, within a company with a strong culture, people who work in different departments and in different teams live such different experiences? Not only that, but also the experience of the individual worker varies over time, based on the project on which he works.
This is because corporate culture actually has little to do with the daily life of the worker. What matters are the little things that we face in everyday life: from the boss’s favoritism to small disagreements with colleagues, from internal procedures for the resolution of conflicts to transparency towards employees. These are the things that affect workers’ experience, and that make their stay in the company more or less pleasant for those who work there.
When it comes to deciding whether to stay in the company or to leave, the factor that most influences our perception of the situation we are experiencing is therefore not the corporate culture, but the team of people we work with. They are the colleagues we work with every day, with whom we take breaks, with whom we share moments of victory but also defeats.
Lie 2: The best plan wins
What does it mean to have a “plan”?
There is something reassuring about having a detailed plan, a studied and approved program that tells us exactly what our tasks are and what the steps are to follow. In the world of work, wherever we look, we find ourselves surrounded by floors. Every single action has its place within the big picture.
For most companies, at least once a year, executives find themselves discussing corporate strategy, determining which tasks will fall on which departments, planning each move to be performed. This plan is then divided into areas, from human resources to operations, to marketing. Each team leader at this point receives their own part of the plan, and will have to implement it with their team.
The belief is that, to be successful, you need to have the best plan possible. That every possible variable must be calculated, every possible scenario. This reassures us, gives us the idea of having everything under control and the lucidity to react to the problems that arise, but it is not the single factor that determines the success of the company.
Plans are a great tool for analyzing the business situation, but we can’t really use them for a long-term strategy, because the world of work changes so quickly that in a few weeks the situation will be different from what it was when we decided on the slowly, and we can no longer rely on it to make strategic decisions.
If we want to be sure we have the right tools to make the best decisions, we need information. Each team leader, each department, must be able to access the information necessary to respond to crises and set up its own work.
Lie 3: You need to use “waterfall” lenses
Another almost omnipresent element in today’s companies are the “cascade” objectives, that is those objectives that are set / imposed from above. We are inundated with modules to measure progress in each goal, we face periodic reviews that tell us that we “reached 60% for 40% of the objectives”, as if this helped us to be more productive.
However, the reality of the facts is more bitter. Goals can be achieved or not. Can I reach my sales target or not. We can increase the turnover, or not. It makes no sense to speak of “completion rates”, because the effect they create is negative. We rarely find ourselves evaluating our progress during the year, because it is not a data that helps us in everyday life.
We use this type of approach because we believe that “cascading” goals make the whole organization aligned, but we also use them to “measure” and evaluate the performance of our teams. Evaluating the achievement of objectives in percentage terms, however, “flattens” the role of each company component, reducing it to a number to be compared to others.
The only way to have really useful goals is to set them ourselves. A good leader must not impose goals to achieve, but be able to stimulate the creativity, potential and talent of his team.
Lie 4: The best people have “all-round” skills
Often our concept of “excellence” is based on the idea of completeness of skills and abilities. A good student is one who has no shortcomings, a good manager demonstrates skills in all areas that concern his role.
We are used to trying to define excellence regardless of the individual. We draw up a series of characteristics and then “evaluate” the individual on the basis of these requirements, identifying the areas of strength.
Once the strengths have been identified, they are quickly put aside, so as to focus only on the areas that are “to be improved”, pursuing the idea that an individual must reach a minimum acceptable level in each of the established criteria.
The so-called “competence models”, or the lists of characteristics that we use to evaluate a worker, have the aim of identifying areas of intervention, of gaps to be filled, to make each individual more “balanced”.
If we look at the real world, however, we will immediately notice that excellence almost never derives from “round” personalities, but from individuals who demonstrate peaks of competence in some areas and gaps (if not even shortcomings) in others.
So, instead of trying to “flatten” each individual on our team, the most effective and most productive strategy is to look for individuals who are complementary to the rest of the team, in order to form a team that is able to pursue goals that nobody, individually, it would be able to achieve.
Lie 5: A continuous feedback loop is the only way to improve
Many large companies find themselves completely immersed in a continuous cycle of evaluation and feedback for their employees. Whether it comes from its managers, its subordinates or its peers, the important thing is to receive a continuous flow of evaluation from others. Only in this way, we believe, will it be possible to grow and improve. This belief is based on three basic ideas, each of which is ill-founded.
The first idea is that each of us can reveal “truths” about others. If we don’t tell someone that his presentation lacked charisma, how will he know? In fact, what we can provide is our reaction. We can tell someone that we weren’t able to follow his presentation, but we can’t know what led him to present that way.
The second idea is that learning means drawing from the outside world to fill a void inside us. In fact, many studies show that learning consists in being able to “unlock” some cognitive processes that are already within us, to allow them to manifest themselves and become an integral part of our skills.
The third idea is that excellence is something that can be established a priori, to be used as a yardstick (see lie No. 3). Giving continuous feedback to others, therefore, means helping them to achieve excellence.
In reality, however, the excellence shown by individuals is almost always inextricably linked to their individuality, and not to a series of points established a priori.
Lie 6: We are able to accurately evaluate the people we work with
More and more often it happens that our work, our “performance”, is measured based on the judgment that others give us. We evaluate each other on the basis of parameters that are used to create a sort of “photograph” of the work we have done.
The idea that a person can objectively evaluate someone else cannot be correct, otherwise our evaluation criteria would change based on who we are facing, because each individual has different characteristics. Instead, what we observe is that the criteria remain the same.
This is because when we evaluate another person, in reality we are often inserting a good dose of self-reflection. We are using our idiosyncrasies to observe and evaluate others.
It would therefore be right to reflect on the process we use to evaluate others, and on the consequences that our judgment (which is actually more a reflection of us than a true objective evaluation) has on their career.
Opportunities, promotions, and even layoffs can be based on anything but impartial and often completely partisan judgments.
Lie 7: People have potential
Obviously each of us has potential, that’s not the lie. Each of us and our colleagues can continue to learn and improve throughout their life.
In the world of work, many companies try to recognize the potential of their employees, even going so far as to distinguish between people with high potential (HiPo), low potential (LoPo) or zero potential (NoPo). For the rest of their career, these people will be treated differently, based on their potential profile.
Those who are considered HiPo, in fact, not only receive many more opportunities for growth and advancement, but also receive more forgiving treatment in case of error.
Those who are classified as LoPo or NoPo, on the other hand, suffer from lack of trust, lack of investment for growth, and risk being in a stagnant situation, without growth opportunities, without being able to find the area in which they can truly give their best.
The truth is that everyone has potential, but it manifests itself in different times and ways, and above all not in a constant way. Instead of using this abstract feature as a yardstick, we should try to find ways to “unlock” the potential that is within each member of our team.
Lie 8: You have to look for the perfect home / work balance
We often hear about the balance between home and work. Dedicating too much time to work makes us workaholics, and leads us to exhaustion. Dedicating too much time to private life instead makes us pass for people who are not very passionate and professional. We have this conception of work as an element of wear, and of private life as a moment of rest, refreshment and recharging.
The challenge therefore becomes the search for the right balance between work and private life. The ability to balance these two spheres becomes, for companies, a fundamental element of their culture.
In reality, this state of perfect balance is purely idyllic. If we were also to theoretically reach it, we would be paralyzed by the fear of losing it, and we would no longer be able to undertake any plans.
Instead of looking for the perfect balance, we should try to review our relationship with life and work. Finding love for work, that is, being able to identify, and therefore pursue, a job that allows us to express our attitudes, and that brings us joy.
Each job has moments of stress that alternate with more relaxed moments, but if we can find love for what we do, we will no longer feel this need for a search for balance, because we will be comfortable with the swing between difficult moments and lighter moments.
Lie 9: Leadership is something that really exists
If you want to be a leader, you have to learn “leadership”. It is not easy to clearly define what it is, but it includes a series of abstract characteristics, concepts that cannot be measured, but which we must somehow learn. Hence a myriad of methods, workshops, formulas and so on are born, which promise to make us leaders.
The trend of all these approaches, however, is to try to teach a range of fundamental skills for any leader. These skills are decided at the table, and each aspiring leader must aspire to achieve them all, regardless of what their personal attitudes and characteristics are.
We try to create leaders who meet all these characteristics, yet if we look at the great leaders of today and yesterday, what we see are extremely different people, who stand out for some characteristics, but who have obvious shortcomings in other fields.
What do all the leaders have in common? A sequel. The real successful leaders are those who manage to understand their strengths, and leverage them to create a relationship with the people around them, and then transform them into followers.
Instead of trying to create “all-round” leaders, what we should do is focus on the characteristics that lead others to follow them. The real successful leaders, therefore, are those who show strong “peaks” in some areas, and who manage to ensure that their gaps do not become obstacles.