6 June 2021

Book Review: “Nine Lies About Work”

This book was referred to me by Juli Johnson from our company. I believe there is an audio book version of this. I am still a “you read a book, not hear it” kind of guy 🙂

First, this is a very atypical book for me to review – I usually do not study too many books that has to do with work. Second, I am very, very skeptical of any book or any person who tries to teach how to manage talent. My personal experience is that every human being is unique and trying to generalize anything as talent principles is at best, misguided. Remember those books from a few years back that were inspired by Jack Welch’s views on how to deal with the “bottom 10%”. Yes? Good. I am using some of them as doorstop for my music room. Right next to the books on Atkinson’s diet, Paleo diet etc.

Of course, the answer cannot be to throw away everything. You still need some kind of framework of thinking. The key point is to understand that every aspect of talent management is, in all likelihood, over generalization or sometimes, outright, wrong. In fact, most of the “research” cited have one common flaw – they cannot control for other variables. And when we talk about human beings – it is very difficult to control for “other” variables.

The point is to be aware of these flaws in any system. This allows one to recognize the limitations of the frameworks and therefore allows for judgmental calls. As infuriating as it can be (“Where is the fairness?”), evaluating any professional is fundamentally a subjective call. It is subjective depending on the rater, the rated and even the time when the rating is done.

If not anything else, this book will make you think of how deeply flawed our basic assumptions and often quoted, catchy phrases about Talent management is. I also want to suggest that the authors do not necessarily give answers that always make much sense to me. Some do. But maybe you will understand the others better than me.

Here are the top 9 Lies the authors want to highlight to you. The portions in [ ] are my comments. The rest are from the book.

Lie #1: People care which company they work for
People might care about which company they join, but after that, they care which team they are on.

Lie #2: The best plan wins
Company level plans do not predict the future. It merely tells you where you are. The world moves too fast for plans. What wins is providing data and intelligence (what is happening) to everybody quickly and accurately.

Lie #3: The best companies cascade goals
Company goals top down defeats the purpose. Better way would be show the employees what you value. And let the goal setting happen locally.

Lie #4: The best people are well rounded
[This one spoke a lot to me; I still get miffed by performance reviews that talk about Strengths and Weaknesses].
Best people are spiky. They excel in one or two things. Better than most. And they leverage this/these traits to produce outsize results. Uniqueness is a feature. Not a bug.

Lie #5: People need feedback
People need attention. Not feedback. The attention people need is to what they are doing best – not what they are not doing well. We all want to be seen for what we are best at.

Lie #6: People can reliably rate other people.
[This one spoke to me a lot too. If you get a chance, look up Idiosyncratic Rate Effect].
Most raters are terrible in judging others – if there was even a benchmark to measure against. They have deep biases and often are judging based on very little data. What we can reliably rate is our own experience.

Lie #7: People have potential
Like potential is a thing inherent to a person (like a trait). This is a function of the environment and opportunities as much as the person. Every brain is capable of learning – the speed differs based on the environment and opportunities. People have different momentum – we move through the world differently depending upon environment and opportunities.

Lie #8: Work-life balance matters most
Love in work matters most. That is what work is really for.

Lie #9: Leadership is a thing
[This, I found very interesting.]
There is no such thing as leadership skills. Take the name of 10 leaders and you will see there is no pattern to their traits. Some like Steve Jobs was even lacking in some basic ethics area. What does make a leader a leader – and this is a common trait – is that they have followers.
[The authors then spend quite a few pages on why people follow. I found that very intriguing.]

Highly recommend you read it if you care about talent issues.


Posted June 6, 2021 by Rajib Roy in category "Books


  1. By Sreerupa Sengupta Banerjee on

    Interesting post! Can’t believe I actually read till the end Will check out the book.

    1. By Rajib Roy (Post author) on

      Let me know how you react to the book, Sreerupa. You are more of an authority than me in this area.

  2. By Amanpreet Singh on

    Great review Rajib, loved your perspective and I agree with your POV.

    1. By Rajib Roy (Post author) on

      Thanks, Amanpreet. If you ever read this book, let me know what your reactions are.

  3. By Sterling on

    Feedback vs Attention got an audible noise for me – I love that point. On the question of good leadership, Sam Walker’s The Captain Class was a fascinating review of common threads amongst a very well curated list of the best sports team through the last 120 years and a great critique of how well we “rate” people as good “leaders”

    1. By Rajib Roy (Post author) on

      I probably should read that too. I was afraid that you would berate me for looking down upon Paleo diet 😉 Jokes apart, that attention versus feedback got my attention too. In fact, the author explains this as the basic misunderstanding corporate America has about millenials.

  4. By Annette Shimada on

    Thanks Rajib. I used to think often about if there is some deficiency in my business acumen that kept my company small… are my leadership skills too soft? should I more regularly ‘review’ my team? Many of these items spoke to me. I esp loved #4 and #8 — “Best people are spiky. They excel in one or two things.” This cannot be truer with my crew! The corollary is also true — some people are terrible at some things, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad people or wrong for the team. Looking forward to reading the book.


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