The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 166

Marcus Buckingham

Nine Lies About Work

How can you really improve your productivity or leadership? According to Marcus Buckingham – former Senior Researcher at Gallup and author of Nine Lies About Work – it’s not about work-life balance, failing fast, or seeking feedback. Messaging like this can stamp out people’s uniqueness in favor of uniformity. In this special episode, discover why people need attention not feedback, why you need to focus on your strengths vs. improving or fixing your failings, and why you should focus on followership, not leadership.


Book: Nine Lies About Work
Bio: Marcus Buckingham is a global researcher and thought leader focused on unlocking strengths, increasing performance, and pioneering the future of how people work. He founded The Marcus Buckingham Company in 2006 and is the author of several bestselling books, including StandOut 2.0.


This transcript is not edited.

Peter: We are fortunate today we have with us at the Bregman leadership podcast. Marcus Buckingham, he is a thought leader and a researcher and a terrific writer. Um, I think of him as sort of the, the father of the, of bringing the strengths and focus on your strengths movement to the business world in, in application. Uh, he is a head of all people and performance research at the ADP research institute. He’s written a bunch of books and most recently nine lies about work, a free thinking leaders guide to the real world. He wrote it with Ashley Goodall. So, uh, Marcus, welcome to the Bregman leadership podcast.

Marcus: Thank you so much. Happy to be here.

Peter: Well, you know, you’ve written a lot of books and you’ve written one more. Why this one, why now?

Marcus: Well we are moving at the moment into a world of uh, artificial intelligence and machine learning and all of that kind of technology is going to be put into our human capital management systems. So everybody at work lives inside some sort of human capital system where their goals are set and their pay is set and the development is set and that teams are set, their engagement is measured. We all live in side one of these things and all these things are being driven by these new algorithms. Uh, and an algorithm is simply an assumption turned into math. So now it’s the perfect time for us to really critically examine what are our assumptions about people at work. Cause those assumptions are about to be multiplied at an extreme scale. And if we got our assumptions wrong about people at work, then we are all going to be in a world of hurt in terms of our experiences at work.

Marcus: And at the moment, clearly Peter, we’ve got levels of purpose and productivity that haven’t moved in 50 years. We’ve got levels of engagement that are low, less than 20% of people fully engaged at work and have stayed low for the last 30 years. So whatever it is, according to macro economists anyway, whatever it is we’re doing at work to get more productivity from people, clearly measurably isn’t working. And so now we’ve got a situation where what we’re doing right now isn’t working and we’re about to scale it up massively with AI and machine learning. And so now felt like a really good time to say stop just everybody stopped for a second. And let’s critically examine what are our core assumptions about people at work. Cause when you that you realize, uh, an awful lot of them, I’m alive and we need to push through those lies and see what the truth is behind.

Peter: So you, you, you right, or at least I, I received this, I guess maybe it’s, it’s a, you know, it’s a marketing piece about the book, but it’s, but it’s a paragraph that I want to read because it, it, I think frames the book really nicely. We all know that something is wrong at work. We feel it in our own experience. The futility of setting goals at the beginning of the year, the stress of being rated on these goals that years and the indignity of getting candid feedback from our manager and the insult of being told we should crave it. Like the advice to strive for work life balance or to become a well rounded leader. Our work experiences feel off fake untethered from the real world. And um, is this so, so, so the book is exposing these, these lies a bunch of which are actually embedded in that paragraph that um, probably with good intentions people do. But the data that you’re discovering takes us off course. And I’m wondering if you can share a little bit about the data that you’ve looked at that kind of can help ground us in, in research that says we have to question some of these things.

Marcus: Well, to begin with, as I mentioned, you’ve got levels of purpose and productivity that in the United States barely inch above 1% in the last 50 years, given everything that we’ve thrown it, that problem, money, technology, process improvement and so forth. It’s astounding. There are purpose and PR per person, productivity growth hasn’t budged. We’ve also got levels of engagement that are, I run the ADP research institute focused on, on people and performance who just on this 19 countries study on engagement and without going into detail about how exactly it’s measured, um, across the world, across these 19 country studies, you’ve got 16 to 17% of people fully engaged at work. So we know something’s wrong. Productivity wise, we’ve got a problem engagement wise, we have a problem. When you look at what these lies up here, um, you said they were well-intended goals set at the beginning of the year, tracking progress against those goals.

Marcus: Feedback given to you about who you are, not um, measures of your potential on a nine box grid, um, x rotations to strive for work life balance. Those seem well intended, but actually when you look at them, all of them come from the same perspective. All of them are trying to remove, and I know this sounds really odd to say, but all of them are trying to remove a person’s individuality of work and get people to conform to a set culture or a set set of goals or a set set of competencies. Almost everything that we do in the world of human beings that work is designed to remove or grind down people’s uniqueness and create from those people a and that’s it. It kind of explained to why we have such low levels of engagement in productivity where the real power of human nature is that each humans nature is unique.

Marcus: And yet what we do at work is trying to remove each humans uniqueness. And that right there is a, is a critical problem that we face at work. Individuality, human uniqueness is a bug that we try to fit. And until we look at that full in the face and go, oh my word. Yes. Companies think that efficiency is best created by ensuring that every single salesperson selves in the same way every nurse does his or her job in the same way every machinists. That’s his job in the HUD job in the same way until we dispense with the idea that uniformity is a synonym for efficiency. All of us are going to go to work and feel alone. Loss, alienated, disengaged. Not all of it, but more than 80% of it, which is in fact the actual experience that people, so we have this, we have this weird problem right now, Beta, where the the power of human nature, namely the individuality of people, the fact that people think and drive and make sense of the world and innovate differently. That’s the power of humans. We have built entire companies designed to eradicate that power. And for us as individuals, it just feels like something’s wrong. And from a business standpoint, of course we can see from a productivity and engagement standpoint, something is wrong so that the data here is like, Oh my word, we’ve got a problem. And at the same time the problem seems to, maybe it’s well-intended, but boy is it wrong headed.

Peter: So I, I, I hear you. I agree with it. I see it all the time and organizations. Um, and, and I also have this nagging question that, you know, when I think of like, so I’m an entrepreneur and you’re an entrepreneur. So what we’ve done is we’ve created businesses that work particularly to our strengths. That’s I think one of the things that entrepreneurs are particularly great at, which is to say, um, I don’t, I don’t want to fit into someone else’s box. So, and, and maybe I can’t or maybe I don’t even have the confidence that I can, or maybe I have the confidence that I could do more. Whatever it is, I’m going to create my own box that’s going to be sort of uniquely suited to my competence and capability and I’m going to really have a lot of fun doing it. So, so now as, but and talking to people who are leading organizations and myself also part of the challenge comes you use the word uniformity.

Peter: There’s, there’s a more positive word which is con, which is um, consistency and there’s like, you know, when I think about nursing, everybody being the same, I think there is some challenge that the leaders and organizations face about saying, look, I don’t need everybody to be the same, but I need to know that the level of quality of service that we’re delivering is of a certain standard. And, and it’s hard to do. I know when I have hired a ton of people and then have them work with clients, the quality level starts to go all over the place. And the challenge of managing the, the sort of quality of the service and the level of, of of meeting expectations of clients who have certain expectations because you know there’s a brand to the company and we’re going to get in a second to these lies and one of which is people care which company they work for. The companies have a certain brand so that customers or clients know what they can expect from that brand. How do we ensure the kind of consistency of delivery without falling into the trap of a dead environment that requires a uniformity?

Marcus: Well two things. One is we have to realize that the consistency stuff that you’re talking about is hit the ball stuff. If you wanted to play golf, let’s say somebody is going to tell you, hold the club by the handle and then stand whichever it is left or right. Stand in such a way that you can swing the club backwards and hit the ball with the front of the club and then I’m going to spend a little bit of time helping you know how to do that. Turn the club, hit bowl 10, turn the cup, hit the ball. And if we get that to the point where you can turn the club and hit the bowl, then we’ve got you to the minimum requirement. And that’s great minimum requirement. Nothing wrong with minimum requirements at all. If I’m enough, I need to teach you how to give a painless injection.

Marcus: Actually, initially I need to teach you how to give an injection safely and I need to tell you what the policies or the procedures are to ensure that you hit the ball. It means this, ensure that you give the patient a safe injection. Um, if you are going to be a nurse, then you need to be able to give a safe injection. Just like if you’re going to be a Gulf, so you’ve gotta be able to hit the ball. Okay? That’s minimum. That’s not fail stuff, which is not nothing. But if we’re going to get to excellence, as you see with golf, you take the top 15 golfers and you watch them swing. None of them swing the same way. None of them do weight transfer the same way. None of them swing plane at the same, none of them finishes the same. They look like they’re doing something that’s really different from one another. Different speeds, different trajectories, different ball flights, different everything. Now they’re all hitting the ball. They’re just doing it in radically different ways.

Peter: So we have that particular uniqueness. So we have to have sort of standards that everybody is going to fulfill, but they have to be. But there has to be enough sort of openness at the, you know, beyond those standards for people to be able to bring in their sort of peculiar uniqueness that allows them to be great and to be engaged.

Marcus: Yeah. And we need to be super careful about what those standards are because there’s far fewer of them than we think. Just take an example like, um, musicians. What you to thought there. One of the things that we, the minimum standard we would be, can read music, but if you had, can read music as one of your criteria for defining what you needed to do to be a musician, you would lose people like Elton John. You’d lose people like Frank Sinatra.

Peter: But this is a great example, Marcus. I love this example because what about an orchestra where the predictability of different people playing? Like if I know exactly how, I mean I’m and not the first violin, but you know there’s 50 people in an orchestra and and how do we manage the collective alignment of the orchestra while allowing each person their uniqueness?

Marcus: Well that speaks directly to the first line in the book. The first line, the book is that people care which company they work for. You look at the data of course. And if that were true, if people cab would come in and they worked for, then you wouldn’t have differing levels of voluntary turnover inside the same company. And of course you do. You have huge range on a measurable thing called voluntary turnover, which is when you think about it, like what’s the best manifestation of caring or caring would mean that I choose to stay at my place, that I care so much about this company, that I will stay there. Yeah, you stop measuring anything. And of course the book is underpinned by data all the way through. So it’s like what can we measure? What can we measure? What can we measure? What’s knowable through measurement?

Marcus: Let’s put the serious side. Let’s put the beliefs aside. Let’s put the philosophies aside. The last thing that we should care about is whether if somebody believes something in this book, there’s nothing to believe in the book. That’s just like, what’s the date to tell us about the real world? And then we get stopped from that. It stopped humbly from data. Well accumulate, measure something in the real world like voluntary turnover, you find it varies hugely inside the same company. If you stop measuring something like engagement inside a company, you find it varied hugely inside the same company. Well, if there was something that’s such a thing as company culture, which of course we say there is, and then that said that we said that Pesa had a company culture, well we ought to find uniform levels of voluntary turnover in Taz and we ought to find a Tesla has a certain sort of experience of working at Tesla that is uniform across Tesla and it’s different from the uniform experience of working at Patagonia that say if company culture was really a thing, uh, well actually you can’t find that. You can never find that that does not exist. You go inside Tesla and saw measuring the lived experience of working at Tesla a is not uniform. Your experience with working at Tesla seems to vary hugely according to which particular team or which particular department or which particular part has the your end and second, it seems to be much more difference of what it’s like to work at Tesla within Tesla than it’s between Tesla and Tai and Patagonia.

Peter: Sorry, is it that black and white? When you say there’s no company culture like I, I’m with you that there’s totally variations with teams. It. Does your research show that the only there, there’s only variation in teams? Like literally there’s not sort of an overarching com cause that’s a profound statement.

Marcus: Yeah there is. Well here’s what I can say cause I think we can, if we, we all have our faith, we can all have our beliefs and that’s great but at some point we’ve got to start looking at whether or not the real world backs off our belief. There is no research anywhere ever in any referee journal that says there is such a thing called company culture that is measurable at the company level. That is all made up because it makes for a really nice narrative. The person or the company has a stock price. So it’s almost like the company has a personality. Sometimes it is actually directly connected to a personality like Steve jobs or like Elon Musk. And of course we treat companies as though they are people in the tax code. Right? So it’s like companies have personalities and at that if you have a good stock price it’s because your personality is such and such.

Marcus: When you try to measure that. And of course the way you would measure that, it’s off people who are living inside that company, what their lived experience of that company is. Like. You can’t find this thing, this Tesla knows this. Goldman Sachs knows this. Amazon doesn’t know Amazon. This, that’s a simplistic human narrative that is manifested in the fact that Amazon has the stock price and Fortune magazine or CNBC or MSNBC or whoever wants a story and we follow stories of protagonists. And Amazon is a protagonist. It’s a lovely story. There’s absolutely no data that backs it up at all.

Peter: So when you, I’m kind of curious because

Marcus: some point, but right now there isn’t,

Peter: I’m curious because I’ve had this experience and I’m curious what it is. Maybe you could redefine it for me. When I go into one company and I know leaders who, who have moved from one company to another company, there was super successful in one company and then they moved to another company and they are super unsuccessful and, and it’s, and it’s a challenge they face. And I know for myself, I’ve gone into companies and I go into one company and, and I, and then I go into another company, even in the same industry. And I go, wow, this feels, I’m gonna use my old language cause you’re reshaping it for me. But, but this was my old language, which about the culture of this company is very different. The culture of, you know, one bank is very different from another bank. The culture of an investment bank or a hedge fund is very different than a, you know, than a manufacturing company. I’ve just, I’ve noticed those, what am I perceiving? And maybe maybe I’m creating a narrative in my own head that just doesn’t exist. Or maybe I’m perceiving something that’s not culture but something else. Or maybe, I don’t know. So that’s my question to you.

Marcus: Yeah. Well I, that’s really, that’s always, it’s always good, right? It’s like, it’s always a good thing to go, well, when we use this, what do we mean? Right? So if we say to somebody, um, are you healthy? How is your health? It took us little for a long time to realize that there was no such thing as health, that health wasn’t a function of balance between the different humans than your buddy, and if you’ve got your humans, your four humors in balance, then you would be, you would be healthy. It took us a long while to realize that there is no such thing as health. There are just a series of measurements that we can reliably take about you that begin to approximate. There’s something when we add them all up, could be called health. So now we take your weight or we take your height or we take your temperature, your body mass index, your cholesterol.

Marcus: Each one of these things is reliably measured such that if two different people measured you on the same measurement, they would come up with exactly the same measure of your weight or your cholesterol. So we have great interrater reliability of these measurements and together when we start to pull them all together, we start to see an overall view of something that we could call help. But really it’s just an accumulation of lots of reliable measurements. When you go into a particular company like Goldman Sachs, it might feel different from Patagonia. On some level it might. The orientation program for Goldman Sachs takes place downtown Wall Street, everyone’s wearing a suit. Everyone’s wearing a bespoke suit. Everyone’s feeling sort of pretty proud of themselves. You go to Patagonia and your first orientation is on a beach around a campfire listening to stories of the founder and his journey through life, and of course that feels like, oh my gosh, Patagonia clearly has a different culture.

Marcus: Then Goldman Sachs says, in which case what you then go to see would go, okay, well let’s what? How do we measure that? Like what? What’s, what’s real about that that we can really see and the moment we do that, we have our feelings, our feelings of vanish or other are our instincts vanish in the face of, Oh my word. Each person at Patagonia is having a really different lived experience of Patagonia. I’ve just walked in from the outside. I’m like a little anthropologist. We’ll get into Patagonia. That’s what you’re like when you walk into a new place. You’re like, you’re like a little anthropologist. Be Not living in it. When you talk to the people that are living in a culture, you find that the variation that is by far the most powerful explanation of what your lived experiences like is team by team, by team, by team.

Marcus: Patagonia exists for the people inside of it. Only through the lens of which particular team or teams you’re on a Patagonia, everything else, uh, stories or rituals and that, that not nothing like Patagonia tells different stories to its people. Then Goldman Sachs does. Patagonia has different rituals than Goldman Sachs does. So what are those things? Well though the rituals and stories, are they culture? Well, what do you mean by co is that helps that you said so it’s like when we use the word culture, what do we actually talking about and what does it predict? That’s really what we’re getting at here. What does it, if culture, if it does feel different to work inside a company, all right. Maybe it’s because they’re telling different stories. You go to work at Chick-fil-a, you’re not allowed to work on Sunday. Well, surely then chick-fil-a has a different culture than can Chuck Kentucky Fried Chicken. Same, uh, selling the same stuff and the same way do the same. So people, but chick-fil-a isn’t open on Sundays and Kentucky Fried Chicken is, is that culture? Well no, that’s a ritual that’s called a ritual cause that’s specific,

Peter: right? Different company that doesn’t necessarily, it doesn’t necessarily define all of culture.

Marcus: Well it doesn’t and it doesn’t necessarily predict anything. So when it comes to, and like all company has a certain culture, what that really is, if you think about it, it’s a bunch of CEOs, five miles behind the front line trying to think of what the hell do I do to ensure consistency? Well I better make sure that people are behaving to the same set of values. Okay. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll pull the culture lever right? Cause many CEOs are so far behind the front lines, they can’t think of what the heck do I do to ensure that people are behaving in a way that is consistent? Right? Well I could do policies and procedures but I could also talk about culture. And so in a sense we’ve all bought into this story and the, what we’re missing of course is reality.

Marcus: It’s all fake. And that’s what’s so hard for it as we go. Listen, no, no, no, no, no. The actual experience of what it feels like to work at Chick-Filet depends massively on which particular operate that you happen to work for with intercalate. So what you really should be asking when you join a company is not what is its culture like what’s the culture like here, which is, uh, which is seems like a sensible question but actually doesn’t get to the truth of it. What you should really say is what does this company do to build teams that are really great? What does this company do to understand what its best teams are? Like, what do we do to ensure that each person on a team feels as though the team lead to note them and get the best from them? Right. The cool thing about teams pita is that human beings created teams fair enough, 50,000 years ago because somebody figured out that we are different. We can ensure some minimum level of conformity, but, but if we’re gonna achieve anything good, like I don’t know, taking down that willy mammoth, then we probably ought to come together into a little group where we’ve got somebody who’s really fast and somebody who’s got great hearing and somebody who’s really strong. And so we pulled together these different people into 18 and then we get more done.

Peter: And what I’m hearing you say also is that even if like whether you buy the culture thing or not, the team thing is, and I’m not saying don’t buy it, like you have the research and the data and you’re making a very strong argument about it, but either way the team is a much clearer, smarter, more coherent, more actionable, clearly data-driven, um, area to focus on if you want to impact both results and people’s ability to contribute.

Marcus: Yes. Whether you believe in the culture or not is kind of an important thing. Whether you believe in the team or not isn’t right. Because whether you believe in it or not, you walk in the next day. It’s that those people are going to be talking about you or watching your back or not watching your back or community. There’s that whether you like it or not. We don’t need to go take an orientation class to know that my team is looking at, they are, even if they’re, even if they’re highly distributed around the world, I still, I still know which team I’m on. We’ve missed that. I mean the funny thing is we just did this big study as I mentioned around the worlds with the ADP research institute and and 83% of people said they do most of their work on teams, which is interesting cause the 17% who don’t, but anyway, put that aside, 83% of people, 65% of those people say that they work on more than one team and three quarters of those people said that that those additional teams are not reflected in the org chart.

Marcus: Which means of course we can’t see our teams. Google has no idea where it’s work is. How weird is that? Google, supposedly a company that knows a lot about teams, has no idea how many teams they had or who’s on them or which are the best ones or what are the practices of the best teams. Why? Because Google doesn’t know where teams are. We’ve missed this and I’m not talking about, you know, teamwork. We’ve talked about teamwork for a long time and how jolly important it is, but we’ve missed teams. We actually can’t see the reality of where most people’s work is, which goes a long way to explaining why per person productivity and engagement levels have so low. We can’t see the work. Almost everything. We do pizza at work, how we pay people, how we measure engagement, how we set goals, how we rate people.

Marcus: All of those things are deployed through human capital management systems and these HCM systems are extensions of financial systems. These are budgeting systems to ensure that we know which headcount goes in which department and that’s fine. We should have financial systems that help us budget properly, but then we then we deploy all of our people stuff down through the boxes on the org chart as though the boxes on the org chart or where the work is, right? That’s not where their work is and so no wonder most of the stuff that we do in the area of goals or in an area of development or even things like creativity or customer focus, we deploy all these trainings and so on through the box on the org chart and we miss the work we missed where the work is. New Tools like slack, like Webex teams like Jira, which is the Atlantean product.

Marcus: Those kinds of tools which are actually designed to sort of get work done. The exhaust data from those tools is beginning to show us where the actual teams are, where the actual work is. So for the next five years, what’s going to be super interesting is companies the world over are going to go, oh my gosh. The way in which we looked at the boxes on the org chart actually masked, hid where the work is. No wonder we haven’t been able to get more productivity or engagement from our people. We would only do that if we engaged with the work. And we missed the work cause we missed the teams,

Peter: right? Because it’s the teams that are doing the work, right?

Marcus: It’s the teams that are doing the work and we’ve missed it. We’ve done all this kind of centralized culture building and centralized gold setting, and then we’ve cascaded the gold. We’ve created a parallel universe, if you like, the misses the real world, which is why so many of us go to work and go, this isn’t real.

Peter: And I also think people intuitively have a sense because they know their teams. So they like, you know, like when people are enjoying their work, it’s often because they’re on a team that they really enjoy being with, working with other people that they really enjoy. Um, I’m, I’m so frustrated because I, cause we’re running out of time, but I’m gonna extend this a little bit, assuming you can, because I’ve so many, because I’m enjoying this conversation and there’s so much. So here’s what I wanna do. I wanna I wanna just touch on a few of these other pieces that you’ve written about and, and explore. Like I want to sort of share the lie and then, and then ask you a question about it. Um, kind of related to get a perspective and maybe we could do these in like little quick burst. Um, no conversation with you would be a complete if we don’t bring up feedback in one form or other and, and you know, your lying number five is people need feedback and, and we talk about you, you sort of talk about actually the truth is that people need attention.

Peter: That we need to be seen at our best. And that what I’m curious about is, I know for myself, I’m always wanting feedback and I want to know what I could do better. And I’m wondering whether there’s this distinction between feed forward that Marshall Goldsmith talks about. Like, you know, you don’t have to tell me what I did wrong, but tell me, you know, three things I could do to be more effective. Right? Which is maybe a positive spin on what did I do wrong? Because there’s certainly derived from what wasn’t working, but, but do you do, do you and then kills for yourself too?

Marcus: Yeah. I love Marshall, but that’s completely wrong. Don’t do that. Never do that. I’m your future greatness. Peta is built out of the raw material of your current goodness. Your future greatness is built out of the raw material of your current goodness. So what you need from me is a reaction. Don’t, I don’t, I shouldn’t give you feedback on the three things to do differently because I don’t know how you do anything. Your learning, what we know from the way that the brain learns, we know learning is insight, which means it’s derived from within. In fact, insight is defined as a feeling of knowingness derived from within. That’s how you learn. I don’t have any advice I can give you on how to do it better. I can’t because I’m not you. Instead, what I can do is I can give you my reaction, and by the way, sometimes my reaction might be negative.

Marcus: I fell asleep at pepita. I just did. You can’t tell me I didn’t because I did. So my reaction is beautifully coherent and beautifully unimpeachable so I could give you reaction to what’s not working. Uh, Peter, I didn’t understand that and I fell asleep here and you confuse me that like, and by the way, that’s okay. Like I can give you that reaction to my reaction. That is a source of truth for you. It is what it is. Having said that, the most powerful reaction for you is when I reacted to something that really worked for me. So I could say to you, Peter, you know, when you did that thing over here, I really lent in I, it just came alive for me here. And what that encourages me to do with you is not to pat you on the head and say good job.

Marcus: You know? So that’s the end of the sentence. Instead the there, Mike giving you a reaction to what worked is the beginning of an inquiry. It’s not good job, pat you on the head. It’s like me saying to you, hey, listen that when you did this already lent in and then you go, why? What was I doing? What worked for you? What played out well for you? Why did so we shouldn’t be celebrating your success. We should be interrogating it and from that learning and improvement for you, like for me, but for you, learning improvement comes from refining and sharpening the natural patents that currently work for you. That’s how you get better. So yes, should you get better at? Yes. Will you get better by me telling you the three things you should do differently? No, we know that for sure. That’s not the way people excel ever anywhere.

Marcus: I can’t reach into your psyche and tweak your synapses so you’re doing things differently. The only thing I can do is to help you know what my real reaction is to what, whether you’re trying to sell me, whether you’re trying to cure me as enough, whether you’re trying to write code that works, whatever the outcome is that I’m reacting to. Yes, I should give you my reaction. Cause people need attention from other people. They they flourish in response to another human being. No question. But the best attention I can give you is my natural reaction to what’s working. Not to pat you on the head, but to have it be the beginning of an inquiry about what works and why. Because if you want to excel the raw material, if your excellence is not your current failure, that it’s one of the biggest misunderstandings that people have about high performance. High performance is not a remediation of failure ever. High-Performance is always the refinement and the manifestation of natural patterns that live within you.

Peter: And it’s, and it’s that black and white meaning meaning there’s no room to sort of say, hey, you know, yes. Like let’s do all of that. And by the way, it would probably help given my reaction that, um, I, uh, was, you know, you, you might even say for me, what would I, I was falling asleep in the meeting for me. What would help me not fall asleep in the meeting? This is just direct feedback. I don’t know if this is true for everybody else, but I could tell you from my experience what would help me not fall asleep in the meeting is rather than just read off of the piece of paper, everything that you wanted to say to give me a little bit of color to tell me some stories to be anecdotal and, and that would help me. That’s a form of feedback and I’m kind of directing them to what to do. Would you say don’t do that?

Marcus: Well, the, the research suggests that doesn’t work. So you can say it if you want, but you are not alone. Well, it’s the truth about what I should do differently in order to be better. You aren’t, if we go to frame it this way, if you are failing at, um, if you’re failing at presenting, let’s say that you are presenting in the meeting and pizza fell asleep. Um, if I was presenting and you fell asleep, someone could come and tell me the following. They could say, um, there are certain facts you got wrong. You need to get the facts right. And then I could say, well, would that make pizza not fall asleep? And the person would go, no, but you got to get your facts right. And then the second thing is you didn’t follow the steps. There were three steps that we wanted you to hit in terms of telling pizza, what the current situation was telling pizza, what with the wrong, what was wrong with the current situation?

Marcus: And they’re telling him what we should do differently. We’ve wanted you to hit those three things and you didn’t. So I could get advice from someone around facts and steps. So for any job that requires facts and steps to recur to be correct, then correcting someone’s facts and steps is, there’s no question that’s a good thing. That’s why pilots have checklists because you got to get the facts right and you follow the set steps. However, and by the way, including piloting, there were very few jobs where excellence is defined by simply getting the facts right and getting the steps right. You could think about facts and steps. It’s taking someone from minus six to zero minus six to zero. And if someone’s getting facts with steps wrong, correct them like crazy to go from minus six to zero. But if you want to go to zero to infinity, then you’ve got to help a person to find the natural patterns in them that really work.

Marcus: And then you got to refine those patents. In which case what? What’s your responsibility telling me that you should tell most stories cause pizza likes stories. It might actually make my presentation would cause I’m a terrible storyteller. It might be something that takes me far off track because it’s not actually the way in which I get people’s attention. So you might think to yourself, no, no, no, no, no, no stories. Stories are the key. But that’s not true. That you’re not a source of truth about the other person’s performance. You’re a source of truth about your own feelings.

Peter: So it’s so of you tell me these feelings and you say, Look Peter, you’re just putting me to sleep. And I say, wow, I really don’t want to do that. What could I do to not put you to sleep? Is your answer just figure it out? Or like what’s your, how do you answer that question?

Marcus: Yeah. So the answer to that question would be if you were putting me to sleep, let’s say that I’m the on the receiving end of Peta presenting, I would go or you would ask me, well is there any place where I didn’t put you to sleep? When? Was there any places where you sat up in your chair?

Peter: Because then you’re taking away that variability of my inability to tell stories and you’re going, this is something that you do do that I know you can do. So I’m not going to ask you to do something that you can do. I know you can do this. And I would say given that I know you could do this if you do this more than would keep me away

Marcus: or even I’m not even gonna go when we crossed the advice bridge, we are painting the painting for the person and we shouldn’t, we should just give them some brushes and say paint for yourself. Cause that’s the way the learning happens best anyway. So what you should be, well I should be doing with you is going well look, that was really boring and then you gotta keep it. That’s fine. That’s truthful. Thank you. Um, was there anywhere in there that wasn’t? And if I say, well you know what? The part where you did the data, the part where you talked about the data wasn’t really a story, but you described something and you came alive. You actually came alive when you were describing the patterns in the data. That was really interesting. Why did that work? I’ll tell you what, your whole flipping physiology change to your back, sort of a straighter and your chest was fine, but you were talking about patterns and data. I’ll tell you up, Peter, if you, if you could understand what works there for you. I’m not saying your entire presentation should be data. I’m just telling you when you found patterns in data, that was, that became by far the most interesting little bit at the presentation. There was a glimpse there and that’s what, yeah, so I’m, I’m saying to you, I’m going, God, that was a glimpse.

Peter: Right? And you’re saying to me, you’re saying so someone else, it might be different, but to me that when you started talking about patterns, that’s when I woke up.

Marcus: Yes. And so what the person, if we want to give people attention, the most powerful attention we could give them is the attention to that little glimpse of what works, which is why we think, you know, if you think about what, what’s a practice oppression to Jews in the world of work strength, strength three plays the great practice. When you see somebody doing something that worked, you stop them from, we never do those. I don’t know why we don’t do this, but the best coaches do this. They, in fact, the example we gave in the book was with Tom [inaudible]. He actually put together a highlight reel of every single players. Winning plays, little winning moments, little winning glimpses. Cause there’s a thousand ways to drop the ball. There’s only one or two ways in which you catch the ball and run with it. Or You make that block perfect.

Marcus: Despite the size difference of the person in front of you. Let’s capture those moments that really work so that you’re not just, not just to praise you, but to go, oh my God, this is the raw material. If you want to grow, you’re going to grow through moments like that. And so if somebody gives a boring presentation, you reacting and going, look over here. I’m sorry, I just was confused. The person can’t go, no you weren’t. You’re going to know I was actually, I was confused. And then when the person says, well, what do I do differently? What I would say is, are there any glimpses of excellence, any glimpses? And can I tell you what they are? Because if I can tell you what they offer me, then you can use that as raw material to build better performance, not out of some raw material advice that I got, but out of the raw material that lives within you, that’s what the best coaches do,

Peter: right? One thing that you say is leadership is not a thing, right? That we follow spikes. And, and one of the questions I have around that for you is like, first of all, you know, I have a little bit of a bias, right? Cause I’m a leadership coach and I run leadership intensives and I write about leadership. Um, and, and so, so I recognize I want to sort of stay in, recognize my bias and I found myself agreeing with you in this particular way. And I want to just kind of check my own thinking with you from your perspective, which has I don’t believe in best practices, meaning I don’t believe that like in fact your whole book is saying in w in some ways it’s saying there are some best practices, um, right, like focused on people’s strengths are focused on, on giving them attention on the others has everybody’s different.

Peter: And, and to understand the uniqueness and particularity of each person and to help them leverage that is what will help each person to be most successful and to create work, work environments and organizations that are human in nature. Um, as opposed to, you know, kind of machines. And, and what I wonder about is whether leadership itself is not a thing or whether it, there’s not a best practice in, this is how we should lead. But to be able to lead is a thing. And you will do it very differently than I will do it the same way you write very differently than I write. But we could both write well that we’re gonna approach things differently, but, but there’s still a thing called leadership that helps to bring people with you, helps to create an impact and stuff that you feel is important by, by being someone that people can look to and someone that they can to some degree follow or connect with or can bring out the best in them. So I kind of want to just check your view on this.

Marcus: Yeah. Well, the book, um, as I mentioned, every chapter is based upon what we can know in the world, but it’s what is measurable in the world.

Peter: Data

Marcus: and, yeah. And what can you reliably measure. Otherwise we’re all just a pining, which is okay, but let’s start with the real world. So when it comes to leadership, um, in order for leadership to be a thing, we would have to be able to say the following. We’d have to be able to say, listen, we’ve looked at all these really, really, really great leaders and they all share the same set of qualities or competencies or characteristics.

Peter: Or You could say differently. You could say, we’ve looked at all these leaders and they’ve all had a particular kind of impact. They’ve had a certain, like we can measure the impact and they’ve all gone about and done it a different way, but they’ve all been, you know, they’ve all inspired change. They’ve, I don’t know what the impact would be. I’d have to think about what the data would be, but, but you could say, not that they’ve all done things the same way, but that they’ve all achieved, you know, a similar measure.

Marcus: Yeah. Well that, yeah, the way I started there, it’s only because the leadership development industry in the U s which is a $15 billion industry, it’s overall, um, approach is, is not what you just did. You did an interesting flip there. You went. Yeah, but they didn’t necessarily have all the same characteristics but they will have the same impact. That’s actually where the fulcrum is. The difference is at the moment we define leadership as a list of commonly held competencies or traits. We try to measure those competencies are traits with three 60 and then help you get better by identifying your gaps or your lowest points in your three sixties and then you work to correct them. Okay. All of that is made up and there is no referee journal which shows mostly because the in the whole three 60 tool is a whole challenge in and of itself from a measurement standpoint, but put that aside, there is no data anywhere that shows that a group of leaders all have to share the same drive, the same motivations, the same characteristics.

Marcus: There is no referee gentle anywhere that has shown that and our own natural experience backs that up because we look at these different leaders that we’ve had in our own lives and they’re all different. They’ve all got different sort of things that they seem to do really well. The only thing that can come on to your point is that they have had an impact on another human being. A leader. It defines that for, and this is no surprise to you, I know a leader is defined by the fact that they have followers, right? Okay. Followership is a thing. You know why followership is the thing, because we can measure it. We can ask people, do you follow Peta? Do you feel inspired by pizza? Do you feel like you are going to give you a breath to pizza? And if I say yes, yes, yes, yes, then no one argue with me and say, no you don’t.

Marcus: It’s me reporting on me. It’s me reliably measuring my own feelings, Ewp, and of course we can measure that. And you’re absolutely right. When you turn your focus on followership and you say, what’s that? What does some leaders seem able to do that gets people to feel like they will give that destiny to someone else? Okay, now we can start to investigate followership. And when we do that, we do find, first of all, there are some leaders that can create in people a certain really strongly positive set of feelings that’s measurable. That’s provable. And then we can start to ask why and how. And of course when we do that, we start to realize that we’re getting into things like, well, some leaders seem able to instill in others a sense of confidence about the future. How do you instill confidence about the future? Well, the answer to that question is, of course it depends.

Marcus: It depends on the leader. So, so you keep pushing on the subject of leadership and you go, okay, leadership isn’t a thing. We can’t measure it. We can’t define it. Followership is a thing. And and lead does are people who generate this thing called followership. So leaders are completely unique. There are lots of them. We see them everywhere. So leaders are a thing in the world. We can see them. And what do they do? Oh, they create an impact, as you called it, called followership. Ah. Oh No, I want that. So if you, if you do what you did immediately you create an entirely different line of inquiry and a much more helpful one for leaders. Right now we tell leaders is a list of here’s our theoretical model of servant leadership, or here’s our theoretical model of level five leadership. Uh, how closely do you fit the model?

Marcus: Where are you gaps? And then you go to work to plug the gaps in the model. That’s what we do now, not everywhere of course, but most of the leadership development industry is that what, what you would just proposing is really meaningfully different than that. What you would saying is what’s your impact? Can we measure your impact? Not then come up with a list of traits that you should have. We’re just going to keep measuring the impact that you have on others. And then our goal should be to try and help you figure out what can you do to create that same sort of positive impact that the best leaders have and others. What can you do? Because the way that you do it is not a Martin Luther King Way. And it’s not a Marianne Williamson way and it’s not a, you know, law school way. It’s just an, the more you try to do that, the more inauthentic you’ve seen.

Peter: And that’s, that’s April. It’s very hopeful in a certain sense too because what you’re saying to people is give up, not only you talking to organizations and you’re saying give up trying to put people in a mold because it doesn’t work and it alienates them. It does engage them, but also to people you’re saying stop trying to fit into a mold because it’s not going to work. And it’s not where the sort of uniqueness of who you are going and it’s going to end up disengaging you. So you’re really sending a message to both sides of the equation saying, stop trying to make people someone that they’re not. And stop trying to be someone that you’re not and, and you know, and, and if you could, if in on both sides of the equation, people can let go of that need and let go of that drive, then we’ll all be happier and we’ll all be more productive and more effective.

Marcus: Well in t particularly that last point that you just mentioned because that’s the extreme example of that could lead us. And of course if you try to fit into a mold of the leader, the very first thing that you missed, the very first thing that you lose is people’s trust. And so if he wants people to trust you, then you must step into your own mold because then people feel like no matter what situation you are in, you are going to be a consistent and coherent person. And therefore I trust you more. So when you dig into followership, what you realize is the followership as first and foremost an act of forgiveness. And that’s what these models don’t seem to get to at all. I don’t want you to be perfect. I don’t want you to have every single characteristic that we’ve defined our leaders should have.

Marcus: I want you to know very fully and coherently and hopefully morally who you are and what you lead with and I expect you to have a whole bunch of other things that you don’t have and I forgive them. And so when you push into followership, you bump into all this stuff that you’re just talking about. Don’t fit in the mold and then hey, companies don’t fit people into mold. And then from that comes a much more human experience of, in this case leading, I don’t need you to be perfect. I need you to be you intelligently. Now that’s kind of interesting,

Peter: right? Marcus Buckingham, it has been a complete pleasure of mine. His latest book is nine lies about work, a free thinking leaders guide to the real world. If you haven’t already noticed markets as a free thinking thinker but not one who’s just randomly thinking, one who’s based deeply in the data and the research, you have a tremendous amount of sort of counterintuitive and super interesting things to say and counterintuitive based on data is always worth listening to. So Marcus, thank you so much for being on the Bregman leadership podcast.

Marcus: My pleasure. I really enjoyed it. Yeah.



  1. Olga says:

    Please check this transcript because there are numerous errors : phrases that are correct in terms of spelling and grammar, but illogical.

  2. Val Lalor says:

    I loved the conversation and the unedited transcript – both kept me on my toes! Excellent ideas and observations that we can certain talk about at work right away. I shared this with my manager and a few others in my organization – it’s PMP time here (the dreaded performance review process) and we all hate the goals and rigid structure, BUT Marcus’ ideas give us (or at least me) an opportunity to challenge our process and if not change it completely, at least bring to it some relevance. Thank you!!!

  3. Peter, the title initially irked me. As an agile coach, I preach fail fast, and encourage leadership in everyone. But I also encourage TEAMS, and finding the business problems most worth solving, and solving them by looking for the simplest solutions that might work.

    See, when I look at the data behind Maslow’s hierarchy that wasn’t, Daniel Pink’s Drive, and Daniel Pink’s Secrets of Perfect Timing, I see this blend of the movements we call Lean and Agile. Create a minimum level of competency, with some standard ways of thinking about what work is worth doing, and get it done at a rapid but sustainable pace.

    Figure out what worked and do more of that. Seek less for conformity than INSPIRATION. Think about what it must feel like to build the winning battle bot, and how we can bring that kind of inspiration to work more often. Not every single day, because frankly our brains only turn on for so long, and then we need a break to think about what we learned, so we can be even more awesome next time.

    Thanks for the article. I’m adding the book to my backlog.

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