13 June, 2009

Dangerous Business Books That May Ruin Your Professional Life By Making You Want Your Company To Be Better Than Your Boss Wants It To Be

For some time now I've been warning my friends and clients about dangerous business books that may ruin their professional lives by showing them how their companies can be more efficient, more harmonious, more productive and more profitable than their bosses want them to be, bringing them into career-wrecking, poor-annual-review-resulting misalignment with their boss's goals and objectives. Wanting to make your company better than your small-minded, misoneist boss wants it to be and he'll say you're "not a team player" which is management speak for "All I wanted was a pair of hands, but what I got was a whole person." (Henry Ford). The truth is, your boss probably has no idea what the word "team" means, which brings me to number one on my list of dangerous, career-wrecking books:

The Five Dysfunctions Of A Team by Patrick Lencioni. Other books on teambuilding tell us in one way or another that working together as teams involves building trust, removing the fear of conflict, getting individual buy-in or commitment, holding everybody accountable and getting everybody to be focused on results. None of this is new. What makes The Five Dysfunctions of a Team dangerous is that it's written like a novel - or a "leadership fable" as Lencioni calls it - so that the reader can more easily visualize what teams actually look like and how they function. After reading this book you'll expect staff meetings to be events where real work actually gets done, where real issues are actually debated and where team members come to the meeting expecting to be held accountable for results, not promises. You'll expect leaders to demand and facilitate communication between silos and even between other leaders who don't see eye to eye. You'll expect uncommitted or disruptive team members to have the integrity to resign. If they won't resign, you'll expect management to dismiss them. It's an easy but dangerous 230 pages that will make you want your workplace to be more productive than it is, perhaps more productive than your boss wants it to be.

Because I've seen more productivity lost to poor communication than to any other single workplace plague, I've placed Susan Scott's Fierce Conversations on my list of dangerous books that might bring you into misalignment with your boss. It's a book about how to have the conversations we need to have, not just the conversations that are easy and routine. If your boss ever got his short fingered vulgarian hands on this book he would squirm as Susan Scott shows how "the bread crumbs always lead to the CEO”, how "the fish rots from the head" and how "nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it's the only one you have". If not for its unfortunate title, there's no telling how many careers this book could have ruined but the word "fierce" acts as a kind of prophylactic between its dangerous contents and people who think it's a book about how to be argumentative or a competitive conversationalist. Had Fierce Conversations instead been titled something like Getting Past "How Are You" (a heading in the book) or even The Answers Are In The Room, an already successful book might have ruined millions more careers.

Everywhere I go whether it's to Starbucks or to one of LinkedIn's group discussions, people are bemoaning the stifling, toxic corporate cultures they have to endure and asking when one of these so-called "change management" people is going to change their culture for the better. Well, here's a dangerous book about how to create or change your corporate culture by changing the conversation that takes place in the workplace. It's called Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment by Jamie and Maren Showkeir. Like Susan Scott's book, this is a book that could ruin a lot more careers if not for its title. When this book starts showing up in used book stores, they'll probably shelve it in the "self help” section along with books about how to have better sex or how to use feng shui to raise your IQ. The Showkeirs could have ruined many more careers had they used the words "change" and "corporate culture" in the title. Everybody wants to be a "change agent", a "change manager" or a "change leader" these days. I recently ran a LinkedIn search on a Fortune 500 employer and could scarcely find a manager who didn't have the word "change" in his or her title or job description. Had the Showkeirs called their book How To Change Your Corporate Culture even managers would read it. Let me be clear, unless managers do read it and allow themselves to be influenced by it, people who work in stagnate, isolating, idea-choking corporate cultures should not order mass quantities of this eye-opening, corporate culture changing book and should not sit together having a brown bag lunch in the break room at work discussing this book. Unless your boss reads it with you, it'll just frustrate you and bring you into total misalignment with your boss.

Some companies try to get the PR value that comes from pretending to support the ideas contained in a book but then neutralize the potential effects of the book by hiring and promoting people who not only don't model the teachings of the book but actively seek out and suffocate any ideas or behaviors that might result from exposure to the dangerous book. Such was the case when, in the late 80s, I went to work for a Fortune 500 company that required all new hires to complete a class based on Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. They even passed out little plastic 2X3 copies of the Seven Habits that we could carry around in our wallets. Yeah, they really had me fooled. The deception was made all the more convincing by the fact that my Seven Habits teacher, Sal Elmo, seemed to actually believe what he was teaching. Sal threw in everything but the kitchen sink to convince us of Habit Number Four: "Think Win/Win". Sal even used another dangerous book, Robert Axelrod's The Evolution of Cooperation as a force multiplier to drive home the point Covey was making in The Seven Habits. Most of us are raised to think only in terms of somebody has to lose in order for me to win. In fact, as Sal demonstrated with an Axelrod-inspired classroom exercise, most of us don't even know how to think win/win. We default to zero sum thinking even in a game designed to demonstrate how to win bigger by letting the other guy win, too.

I still carry my little credit card size copy of The Seven Habits. I still believe in them. Heck, I believed in them before Stephen Covey wrote the book. "The Seven Habits" is one of those books that, in my view, nobody should have needed to write. I remember reading it (years before my Fortune 500 employer required me to) and thinking this stuff is just common sense.

Apparently, common sense is not a prerequisite for being promoted into management at that Fortune 500 company and neither, it seems, is a belief in The Seven Habits. During my nearly 7 years at this Fortune 500 employer I never worked for a boss who was an exemplar of Seven Habits thinking. I was never held accountable for modeling Seven Habits behavior. I never heard of a co-worker being "dinged" on is annual review because he didn't live and work The Seven Habits.

Somewhere deep in the bowels of this Fortune 500 employer who required us to learn but did not require anybody to actually practice The Seven Habits, I'm told that there is a guy who thinks he's "in charge of corporate culture" and that it is he, this corporate culture czar, who requires all new hires to take a Seven Habits class. I have a message for him and for all the other corporate culture czars out there: unless your hiring and promotion practices are consistent with your stated values, even dangerous books like "The Seven Habits " and The Evolution of Cooperation will not result in culture creation because, as one of your own managers once said "Your corporate culture is whatever your current boss says it is."

Speaking of hiring and promoting the wrong bosses, here is a dangerous book about that very topic, Robert Sutton's The No Asshole Rule. Robert Sutton first got on my radar when my business book discussion group read Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management, a dangerous book he wrote with Jeffrey Pfeffer. In The No Asshole Rule, Sutton's theme is simple and direct: under no circumstances should any company ever knowingly hire or tolerate an "asshole" - no matter how talented the asshole may be - because assholes do more damage to employee morale, create more employee turnover and inflict more harm to your corporate culture and to your brand than they are worth.

Let me know if you want to see future installments of my "Dangerous Books" list.

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