Here’s Why Not To Let Business Books Shape Your Workplace

"If your boss focuses on the appearance of work over work itself you’re going to find yourself in a world of pain."

“What are you doing?” a senior manager asked one of my friends, walking into his office and seeing him with no obvious task at hand.  My friend, we’ll call him Pat, had not been working for this particular manager very long.  

By almost any quantifiable metric Pat is a superstar employee. He quickly ascended through the ranks at another company prior to his most recent promotion and subsequent run in with his boss. 

Not only did he handle the increasing levels of responsibility with seeming ease but he did so without working longer or harder. Pat’s the definition of someone who works smarter. Most people with similar responsibilities were working twelve-hour days, while Pat was pretty much a nine-to-fiver. 

Part of me hates people like Pat because he makes everything look effortless. And part of me loves that he achieves success in a way that is almost 100 percent against conventional corporate wisdom. He doesn’t come up with big elaborate plans. He skips most meetings. 

However, Pat’s previous success has been achieved in environment where optics didn’t matter. Things were different now. His new bosses expected symbolic and visible tasks rather than focusing on what matters. They were trying to catch him doing something that wasn’t work related so they could nag him. 

This isn’t management or leadership. It’s bullshit. 

At lunch recently he told me about this incident with his boss saying that taking this new job was a mistake. 

“Why was it a mistake?” I asked. 

While not an exact quote, he said something along the following lines: “This place is just insane. They spend more time on the appearance of work than work itself. The incentives are all wrong. No one wants to work on the nuts and bolts stuff, everyone wants to be the hero. It seems that only heroes get promoted. Politics trump doing things. No one does anything that might fail. It’s so messed up.” 

“Sounds like a typical bureaucracy,” I offered. 

“I’ve worked in some form of bureaucracy all of my life, but nothing like this. It feels almost evil. I don’t know if I can last much longer. My hope of changing the culture of the organization is almost zero.” 

Pat’s methods, while unorthodox, usually go unquestioned because he gets results. His formula is the simplest thing I’ve ever seen and it generally works. There are a few components, four of which are: hiring good people, assigning them the right work, staying out of their way, and ensuring he creates the right culture. That’s it. 

He’s quick to get rid of people who don’t fit his system and, somewhat refreshingly, people love working for him. He constantly shrinks the number of people working for him after taking over a new job. He prefers working with fewer competent people to many less competent people. 

This means a lot of his work is not really work in the traditional sense. He has no day-to-day output. He’s not making pens, he’s a middle-manager in a tech company. He tries to spend most of his non-meeting time, thinking, reading and learning.  He thinks about people and how to unleash their potential. He thinks about what needs to be done and who has the skills to do it. He thinks about what he’s not doing. And, importantly, he thinks about what he should stop doing.

“But to my new boss, that wasn’t work,” he tells me. “It was if he expected me to be moving pens from one side of my desk to the other.”

And that’s stupid and entirely too common. 

Pat tells me that he and his boss had the same conversation one day when he was scrolling through my Twitter feed trying to find an article on how to build rapport with anyone. His boss thought he was using the Internet with no visible and apparent business purpose when, in fact, Pat had a meeting that afternoon with a new client and wanted to get off on the right foot. 

To some extent skill is a function of the environment that it’s produced in. Call it the superstar effect: we think we can hire the heroes of other organizations and put them in ours and then they will succeed in the same way. But it doesn’t work that way. Success is, in part, a function of the environment it was created in. 

The same mistake is made reading business books. I know, I read more than most. When searching for innovation, we tend to pick up the latest best selling book that promises miracles. We think that something like In the Plex will teach us all we need to know about innovation and that if we go back to our company and implement twenty-percent time or Kickstarter-type initiatives we’ll become more innovative. And while that may work, the odds are low. That’s like taking a lion, which thrives in the context of its habitat in Africa, and placing it in New York. 

If your boss focuses on the appearance of work over work itself you’re going to find yourself in a world of pain. Not only will you have to justify every action that doesn’t look like work but you’ll constantly be implementing the advice of the latest best-selling book (the definition of management by best-seller). 

My advice is simple and blunt: If you work for an organization like Pat’s find a new job.  

Shane Parrish feeds your brain at Farnam Street, a site that helps readers master the best of what other people have already figured out. Join over 34,000 other smart subscribers and sign up for brain food. Here’s Why Not To Let Business Books Shape Your Workplace