How management books ruin work for the rest of us

It's time to stop parroting trendy falsehoods (4 min read)

In the last two weeks I’ve heard three conversations that have left me convinced that management books are a disaster for well-meaning employees. Firstly one of my friends, Sarah, caught me up on the dramas she’d experienced over the last 18 Covidy months. One of those long, walk in the park style chats that meanders everywhere over a couple of hours.

Sarah’s lockdown has been filled with anxiety as her father has been seriously unwell with a long-term illness. Amidst the stresses and strains of remote working that we’ve all handled, she additionally had to deal with the challenges of managing regular train journeys shuttling up to see her family in whatever pandemic window they were permitted.

From the outset Sarah, the most joyously positive radiator you could wish to meet has been transparent with her friends about the emotional turmoil her father’s illness has caused her. It’s entirely understandable that she’s had moments lost in deep despair about what might happen. If anything over the last two years the routines of work have been a happy distraction - she’s never worked so hard in her career.

Of course, we are well schooled with how life-affecting experiences like this should intersect with our jobs. The mantra that we should bring our whole selves to work is so oft repeated that anyone who reads things like this newsletter will have read it, thought it, watched the TED Talk.

So that’s what she did. Sarah told her colleagues - she brought her whole self to work.

Each week she’d join her team meeting, relate to them a tiny update of how the weekend had been spent heading north to see her dad and if anyone checked in to ask for more detail she’d give them an update on how things were going. It was heartening to see the sympathy in her colleagues’ eyes. They’d wish her well, she felt their love.

Strangely over the same period the anonymous work feedback from colleagues wasn’t great. ‘Sarah seems low energy at the moment’, read one baffling comment in her 360 appraisal. ‘I hope Sarah’s ok, she seems depressed,’ was the gist of another. She was bemused by this. She’d been working as hard as ever in a successful career. In fact, the only reason for people to say her mood was different was not the energy she brought to interactions with clients, they seemed as happy as ever, it was the honesty she brought to her team meetings. She’d shared with her colleagues that things were tough right now and it had caused her moments of deep sadness. Like she was meant to, like they said in the TED Talks. And in return they’d anonymously reported that Sarah wasn’t focussed. Out of nowhere the job she’d been a stellar success in was now asking if she was up to it.

A year into her dad’s illness, Sarah decided to change things up. She stopped talking about his illness, ever. On Mondays she went back to telling funny stories about her cat, her housemates and her weekend. People would occasionally ask about her dad but she’d beam and bat back their question assuring them that things were ‘looking good!’. Within three months the next cycle of feedback came back. The team felt Sarah was back to her best, they were impressed with her work. Her track record of knockout results was back on track. As we finished our lattes in the park she asked me a question I struggled to answer, ‘People tell you to bring your whole self to work, and I just want to ask them, what good will it do me?’

I’d probably have left this there if another adjacent story hadn’t affected me on Tuesday night. Over drinks another friend who lives abroad told me of the challenges she was having with her older manager. The European country she lives in has seen workers return to the workplace and since being back in the office he’d commented on the fit of her clothes, asked why she didn’t wear dresses and made inappropriate comments about her private life.

‘Go to HR! Contactar con Recursos Humanos!’ I urged her, but she explained that senior directors in what is a traditional industry had witnessed several of the episodes. She was doing well in her job, telling anyone how upset this was making her would only damage her career. Bring her full self to work? She wanted to avoid anything that would give her dinosaur boss any more ammunition for innuendo.

Finally I was watching someone who I regard as a clear-sighted thinker when it comes to creating a progressive workplace. In an online debate he gave a crisply articulate answer to a question about the perfect work culture. ‘We should feel proud to bring our full selves to work, whatever our intersectionality we should all feel welcome at work’. He went on to additionally preach that if we have mental health challenges, or unrecognised neurodiversity challenges our mission should be to let everyone know. Using the killer phrase ‘this is what the research says’, we were left in no doubt, this is how we achieve our best results at work. (I mention the research line scornfully because social science is the murkiest discipline that often proves whatever you’re in the mood for).

Well, firstly yes, I want to be clear that am wholly in favour of everyone feeling proud and comfortable with who they are in the world. Truly there is powerful evidence that the more proud we can be about our identities, the better it is for our personal wellbeing. Hiding our true identities has been shown, in extremes, to suppress the effectiveness of our immune system. But all of this presumes that at work we are in safe, enlightened spaces and I’m not convinced we’re even close. There’s evidence that women who emphasise that they are mothers are discriminated against, there’s no shortage of cases of firms discriminating against workers who confessed their mental health challenges.

To my mind there is a dangerous misinterpretation going on. Advice that is intended for the most senior leaders is being used by the rest of us. It’s like the cabin crew of a flight using the pilot’s manual, and it’s ending messily. My feeling is becoming more vehement: Yes leaders should create a culture where people can be themselves, but no, if your firm (or boss) hasn’t created this act advisedly.

Jeffrey Pfeiffer is an esteemed management thinker whose book, Power, has become a staple of MBA courses around the world. His book is in many ways a modern day version of Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, serving as an inadvertent manual for dealing with the harsh realities of modern work. I chatted to Pfeiffer three years ago and explained to me the need for the book. ‘Many people who rise to the top in today’s world, not the one that we want, but the one that currently exists, are people who are nastier, tougher, and more willing to do whatever it takes more than their competition’.

The critical point here is the world we’re in isn’t the perfect place we wish it could be. And no matter how much we want to change that we should be aware of the realities of the scenario we’ve been given right now. If you’re the boss then please do create something better, there’s great evidence you’ll get better work from your teams. But Pfeiffer’s darkly cynical advice is worth heeding - being optimistic is a naive strategy. We often like to believe that the world is fair, despite the evidence that surrounds us. Pfeiffer says: ‘You need to look at the world as it is, not as you want it to be’. 

Pfeiffer - who, by the way, is no fan of unconstrained capitalism as his book Dying for a Paycheck documents - is clear what this means for the idea of bringing your whole self to work:

‘Your parents can love you unconditionally, your boss as work isn’t going to love you unconditionally. At work the questions are: what can you do, what are you doing, what is the contribution that you’re making. You can bring your full self to work but what you really need to bring to work is the contribution that your boss wants from you’.

To my mind, the biggest red herring here is talk about vulnerability. There is no doubt that for leaders talking about their weaknesses and self doubts is powerful. We can all take lessons from the screentrade, viewers and employees can relate better to characters with evident flaws.

If you’re the big boss on the podium sharing candor about moments of uncertainty is humanising - please do more of it. Get vulnerable. For the rest of us to open up to each other is certainly the way to unlock intimacy, whether with friends or colleagues.

But the idea that we should open up to everyone no matter who they are like a lamb dressing themselves with a mint leaf neck garland for its first date with a wolf. If you are a worker struggling to try to make your way up the promotion ladder the very last thing you need to be doing is dropping some Brene Brown moves on your colleagues. I vividly remember, in the fizz of hype about vulnerability, one colleague on a risk-taking training course confessing to a group of us that he’d spent several thousand pounds of his wedding fund in lapdancing clubs. I’m not sure what any of us were meant to glean from the exercise but it made it clear to me that there are probably worthwhile boundaries worth preserving in life. Bring your whole self to relations with people you trust, everyone else needs to earn it. It’s time for us to all stop parroting lines of trendy conventional wisdom that are actually god-awful advice to the rest of us.

Disagree? Click on the email header to add your comment below the article. Send this on to a colleague who might discuss it.

As mentioned above, here’s the discussion with Jeffrey Pfeiffer from the archives. Still holds up as a brilliant debate about the illusion that work tries to peddle to us (and how stresses at work are toxic for our bodies).

LISTEN: Apple / Spotify / website

If you like this you might like Dying for a Paycheck or Power.

This week I’ve been enjoying the reprise of one of the best albums of the last 25 years (a close 2nd to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to my mind). Does the re-recording lack a little magic, I’m not sure? This was a nice new addition to it. // Brian and Roger remains the funniest podcast around and if you don’t listen you might love it.