Top 5 business maxims that need to go – Part II

Same same

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.
It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
– Josh Billings

Much well-known business advice is sadly obsolete but can still be found in articles, business books and, not least, in daily use in the workplace. It seems that some companies are still guided by thinking that is sadly out of date – if it was ever true to begin with.

The worst of these old maxims are not only wrong, they’re bad for people and bad for business. Businesses who use them are making their employees unhappy and are harming the bottom line.

I recently wrote a post about the Top 5 Business Maxims That Need To Go, listing 5 horrendous examples. I also asked people to contribute the maxims they would like to get rid of, and got some great suggestions, so here are 5 more pieces of bad business advice that are making people unhappy at work and harming the bottom line.

Old maxim #1: People only work if you constantly kick their butt

Meaning: People are inherently lazy and only work when properly spurred on and controlled by managers.
– Submitted by JACH

This is of course just plain wrong. The interesting thing is though, that managers who take this approach often end up with people who behave this way for two reasons:

  1. Treating employees in this way makes them demotivated and resentful so they start doing as little as they can get away with
  2. Motivated, skilled employees refuse to put up with this treatment and leave

Instead, treating people like responsible adults who actually want to do great work makes people want to live up to this. People have an amazing ability to live up (or down) to our expectations.

New maxim: Treat people great and they do great work

Old maxim #2: The only way to get ahead is to put in the hours

Meaning: Success requires more than 40 hours/week. If you won’t put in the hours, somebody else who will is going to come along and take your place.

Some results can be achieved through working more. If you can dig one hole in an hour you can dig two holes in two hours.

But some results don’t scale that way: If a programmer can write 100 lines of code in an 8-hour work day, it doesn’t follow that she can code 200 in a 16-hour day. In fact, the output of 16 hours of work may be significantly lower than what you get in 8.

You might even get more work done in 6 hours a day than you do in 8. That’s what one company discovered, to their great surprise, when financial problems forced them to reduce working hours.

Instead of mindlessly putting in the hours, ask yourself how the work you do scales? How long is your optimal work day or work week?

New maxim: Maximize your results, not your hours

Old maxim #3: Sales fixes everything

I’ll let Guy Kawasaki explain the meaning of this one: As long as you have sales, cash will flow, and as long as cash flows, (a) you will have the time to fix your team, your technology, and your marketing; (b) the press won’t be able to say much because customers are pouring money into your coffers; and (c) your investors will leave you alone.

I adore sales. Cash is absolutely delightful. But sales and cash do not solve every problem.

Let’s say your entire team is stressed and overworked. Will sales fix this? Let’s say nobody’s communicating properly, because half the people on your team hate the other half. Let’s say two of your best employees are about to quit because they’re being bullied by their manager. It would be pointless to try to solve these kinds of problems by increasing sales.

In fact, more sales can make a bad situation worse because:

  1. The company will focus more on the customers than on its own people
  2. More sales means more work and potentially more stress for an unhappy organization

So while sales are wonderful, there are a whole set of common issues in a workplace that are not solved through more sales. I would in fact suggest that making your people happy is much more likely to result in higher sales, than higher sales are to result in happy people.

New maxim: Happy people fix everything

Old maxim #4: Leave your personal life at home

Meaning: We come to work to work. Who you are in your free time does not matter.
– Submitted by Scott Nutter

This is just ridiculous. As if you’re one person at home and a different person at work. As if your personality, private interests and opinions were somehow going to contaminate the workplace and ruin everyone’s professionalism.

Henry Ford is said to have complained “Why do workers come with a brain, when all I need is a pair of hands?? Well today businesses can’t settle for hands. We can’t even settle for brains alone, we also need people’s energy, creativity, ideas, opinions and motivation. We need the whole person to come to work every day.

New maxim: Be yourself at home and at work

Old maxim #5: The business of business is business

Meaning: Companies must focus on their business and nothing else. Also often used to mean that the only goal of a business is the bottom line.

Well if this is true, then why do successful companies like Southwest Airlines, Patagonia, Semco, Kjaer Group, Great Harvest and many others spend time and money on charities, in their communities and on environmental issues?

I’ll tell you why:

  1. It feels good to do good and it makes employees happy and proud to work for these companies
  2. It’s good for the bottom line

Also, Jim Collins proved in his book Built To Last, that companies who only focus on the bottom line perform significantly worse than companies who maintain a broader scope and also focus on other issues.

New maxim: There’s more to business than just business

Wrap-up

The scariest thing about these old maxims is that they tend to be accepted unquestioningly because they are repeated so often – a little like nursery rhymes used to educate children. That means it’s not enough to oust the old maxims we need to replace them with new ones that are likely to bring better results for people and for the bottom line.

So here they are at a glance, the tired maxims and the suggested replacements:

Tired old maxim Shiny new maxim
To get ahead you must work long hours Maximize your results, not your hours
People only work if you’re constantly kicking their butt Treat people great and they do great work
Leave your personal life at home Be yourself at home and at work
Sales fixes everything Happy people fix everything
The business of business is business There’s more to business than just business

Know any more bad business advice, mantra, maxim, truism that needs to go? Write a comment!

If you liked this post, I’m pretty sure you’ll also enjoy these:

33 thoughts on “Top 5 business maxims that need to go – Part II”

  1. Old Maxim 2 (People only work if you’re constantly kicking their butt): Perhaps you can provide some enlightenment. My normal management routine is very laid back. I encourage people to do their best, work at their own pace, and I come around for compliments as often as problems. I have one employee that has made it a habit to not be at their desk. We work in a phone oriented environment and need to be at our desk to answer those calls, yet this person just gets up, walks off and wanders for minutes, hours, you name it. I have addressed it and they get better for a while, maybe a few weeks or a month and then the cycle starts over again. When they actually work, they do a good job. Any ideas?

  2. Hi Ben.

    First of all: I like your leadership style!

    Secondly: Great question. If I were in this situation, I would start by asking the employee why he wanders off. Maybe there’s a good reason for it. Could be medical, mental, stress-related… I dunno but I would try to find out.

    If there’s a good reason for him to leave then maybe his work can be arranged to acommodate that reason..?

    If not then here’s an innovative suggestion that might work: Make it visible how often it happens.

    In a visible location, place a glass for each employee (including yourself) and label each glass with an employee’s name.

    Then get a bag of marbles and introduce the following rule: Every time someone wanders off like that they have to throw a marble in their glass first. If they don’t you or a colleague can do it for them.

    But will that change anything? Maybe! At the very least it will show everyone exactly who is wandering off and how often.

    And quite often when you visualize the extent of a problem in this way, the problem becomes smaller or goes away altogether.

    The HR manager of Q8 in Denmark told me how he reduced sick days in his organization dramatically: He simply showed the sick day statistics at company meetings. Bringing attention to the numbers was all that was required to improve the situation.

    And if this doesn’t work, I would make it clear for him what his absence does to the rest of the department and that it can’t go on. It seems especially unfair to the other employees.
    This post might have some useful tips on how to handle it:
    http://positivesharing.com/2006/07/5-essential-steps-to-resolve-a-conflict-at-work/

    Is this useful to you at all?

  3. Mantra, maxims, axioms and many other workplace philosophies come and go often to only come again…The bigger issue is not what people say or even how they act, but rather how you “choose” to handle it. You may be interested in reading a recent post entitled: “Passion Equals Purpose” which can be view at: http://www.n2growth.com/blog/?p=94

  4. Alex,

    Thanks for the information (and compliment)! I’m not sure how well the glass of marbles would do. In part I think the team as a whole would feel like I’m treating them in a very childish manner. Second, I think it would be insulting enough that the person would go to HR and report that as offensive, even if it meant having HR investigate and find out why. Our HR team is very harsh on management actions. But it does give me an idea that I may want to try.

    As for why the person leaves, the most frequent reason is to get away from the stress. They feel overwhelmed by the workload (which they perform about half the work of the team mate) and are burnt out. While I don’t expect everyone to perform the same, I have my doubts as to the sincerity of their reasons.

  5. Yeah, I can see your point. Funny thing is, if you created an Excel spreadsheet to track it, no one would complain. Marbles achieve the same objective but can seem childish. The good thing about the marbles is that it makes it everyone’s responsibility instead of just yours to monitor this behavior.

    The thing about stress is, if you feel stressed you are stressed.

    It’s important to remember that stress and workload aren’t always related – some people do huge amounts of work and are never stressed, some people do far less and feel very stressed.

    Stress is more tied to control – people who feel they have little control over their work environment are much more prone to stress. Maybe walking off like this is a way of asserting a little control over their work day. This is of course no excuse, merely a possible explanation.

    I would love to hear what you choose to do and how it works – let me know!

  6. Unfortunately in today’s politically correct world, one MUST leave thier personal life at home. Unless of course you’re just as uptight, proper, boring and mundane at home as you are at work. If I was allowed to bring my personality to work, my corporation would be sued, sued again, and sued AGAIN, for percieved discriminitory actions. We would befined for violating the family leave act. In the process I would probably be charged with sexual harassment more than once. So unless you are like the co-worker who has the desk next to me…and your sole life is your retarded daughter and Mickey Mouse, current laws and political climate REQUIRE YOU TO LEAVE YOUR PERSONAL LIFE AT HOME.

  7. These five maxims (and the moronic ‘middle-manager” types who embrace them) are a major reason I left the workaday world (for the second and final time) about a decade ago, and have worked out of my own home ever since.It hasn’t always been easy, but the lowered stress levels have made even the most onerous tasks “not work but something fun I happen to get paid to do”!

  8. Angry Rivethead: Which completely sucks! What is so horrible about our real-life personas that we can’t express them at work?

    Btw: You get first prize for mist creative screen name :o)

    Steve: Me too!

  9. I enjoyed this post, and especially the dialogue between Ben and Alexander. Ben, your predicament epitomizes a real-life problem that very few theories, if any, can address. You are a leader who is concerned about his people and getting the work done. At the same time, your performance is very likely judged on how your team performs. And you have a difficult member in your team. So what do you do?

    I work in this area, of helping people who are bored, disengaged or stressed at work, to find energy, passion and meaning in their jobs. I find that many people want to find meaning and purpose in their work. But I also agree with Alexander. Different human beings have different stress thresholds and different life circumstances. Not an easy problem to address.

    Check my blog at http://www.mirasz-blog.blogspot.com

  10. Pingback: My favorites
  11. Here’s one that annoys me: The myth of becoming “well-rounded.” Managers are always trying to make well-rounded employees by having them work on their weaknesses so they could “grow” instead of capitalizing on their strengths.

  12. Re: “People only work if youre constantly kicking their butt” vs. “Treat people great and they do great work”

    I’m definitely all over the”Treat people great…”style, and have been for 20 years.

    I once ran a small art studio with several assistants. I encouraged them to be relaxed, paid them really well (often, even more than I paid myself), provided food, drink, etc. while they were at work.

    The result?

    They did outstanding work, ALWAYS went above and beyond the call, and would travel to NYC (a day long affair with travel considered) to deliver jobs that were running late, and do it at a moment’s notice. I honestly think that if I needed one of them to walk over some hot coals for me, they would have.

    Now I own a retail operation and treat my employees the same way. Guess what? They work their butts off, treat the customers great, and are always looking out for me.

    A little kindness and respect goes a long, long way.

  13. I picked up an axim that actually makes sense and can be used at virtually every level: “work smarter, not harder.”

    Don’t get me wrong, hard work can go a long way, however, if you’re just working to work and not thinking about processes that have a proven track record and you’re actually creating more work for yourself or others, it’s counter-productive to the team.

  14. Alexander, I love reading your stuff. Encouragement is my main tool I share with other staff members with a 360 degree influence. It works. It empowers emotions to overcome.

    Maxims? “You’re either part of the problem or part of the solution.” Is this one? Certainly decides which side you are on. One thinig I’ve learned in my maturity is that all of life is about how we respond to relationships positively or negatively. Being handicapped from polio, independent mobility is a constant challenge. Adapting is not an option with me. Failure, on the other hand, is a processing tool for learning how I’ve overcome gravity. Positive thinking, however, has been a result of my desire to continue forward. Not achieving what I wanted has made me hungry for solutions, (you know…the mother of invention?). As a result, my steps are carefully calculated into falling forward. I don’t go far, nor fast, but, then, walking is not my stronger suit. Somehow, I do manage to get where I’m going. Voila! What is normalcy for most, is success for me.

  15. I simply loathe the substitution of original, innovative thinking for someone elses over-used, antiquated, one size fits all, and often wrong thinking simply because it is (or was) made popular by someone of note. See if this resonates with youCan you even remember the last time you attended a business meeting where at some point in time the conversation didnt break down into a verbal game of one-upmanship to determine who could cite the most colorful business axiom, come up with an obscure quote from Peter Drucker, reference a sound bite from one of Jack Welchs old speeches, or mention something from Good To Great? From B-School students, to mid-level managers, to C-level executives, the business world is mired down amuck the plethora of unsubstantiated opinions, trends, misinformation, and other untruths taken as fact without even the slightest attempt at vetting the sound-bite de jure against the relevancy of the thought, or the context of the situation.

    My question to you is simply thisWhere are this generations real thought leaders hiding? The business world is chalk-full of so-called experts and gurus who in my opinion add little value to the advancement of business thought. Rather it is my observation that these purported experts often seem to relish in meaningless drivel and rhetoric while conspiring in the repurposing and proliferation of trite business axioms and myths that are often older than my dead grandfathers suits. You might be thinking to yourself boy is this the pot calling the kettle black, or what?, and while Ive certainly been guilty at times of perpetuating dated theory, I have always tried to deal in the functional reality of not only what works in todays global business world, but what will work into the future as things continue to evolve around us.

  16. Mr. Myatt, sir, you are loaded with axiom drivel and run-on sentences. I did like your “simply this…” statement, however. My experience says this for your answer, you are commenting on such expert’s blog. Guru? I don’t know him by any other means than what he publishes, but if you know what truth is in human nature, you’ll know it when you see it. Alexander, got your light turned on?

  17. I think you may have misinterpreted my last comment. I was not in disagreement with Alexander, nor was I challenging his assertions. I was rather in complete concurrence with him about the uselessness of many of today’s overused and outdated business axioms. If my comments were misunderstood I offer my most sincere apology…

  18. The maxim that most drives me crazy is “We’ll do more with less!” As companies cost-cut themselves into oblivion, this is what they are chanting. The truth is you really can’t do more with less, and if you have less, you must narrow your focus and prioritize. Imagine if I came home from work and told my family that I took a 25% pay cut, but that it was okay, we wouldn’t tighten our belts at all. We’d just do more with less!

  19. Karen – I find that in some circumstances it is possible to do more with less, but only if you have too much in the first place, so that less clutter/things to get in the way can actually make you more productive.

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