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 (or Mark Twain or Artemus Ward or…)
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 It seems that some companies are still guided by thinking that is sadly out of date – if it was ever true to begin with.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.
Here’s my pick of the top 5 business maxims in serious need of an update – with a suggested replacement for each.
UPDATE: Now there’s also a Part II post with 5 more horrendous pieces of business advice.
Old maxim #1: Failure is not an option
Meaning: We absolutely, positively must succeed.
Guess what: No matter how many times you repeat this maxim, failure remains an option. Closing your eyes to this fact only makes you more likely to fail. Putting pressure on people to always succeed makes mistakes more likely because:
- People who work under pressure are less effective
- People resist reporting bad news
- People close their eyes to signs of trouble
This is especially true when it’s backed up with punishment of those who make mistakes. Peter Drucker provocatively suggested that businesses should find all the employees who never make mistakes and fire them, because employees who never make mistakes never do anything interesting. Admitting that mistakes happen and dealing constructively with them when they do makes mistakes less likely.
Also, failure is often the path to new, exciting opportunities that wouldn’t have appeared otherwise. Closing your eyes to failure means closing your eyes to these opportunities.
New maxim: Failure happens. Deal with it.
Old maxim #2: The customer is always right
Meaning: The customer is king. We satisfy our customers’ every need.
No. No, no, no. This tired business maxim often means that loyal hardworking employees are scorned in favor of unreasonable customers. It also, ironically, results in bad customer service.
I recently wrote a post outlining 5 reasons “The Customer Is Always Right” is wrong, concluding that sticking to “The customer is always right” makes employees unhappy and that unhappy employees almost always give customers bad service.
New maxim: Happy employees means happy customers.
Old maxim #3: Never be satisfied
Meaning: You can never be satisified and complacent in business. You’ve always gotta want more.
This is a bad mistake which rests on a very fundamental misconception, namely that being satisfied means that you stop acting. That satisfaction breeds complacency and therefore that a happy, satisifed company will be passive. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, a constant sense of dissatifaction in an organization sends one powerful message: We’re not good enough! The irony is that this results in worse performance.
People who constantly appreciate all the good in their organization and express their satisifaction create a much more positive working environment characterized by more:
- Happiness at work
This is not about closing your eyes and pretending things are great if they’re not. It’s about appreciating the fact that people in constant states of dissatisfaction erode an organization’s will and ability to act. The trick is to appreciate what you have and still aim for more.
Replacement: Always be appreciative but never complacent.
UPDATE: “but never complacent” added thanks to Colin G.’s excellent suggestion.
Old maxim #4: Nice guys finish last
Meaning: We can’t be too nice in business. In fact, being nice may hinder your career and impede results.
That’s just not true, of course we should be nice at work. This doesn’t mean that you have to be nice to all of the people all of the time, but it means that you absolutely can be a nice person and succeed in business. I previously wrote about jerks at work and why they’re bad for business. The conclusion: Unpleasant people hurt the bottom line. In a networked world reputation matters, and it’s more important to be generous and likeable than to be ruthless and efficient.
New maxim: Nice guys get the job done.
Old maxim #5: Grow or die
Meaning: A business is either growing or dying. A business can’t be successful if it’s not growing.
It’s interesting to see how growth has been elevated to an automatic good, questioned by very few businesses and executives. Growth certainly has some positive effects especially because it creates new possibilities and challenges for an organization and its people. I’m not saying that growth is bad but that growth isn’t always right for every business. Sometimes a business might be better off spending a quarter or a year not growing but simply consolidating existing business. Consequently not growing or even shrinking does not automatically represent business failure.
That’s what Semco’s CEO Ricard Semler meant when he said this:
There is no correlation between growth and ultimate success. For a while growth seems very glamorous, but the sustainability of growth is so delicate that many of the mid-sized companies which just stayed where they were doing the same thing are much better off today than the ones that went crazy and came back to nothing. There are too many automobile plants, too many airplanes. Who is viable in the airline business?
If someone asks me, ‘where will you be in 10 years’ time?’, I haven’t got the slightest idea. I don’t find it perturbing either if we said, ‘look, in 10 years’ time Semco could have 500 people instead of 3,000 people'; that sounds just as interesting as 21,000 people. I’d hate to see Semco not exist in 10, 20, 50 years’ time, but what form it exists in, what business it’s in and what size it is are not particularly relevant.
Growing also entails its own risks, especially fast growth on borrowed money. This almost killed Patagonia in the early 90’s. Founder Yvon Chouinard says this:
It was back in 1990 or so and we were growing the company by 40 to 50 percent a year and we were doing it by all the textbook business ways — adding more dealers, adding more products, building stores. Growing it like the American dream, you know — grow, grow, grow. And one year we predicted 40 to 50 percent growth and there was a recession and all the sudden we only grew 20 percent. And at the same time, our bank was going belly-up and we had cash-flow problems and it went to absolute hell. And I had been the person who had never bought anything on credit in all my life. I always paid cash for everything, and to have to call someone and say, “I’m sorry, I can’t pay my bills this month,” was killing me. And I realized that I was on the same track as society was — endless growth for the sake of growth.
That’s when I decided to put the brakes on and decided to grow at a more natural rate — which basically means that only when our customers want something do we make more, but we don’t prime the pump.
New maxim: Grow when you gotta.
The scary thing about maxims is that they’re often accepted unquestioningly because they come in the shape of old addages which are repeated – 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 guaranteed to bring better results for people and for the bottom line.
Here they are at a glance, the tired maxims and the suggested replacements:
|Tired old maxim||New maxim|
|Failure is not an option||Failure happens – deal with it|
|The customer is always right||Happy employees means happy customers|
|Never be satisfied||Always be appreciative but never complacent|
|Nice guys finish last||Nice guys get results|
|Grow or die||Grow when you gotta|
I’m working on another post called, in a fit of almost supernatural creativity, five more business maxims that need to go. Do you know any that belong on the list? Tell me about it in the comments.
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