Marcus Buckingham

Marcus Buckingham: Find your edge, win at work

“Let’s look at the world as it is,” Marcus Buckingham, best-selling author, researcher, and founder of the Strengths re volution, began his talk during the Nordic Business Forum 2018 by noting how people tend to fall into the trap of trying to understand abstract concepts like excellence by studying their opposites.

“We think excellence is the opposite of failure, so we study failure and reverse it,” Buckingham said. But good isn’t simply the opposite of bad. “If you study bad and flip it, you don’t get good or excellent; you just get not bad,” he explained. The same false logic tends to lead to all kinds of wrong conclusions whether in life or business: Studying unhappy customers will not teach a company about excellence, it will only teach about unhappy customers.

Instead, Buckingham urged that people should be more specific and stay focused on the subject they are trying to study in order to produce the desired findings. Excellence has its own pattern and is worth being studied all by itself.

The ‘idiosyncratic rater effect’

During his talk, Buckingham covered performance reviews, which he portrayed as being universally loathed. According to Buckingham, the main issue with performance reviews is that the idea “that a human being can be trained to be a reliable rater of another human being” is deeply flawed.

The performance review offers more insight to the person doing the review than the employee being rated, Buckingham argued. He used the term “idiosyncratic rater effect” to describe this phenomenon where, with every review, there is a pattern built based on the reviewer’s own self.

That pattern continues as the reviewer moves from person to person, even if it should change according to the person being reviewed, Buckingham noted. Thus, the review “reflects me, the appraiser, not you, the employee,” he said.

A similar problem occurs with the group-sourced appraisal known as the 360-degree survey. Buckingham described this as an activity that “takes lots of bad data and puts it together hoping for good data.” Systematizing the error “becomes just noise plus noise plus noise,” said Buckingham. “It never equals signal.”

What he suggested instead, is that companies should take a more freethinking approach and apply it to work. This, however, requires overcoming many of the lies that plague management teams, Buckingham said. The “lies,” he noted, will be outlined in his book, Nine Lies about Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World, which expected to be published in April 2019.

They include the ideas that people care about the company they work for, the concept that the best plan wins, the best companies cascade goals, the idea that “well-rounded people are better,” that “people crave feedback,” that people can reliably rate other people, that people have potential, that everyone is seeking a work-life balance, and that “leadership is a thing.”

All of these lies are built into the concept of performance ratings, meaning that to offer an alternative, more successful approach means taking people as they are and assessing them on their individual strengths, not how well they fit these preconceived notions or “lies.”

“You cannot tell Beyoncé to be more like Adele, or Richard Branson to be more like Warren Buffett,” Buckingham said. “They are who they are and have different forms of success that evade classification into one stream.”

What’s your “left foot”?

During his talk, Buckingham played attendees a video clip of a goal scored by Lionel Messi during the Barcelona versus Bilbao match at the Copa Del Rey final in 2015. Messi is considered one of the best football players in the world, and the fact that he was able to score it by using some deft footwork, mostly with his left foot, was the standout issue.

Like most professional athletes, Messi had been coached to even out his football skills, to use both feet more equitably, an example of becoming more “well rounded,” Buckingham noted. However, Messi’s continued reliance on his left foot amid the well-rounded nature of his competitors served as proof that human nature is unique, he said. As such, people should embrace their given strengths, and spend less time trying to improve those aspects of their performance where they are less gifted. Buckingham asked the audience to be more aware of their own metaphorical “left foot” and use it. “Wherever you are,” he said, “be dangerous.”

Expanding on the left foot metaphor, Buckingham recounted a story concerning his son, Jack, and a dreaded parent-teacher interview that happened in kindergarten. Buckingham remarked how he was horrified to see the artwork that his son had created in class, which was visibly lacking compared to his classmates. However, he discovered that although Jack’s art was terrible, his math equations were more advanced than the rest of his group. Buckingham stressed that this was not the time to gloat, but rather an opportunity to understand why Jack was excelling in this area. “If you want your child to learn more,” said Buckingham, “look now at where your child learns best. What are most of your conversations about?” he asked. “They should be about what works and why it works.”

To build on one’s natural talents, Buckingham advocated a concept called “strengths replay:” catching people doing something that worked and then determining why it was successful. He cited studies that show that neuronic connections grow more where there the most neurons already exist – that is, where the most pre-existing synaptic connections are located.

“Learning,” Buckingham said, “is about recognizing a pattern that’s already there and figuring out how to refine and repeat it.”

Red threads

To close his talk, Buckingham talked about the love for one’s job. Again, he showed an image of Lionel Messi, but this time he focused on the look of joy on his face after he had scored his goal. Buckingham stated that to release talent, you must engage with the language of love, spending a week in love with your job.

This is achieved, he said, by taking notes of the work activities you love and the ones you hate. Buckingham referred to these preferred activities as “red threads” and said that they represent an individual’s inherent strengths. It is the responsibility of management, said Buckingham, to help people find their red threads, to help themselves as individuals as well as team members. In anyone’s “job fabric,” said Buckingham, there should be a minimum of 20 percent red threads.


About Nordic Business Forum 2018

Nordic Business Forum 2018 was held on 26-27 September in Helsinki, Finland, gathering together 7,500 CEOs, top executives, and entrepreneurs from over 40 countries.

Download the full Executive Summary and read what the speakers said on stage at Nordic Business Forum 2018.

DOWNLOAD EXECUTIVE SUMMARY >

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