Four of the Biggest Business Myths (Author Q+A)
Why is the business world surrounded by so many myths?
Jo Owen: The world of business is genuinely difficult and confusing. There is no universal success formula for business, or for leadership. There is only what works for you in your context, and the context keeps on changing. That means your success formula keeps on changing. For instance, when a team member gets promoted to team leader everything changes: being a good team member is completely different from being a good team leader. You have to learn new rules of survival and success. In this confusing world, we all need to make some simplifying assumptions about what works. At best, these rules of thumb are extremely useful if they fit the context we work in; at worst they are myths peddled by people who think that what worked for them will work for everyone else in every other context.
Jérôme Barthélemy: There are many reasons but an important one is that the negative effects of many business practices are not immediately perceptible. Thus, managers fail to connect the cause to the effect and carry on with detrimental practices.
Ian MacRae: Many of these myths come from personal experience or anecdotal information. But just because something happens to one person, or one person interprets a situation in a particular way, doesn't mean it is universally true. Assumptions and stereotypes spread quickly whether they are in-person or online. But many of these common assumptions about people, about work, about social media and about business don't hold up when they are scrutinized.
We need to look at the best available research and take an evidence-based approach to debunking all of the myths around business. We all want to make the best possible decisions at work, and incorrect assumptions often lead to errors in judgement and bad decisions.
Simon Bailey: Businesses run on stories and involve a greater degree of serendipity than people are often prepared to admit. While professions such as medicine, law, accounting and engineering tend to have clear sets of rules and procedures which are universally accepted and followed. General business is more like a game and within that context judgement, intuition and storytelling all play a significant role. It's much easier to attribute success to specific actions or initiatives (whether or not there is an actual causal link) and it's these instances that eventually develop into myths.
In your opinion, what is the biggest business myth?
Ian MacRae: The mostly hotly debated business myth currently is that workers can't be productive working from home, or on flexible schedules. The evidence shows people can be far more effective working remotely, and on flexible schedules -- if they have the right conditions! People need the right resources and support, the best available tools (especially when it comes to digital communication), and they need to use them effectively in an environment with shared values and a clear understanding of workplace expectations.
A lot of these business myths are interconnected, so myths about one area of work (like remote working) feed into many others about social media use, digital communication, generational differences, whether people can be trusted to work independently and more!
Simon Bailey: One of the biggest business myths is that the relentless pursuit of money is the thing that drives people towards commercial success. We'd challenge that. Look more deeply at the success of any impressive business or entrepreneur and you'll find that past a certain point, it was the pursuit of something bigger that made that business or individual a success.
Jo Owen: Perhaps the biggest myth is "we know what leadership is." Although many people write and talk about leadership, very few of them define leadership. The few definitions out there are not much use and if you cannot define leadership, you literally do not know what you are talking about. The only useful definition of leadership comes from Kissinger: "leaders take people where they would not have got by themselves." That is dull, but revolutionary. It means that leadership is not about your title: it is about what you do.
The myth is made worse because there is no single leadership success model. Leaders are like liquorice all sorts: they come in all shapes, sizes and flavours. There are many routes to success, which is a good thing: if there was a success formula, then all leaders would have been replaced by an algorithm by now.
Jérôme Barthélemy: Business leaders often complain that their firm’s costs are too high. The opposite is more likely to be true. In most firms, costs are too low to develop a sufficiently differentiated product offering and escape from price-based competition.
In the workplace, how can professionals constructively break down myths without facing push back?
Simon Bailey: Constant communication and being equipped with the evidence to show what really matters most to customers and employees. Talk regularly to your customers, ask them for feedback, and provide the evidence and insight to demonstrate what's really happening.
Ian MacRae: Talk about where the information is coming from, and what the practical implications are of decisions made based on those ideas. It shouldn't be a battle to embarrass someone else about their beliefs, but a discussion about what we've learned about the workplace in previous years and decades. Business success is not a single formula that never changes, it's an open-minded and dynamic approach to solving current challenges with the best available knowledge and resources. Remember, we all make mistakes - think about how you react when someone else challenges something you believe - and consider that when you're trying to debunk myths other people believe!
Jo Owen: Don't waste time fighting myths, focus on the here and now. If a colleague claims "all leaders do X" there is no point in arguing about whether that is right or wrong. Instead, argue about what will work in this context right now. Books and courses will not give you the universal answer. They will give you insights and alternative perspectives which can freshen your thinking and help you find better solutions. Use books as scaffolding to climb and grow your learning, not as a crutch which is a substitute for thinking.
Jérôme Barthélemy: It is very difficult for managers to break down business myths. The best way to do so is to run small-scale experiments. Importantly, the ambiguity that surrounds the quality of business practices can rarely be resolved using a single experiment. Several sub-experiments must often be run to cut through the ambiguity.
About the authors
Ian MacRae is a work psychologist, consultant, speaker, author and Managing Director of High Potential Psychology. He developed the High Potential Traits Inventory (HPTI), a personality assessment, and is the author of Myths of Work and co-author of Myths of Social Media.
Jérôme Barthélemy is Executive Vice-President, Dean for Post Experience Programs, Corporate Programs and Relations and Professor of strategy and management at ESSEC Business School. He has been a visiting professor and visiting research scholar at New York University (NYU), Stanford University and Cambridge University. He is the author of Myths of Strategy.
Jo Owen is a best-selling and multi-award winning leadership author, keynote speaker and social entrepreneur. He is a founder of eight charities, including the UK's largest graduate recruiter Teach First, and the author of Myths of Leadership.
Simon Bailey is partner at The Caffeine Partnership, an award-winning strategic consultancy which specialists in brand-led business growth, and co-author of Myths of Branding. He is an experienced business leader, consultant and brand specialist who advises CEOs and senior professionals on how to use their brands to drive business growth.