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A Professor Tested Whether Cliché Career Advice Actually Works

We’ve all heard advice about how to perform better on the job. Follow your passion. Break down the silos. Think outside the box. Synergize. Move the needle. The customer is king. Network. Manage up. Empower others. A few years ago, I compiled a list of these clichés and wound up with over 100 pieces of advice, few backed up by any real data.

Since then, I’ve performed a quantitative study of the work practices and performance results of 5,000 workers and managers across a wide range of jobs and industries in corporate America. I developed and administered a lengthy survey instrument to gather data from managers and employees on work practices, and then I ran that data through numerous statistical analyses to measure the effects of various practices on individual job performance.

The results overturned a great deal of conventional wisdom about what to do to perform at your best. Here are three especially popular clichés about work that my statistical research soundly disproves.

Cliché #1: Strive for Consensus

When working on teams, people often aim to reach agreement at all costs. Unpleasant conflicts or tensions are counter-productive, they think, and the best performers at...

You Can’t Fire Your Way to Success

It was just a short remark in President Trump’s State of the Union speech, but nonetheless, the president made an emphatic call “to empower every cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers—and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.” To support his point, he pointed to 1,500 Veterans Affairs Department employees removed under his watch “who failed to give our veterans the care they deserve” and to new flexibilities that make it easier to hire the professionals VA needs.

But there are two problems with this approach. First, firing 1,500 VA employees for cause may sound impressive, but it is actually fewer than were fired over an equivalent time during the Obama administration. In Obama’s second term, for example, the VA fired on average 2,470 employees for cause each year. And inside the VA, as best we can tell, the rate of firing poor performers isn’t appreciably lower than in the private sector.

Second, and more important, we simply can’t fire our way to success. The federal government unquestionably needs to perform better. There’s no excuse for vets who have to wait...

You Won't Be a Great Leader Until You Conquer This Fear

Does the thought of giving negative feedback to an employee make you want to call in sick? If so, a fear of confrontation may getting in your way.

But you’re not doing anyone a favor by avoiding conflict. When problems go unaddressed or are swept under the rug, everyone suffers—including you. Avoiding conflict doesn’t just keep you from fulfilling your responsibilities, it also erodes your self-esteem. No one likes being the office push-over and constantly questioning yourself can take a toll on your confidence levels (What if he explodes in rage? What if she says I’m a bad manager?).

A lack of constructive feedback is also detrimental to your team, depriving them of mentorship and growth opportunities. Workplaces marked by poor communication and unclear expectations are also breeding grounds for Imposter Syndromelow trust, and disengagement.

Improving your ability to deliver feedback clearly and assertively does require practice. Learning to create a container for the strong emotions kicked up by difficult conversations can also take time. But the longer you wait, the higher the cost to both you and your team members.

Here’s how to get started with conquering your fear of confrontation so you...

Managing Yourself, 2018-Style

Every year I read Peter Drucker’s classic article, “Managing Oneself” as part of my personal-professional navigation process. His “simply powerful” questions help me reorient on my true north and rethink my priorities.

If you are a subscriber to Harvard Business Review’s online library, read the article. If not, do yourself a big $8.95 favor that will pay dividends a thousand times over and buy a copy.

The article is arguably more relevant in today’s world than when it was written—a testament to Drucker’s long-range view on people, management, and society.

Drucker’s five key questions in “Managing Oneself” are these:

  1. What are my strengths?
  2. How do I work (learn)?
  3. What are my values?
  4. Where do I belong?
  5. What can I contribute?

I love these questions for their simplicity and power. They are the ultimate tools in cutting through the noise in our minds about ourselves. Use these questions to help you reorient and refocus.

If things aren’t working right for you in your position or career, chances are, you are out of alignment with the true answers to one or more of Drucker’s questions.

I regularly see people working in areas and...

The Biggest Career Mistake Is Getting Too Comfortable

Looking back at my 35-year career, I recently tracked my patent production (160+) and my peer reviewed publications (250+) and noticed an interesting trend.

Due to market dynamics and technology trends out of my control, I’ve had to reinvent my career six times. I started as a watchmaker, pivoted to biology, and have been working on drastically different fields within IT and engineering ever since.

While it’s obvious that the first two years of any new endeavor will bear little fruit, it turns out that each time I started a new career, it was between the 3rd and 6th year that I was most productive. The other effect I realized is that, after the first two of my career re-inventions, I was able to link back to my previous expertise in a way that was not at all obvious when I was working in this field initially. Though it’s counterintuitive, and I didn’t fully realize it myself at the time, starting over from scratch so often had been one of my best assets.

Starting over six times

Being Swiss, in the late 1970s-80’s I apprenticed to become a watchmaker. But my timing was bad due...