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Trite Business Lies

Level 17

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When someone brings up the topic of lies at work, most of the time people think of the big stuff, like embezzlement, falsifying data, or fudging fantasy football stats. But there's a whole other category of lying that happens all the time. Not only are these lies tolerated, but through some combination of repetition, vehemence, and mind control, employees of all stripes have come to believe them as true.

Part of the reason for this is that the lies are small (and therefore insidious). They often pass themselves off as sage advice or commonly-understood truisms. At worst, they may appear to be clichés or business tropes. Many are hard to argue with unless you've thought it through.

Nevertheless, they are lies, and especially in this era of #AlternateFacts, deserve to be exposed as such.

So take a look below and see which of these phrases match up with your personal experience or reality. If you have stories, reactions, or your own additions, let us know about them in the comments below!

“Perception is reality”

No, it’s not. I perceive myself to be an AMAZING dancer. But 48 years of evidence (as well as testimony from my wife and children. ESPECIALLY my children!) indicate otherwise.

The truer statement is that perception is powerful, and can override facts. Knowing this is so does NOT mean we must kowtow to a requestor’s built-in perceptions or preconceived notions, but rather that we need to understand those perceptions and build compelling stories that bring the person to the actual truth.

“The customer is always right”

The truth is that customers can be, and often are, wrong. This can be due to the fact that they’ve been misled, or un- (or under-) informed, or one of a hundred other reasons why they are asking for the wrong thing, looking for the wrong solution. And then there’s the rare (but not rare enough) case when they are simply bat-guano crazy and want something stupid.

However, the customer IS always the customer. They are always the one who wants to buy, and we are always the one who wants to sell. Understanding this relationship doesn’t mean we have to sell our soul, ethics, or values to sell our product. Rather, it gives us the freedom to find the right customer for our product, and come to terms with the fact that not EVERYONE is a customer (or at least not a customer right now.)

“Work smarter, not harder”

What am I supposed to think here? That I've been working stupider up until now? That I've willfully withheld a portion of my intellectual capacity? Or that I'm just phoning it in? Regardless of which inference you make, it's not a kind reflection on me, nor on what you think of my work product and work habits.

If you think I stink, or that I'm slacking off, or that I've gotten into a behavioral rut, then please just say it. If you think I'm overlooking something obvious, then say THAT. And if you don't think EITHER of those things, don't say this to fill the dead air.

“Think outside the box”

Like "work smarter, not harder," this one has the one-two punch of an insult AND the implication that I can’t solve a particular problem.

I list this as a lie because there IS no box. I may have fallen into a rut or a set of sub-optimal habits. I might be hyperfocused on a particular outcome or trajectory; I could just be lazy and unwilling to put in the extra effort that thinking about something differently might require.

Whatever the reason for my inability to find a novel solution is, it's not "a box." Calling it that doesn't get me any closer to changing my behavior OR solving the challenge.

“Lean and Mean”

Back in 2004, Bob Lewis translated this as "emaciated and unpleasant" (http://www.weblog.keepthejointrunning.com/?p=1886) and that has stuck with me. Lean is all well and good, as long as we mean "healthy" rather than "underfed.”

But "mean" (unless you mean "average,”which you probably don't) is a trait I would not find advantageous in the workplace. When would it be considered organizationally good to be rude, dismissive, short-tempered, or (to use Lewis' term) unpleasant?

Rather, we should strive for our teams and organizations to be healthy, focused, and determined. You can even throw in “hungry” if you want, as long as it’s not due to a lack of sustenance (i.e., resources).

"I just need you to hold out until..."

In my experience, this is a statement that comes in three month cycles. Just keep working on-call for a little longer. Just keep putting in the extra hours. Just deal with this (last) fire drill.

Just put up with this sub-optimal situation.

After two years of ongoing struggle where the answer was routinely, "This is only going to be until the end of quarter,” I finally confronted a manager about how the situation hadn't gotten better. The situation may have changed, but the workload, sense of crisis, etc. had not improved. His response was surprisingly transparent, "Oh, I didn't mean it would get better. I just meant that it would change."

A company, department, or team that has gotten into the habit of trying to wait out bad situations is one that has given up on solving problems. Just remember that.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of this particular lie, one response is to ask for specifics. Such as:

  1. “Then what,”  as in, what is the situation going to be at the end of the <time period>?
  2. How are we going to get there between now and then?
  3. What are your expectations of me during that period?
  4. What will we do if we miss our target (date or end-state)?

By using these questions, and then the logical follow-up responses along with copious documentation, you are asking management to commit to a set of goals and outcomes (this is a technique also known as “managing up”). It also gives you a fairly accurate barometer as to how hard you should be looking for a better situation.

“This company is like family”

No, it isn't. Most companies are too large to have the group dynamics of a family. A company lacks the long-term history, shared genealogy, etc. that create lasting bonds.

That's not to say that people working at a company can't feel a close friendship and camaraderie. But it's still not family.

Those who make this type of comment are typically trying to instill in you a sense of loyalty to them right before they ask you to do something that goes against your personal interests.

“Human Resources”

I know, I know, this is the name of a department. But the name of the group is a misnomer bordering on a trite falsehood. Almost all of the frustration I've ever had (or heard coworkers have) with HR stems from misunderstanding their core mission.

In my experience, HR exists for two primary reasons:

  1. To keep the company out of lawsuits arising from employee interactions
  2. To shield upper management from the messier aspects of employees, including salary negotiations, grievances, etc.

They are NOT there to help you grow as an employee. They are NOT there to provide a sounding board. They are NOT there to help create a positive work environment.

They are NOT a department designed to help the employee in any way, unless "help" intersects with one of the two areas above. Use them in the same way you would use the legal department. Because that's pretty much what they are an extension of.

“Treat Your Users Like Your Customers”

I have a few issues with this. First, when I run my own company I can choose which customers I want to deal with. I do that by deciding how and where I market, which jobs I accept, and which I'm too busy to take on right now, and by setting a price for each job that reflects the level of effort and aggravation I expect to have while doing the work.

Equally, my customers can choose whether to hire me or the person down the street.

Within a company, NONE of those things are true. I can't say no to the accounting department, and they can't find someone ELSE in the company to provide the same set of services.

In addition, customers and vendors come and go. But Sarah in the mail room today will become Sarah the head of accounting tomorrow. So how I treat her today matters for the duration of our time at this company.

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease”

I learned long ago that this is SOMETIMES true. But more often, the more accurate phrase is "The squeaky wheel gets REPLACED!"

When, how, and to whom one squeaks is a lesson many of us learn by experience (meaning: doing it wrong) over time.

So, anyone who blithely tells you this probably wants one of the following outcomes, none of which will be good for YOU:

  1. They don't realize the truth of the situation either
  2. They have the same complaint and know better than to open their mouths. but they are perfectly willing for you to lead the charge and take all the heat.
  3. They want to watch you make a spectacle of yourself for their entertainment

“The elevator pitch”

Brevity is wonderful when it pushes us to create simple elegance. But often it just causes us to stress more, talk faster, widen the margins, shrink the font, and try to jam more into less.

Effective storytelling is partially about knowing when your forum and format fit the story you want to tell. Otherwise, you end up babbling like a fool and ruining your chances of making a case later on.

Some issues, requests, and explanations are complicated and can't be reduced to a 30-second overview. If you run into someone who demands that all of your interactions, requests, etc. be put in that format, then they're not really listening anyway.

“That's not part of our corporate culture/DNA”

There's a famous story about five gorillas (you can read it here).

Phrases like, "that's now how we do things,” or "That's just how it's done here,” or "It's not part of our DNA,”  are all lies, and all fall under the heading of Not Invented Here (NIH). It is often code for, "I don't want to," or worse, "The thought of doing things that way scares me."

As stated earlier, companies are not family. They also aren't organisms and thus don't have DNA. If they have a culture, it is because the people who make up the company actively choose to propagate a set of habits or a particular perspective when doing business. And culture or no culture, a good idea is a good idea. People want to do well, want to succeed, want to get ahead.

How you respond to this lie depends largely on your stake in doing something differently, and your role in the company.

“If you hire good people, they won't require supervision”

Stephen Covey famously said (http://www.azquotes.com/quote/855055),

"If you can hire people whose passion intersects with the job, they won't require any supervision at all. They will manage themselves better than anyone could ever manage them. Their fire comes from within, not from without. Their motivation is internal, not external."

That's great. Let's see if they file their expense forms correctly and on time.

People at all levels of the organizational chart require supervision. What they may not need is meddling middle managers.

The best supervisors are part janitor, part secretary, and part cheerleader. They keep things clean (meaning they ensure an unobstructed path for their staff to pursue work); they attend higher level meetings and report back the information honestly and transparently so that staff can take the actions that support the business goals; and they publicly recognize successes so that their team feels validated in their work.

Also, this is insulting in the same way that "work smarter" and "think outside the box" are. It's a form of managerial "negging" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negging). It implies that if you DO need supervision, you are obviously not passionate enough about your work and may be the wrong person for the job.

“It's easier to ask forgiveness than permission”

Yes. And all planes are equipped to make a water landing. Well, at least once. Whether they can take off after that is just a minor detail, right?

In an unhealthy environment, people do things on the sly and hope they don't get caught. If they DO get caught,  it seems many believe throwing themselves on the mercy of the court is as good a strategy as any.

But in mature, professional, adult environments, asking for permission is always preferable and always easier for everyone.

“Failure is not an option”

Nope, in some situations (often ones where this lie is uttered), it's practically a sure thing!

There is no guaranteed success. There is no outcome that is 100% predictable. Some failures, once they are in motion, are unavoidable no matter how much planning was done beforehand, or how much staff are on hand during the failure to try to save it.

Not only is this statement a lie, it's also not particularly helpful advice.

“So what's the point?”

My point is certainly not that everything, or even most things, said at work are a lie. What I AM saying is that some of these trite and overused clichés have reached the end of their useful period.

Or as Sam Goldwyn said, "Let's have some new clichés."

Ain't that the truth.

29 Comments
Level 12

Good article adatole. Thank you for the thought you put into your posts.  I believe that what most of the trite lies have in common is that there is a lack of integrity and a buildup of distrust that sprouts from their use.  It's a not so artful way to cover up a discrepancy.  I appreciate people who speak clearly and concisely. Say what you mean and mean what you say in the most polite way you can manage. Honesty, courtesy and tact go a long way in workplace relationships.

Level 10

“Failure is not an option”

Nope, in some situations (often ones where this lie is uttered), it's practically a sure thing!

There is no guaranteed success. There is no outcome that is 100% predictable. Some failures, once they are in motion, are unavoidable no matter how much planning was done beforehand, or how much staff are on hand during the failure to try to save it.

Not only is this statement a lie, it's also not particularly helpful advice.

Our organization uses the term "Fail Fast".  If you are going to fail, do it quickly and acquire takeaways as to why the task failed and how to do the task better next time.

I think avoiding these phrases will help almost anyone communicate better. When you stop saying stuff like this list, there is a good chance that what you do say will be more useful.

MVP
MVP

Cliche's allow us to "summarize" things, but are only true some of the times. I like your use of the word Trite - it certainly summarizes the thinking. I wish more managers (and yes us underlings are also responsible) would strive for best rather than cliche's.

Haha, very good. Although I disagree a little with what you say about "Work Smarter, not harder". We could all stop and think occasionally and look for another way, before hammering on in the same way we have done 10....20.....30 times.

I've personally encountered virtually every one of those trite clichés, and while they're easy enough to understand in context, I enjoy your standing them on their heads with the occasional literal interpretation.

Interpreting "Lean and mean" as becoming "emaciated and unpleasant" certainly reflects the impression and impact on the employees who have to do more with less.  It's never pleasant, never a team-building exercise, and rarely good for the employee.

Much of it is context and interpretation.

I recall a story that might be applicable to "The customer is always right."

A pushy and entitled grocery store customer singled out a young stock boy, saying "Young man, I want a half-a-head of lettuce."  When he informed her they only sold whole heads of lettuce, the lady customer became unpleasant and demanding.  Eventually he went into the back room with a head of lettuce, cut it in half and began wrapping it.

His boss saw this and confronted him, asking what he thought he was doing.  "A very unpleasant person is demanding I do this or they'll see that I'm fired."

He turned at a noise behind him and saw the customer had followed him into the back room; she was fuming.  He turned back to his boss with a smile and said "And this nice person has kindly consented to purchase the other half."

The customer was much happier.

His boss recognized what was going on, and when the satisfied customer had left, he complimented the young man. "You're a quick thinker, and obviously can deal with tough situations.  I'm opening up a new store up in Canada; would you like to start there as an Assistant Manager?"

The boy's knee-jerk reaction:  "Canada!  Why, there's nothing but hockey players and ladies of the night up there!"

The manager frowned and replied "My WIFE is from Canada!"

Without missing a beat, the young employee said "That's wonderful, Sir!  What position on the team does she play?"

Oh adatole ! "Fortune favors the bold!" 🙂

Many of these examples have taken on a different meaning over their existence and they have lost their teeth, for lack of better words, through overuse and misuse.

For example, "Perception is reality" is intended to be used in a specific context, not broadly, from a position of authority. That's not the case today.
"Work smarter, not harder" (a personal favorite of mine) is a leadership phrase equating to, "I'll be more impressed if you find a way to finish this task in 4 hours over you busting your hump to finish it in 10". Many professionals are complacent enough to do the task at the 10-hour pace. Leadership wants the go-getters!
I do agree with you on "The customer is always right." This mindset started to change about 15 years ago with the advent of the "sales consultant". This was the delicate way of saying, "we are going to be involved in your decision-making process because we recognize that you are uninformed."
You missed the point on the "elevator pitch." The key component of the pitch is that you are prepared and that you have practiced so that you aren't babbling and ruin any future chances. The "elevator pitch" is the tease to get invited to the top fllor because the exec/VP wants to hear more.
You got this one wrong too. "It's easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission." I think this saying still works. My latest example. We still have some legacy servers running up here and no one knows what exactly they do. I have asked around and people are unsure. I get approval to shut them down and people freak out. I've checked them out and there are no active connections to it 24x7. Yet no one will let me pull the plug. I should just do it anyway...

Level 17

Great responses!

And overall, I agree with you - in their original context and usage, many of these phrases had utility and weight. But these days (by which I mean *at least* the last decade, maybe longer), they have been over-used and mis-used to the point where mediocre managers will invoke them with the usage I'm suggesting above.

Yep - "Smarter, not harder" really did mean "take a step back, look for a creative way to do it. Don't just punch the clock and grind out 8 repetitive hours". But I've seen managers use it in situations where the team is clearly pulling every trick they know out of their collective hats. But the problem wasn't done yet so the manager, having nothing of value to add, spouts off that little gem thereby minimizing and insulting all the work that was done.

Ditto the "elevator pitch". I get it, I truly do. "Leave 'em wanting more". But I've had some C-level execs who stated to the entire department that all they EVER wanted was the elevator pitch. "You're not important enough for me to listen to for longer than that" was the take away.

As for "forgiveness vs permission" my issue here isn't so much the reality that it is truer than most of us would like, but that managers will espouse it as the correct way run a department. As in "we make asking for permission so distasteful that everyone goes off and does their own work (unfunded and unstaffed, of course) and if it works out in the end we "permit" them to have done it for us. And of course, if it goes south we have a convenient scapegoat.

MVP
MVP

Wonderful article Leon

These are all accurate, and I feel I have encountered them continually in one form or another. The difficulty lies in those who don't want to hear the truth. It's like the matrix movie, a lot of people will take the blue pill and don't want to find how deep the rabbit hole goes (with the red pill). Comfort zones, etc.

My favorite is the "That's not part of our corporate culture/DNA", where as you correctly indicated - that tends to be the opposite of the statement made. Then again like above, getting people to stop making misinformed statements is not something an individual is going to be able to change.

I've also seen people say "think outside the box" when outright refusing to spend a single dollar on existing underprovisioned hardware, which is pretty awful.

Level 12

“Failure is not an option”

Nope, in some situations (often ones where this lie is uttered), it's practically a sure thing!

There is no guaranteed success. There is no outcome that is 100% predictable. Some failures, once they are in motion, are unavoidable no matter how much planning was done beforehand, or how much staff are on hand during the failure to try to save it.

Not only is this statement a lie, it's also not particularly helpful advice.

I currently work in a place that does not prescribe to this one at all. They understand that IT happens in IT. They know things are going to blow up, your going to eventually fat finger something, click the wrong button, bump a wire, flip the wrong switch. As long as the mistake was not malicious and you learned something from it, there is no lasting fallout from it. That doesn't mean you wont get a little beat up for making a big mistake (Example to follow), but you generally will not be penalized for it either. We have a running joke/comment around here when people walk into a closet or server room "If you push a button, push it twice".

A good example of this is one day I was working on cleaning up some wiring in a closet. I pumped the power cords on a stack of switches and knocked them all out at once. They came right back up, but it took about 5 min to do so. Meanwhile the entire building lost its network connectivity. I got ripped on a little bit for not being more observant of my surroundings, but nothing more. It was a tight place, im a big guy, with poor power cords that did not maintain a solid grip in the plugs. I imagine that at a few places I have worked at in the past, I would have had something put on my official file, and one place probably would have outright fired me on the spot after they figured out what happened.

I have seen places fire people for such simple mistakes that are genuinely mistakes, just to punish the person. These places are champions of the failure is not an option and there are no mistakes allowed mantras. They are also usually horrible places to work for.

Level 14

These are all classics.

Lean and Mean is the best!!!! Translation = We don't invest in people, process or product; but we do extract profit from every fiber of our corporate being! We react...not act!!!

Level 14

Great article & all so true
I try to always write and speak in Plain English; I try to avoid acronyms or buzzwords and I try to avoid all of the trite & mostly meaningless phrases, but sometimes it's really hard.
I put a lot of the trite down to folk actually not knowing how to manage a situation, but desperate to look like they do.

There's so much truth in your statement:  "We make asking for permission so distasteful that everyone goes off and does their own work (unfunded and unstaffed, of course)."

No matter whether it's a team member who hopes for a better way to do something, or a 4-year-old who wants to eat all of their Halloween candy in one sitting, the candidate has learned what's likely to receive and what's unlikely to receive.

Hopefully maturity eventually occurs; then, asking for the unsafe doesn't happen, and asking for something reasonable is accepted for non-judgmental analysis with reasonable expectations of acceptance when a good case for the request is made

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BUT . . .

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(I couldn't find this quote using "person" instead of "man."  Sorry, all.)

Level 15

Good text.

Level 13

Great post Leon.

Level 13

"Failure is not an option"  and it was NOT.....  Smart men doing heroic deeds get three brave men home......

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MVP
MVP

I try to make it a practice to tell the truth about things no matter what people think or who does not like what I am saying. It is amazing that this came out when it did, because someone I know was telling me about his job (Non-IT) where his boss told him he needed to tell the customers that call in a lie about something in order to maintain the customers money that they were getting. I think a lot of companies out there do the same thing in order to maintain the profits they are getting from customers. It is very hard for businesses to tell the truth to customers, because they think they will start losing business and money. That is not always the case though. If businesses would be more truthful with customers, those customers would have a higher respect and trust in that company.

Level 12

Failure is always an option, as Adam Savage coined.

The scientist in me considers Failure as simply an unexpected result. It is simply a matter of tracing back through the steps I took to find the incorrect input and determining how to start again from that point. (As long as the result wasn't one that ended up with me outside the company. )

I don't recall when Personnel became Human Resources. That name does, in an ironic way, de-humanize us into just another cog in the company machine, a replaceable resource like a printer or coffee machine.

Level 11

Great article and I can relate to  few of them
I recall one position where HR asks me what it meant o be different....?

What does it mean..? What, I've never not had this. What comparison would you like me to make?

I have Dyslexia, as in dyslexia... not dyspraxia or dyscalculia nor on the autistic spectrum etc, just dyslexic with a bad short term memory and a different way of learning ... apparently. No one has ever explained how I learn differently, but then I grew up in a time when it was common not to believe in such things

I came across a study today that turned some questions on there head:

Student's Twitter Post Of Professor's List Of Questions For Heterosexuals Goes Viral

Good on the Prof.  That is how I felt in that HR 'interview' about 'my' dyslexia

I still don't know how to answer how I am different in a dyslexia way and certainly don't believe it was a question designed to help me in any way. More along the lines of putting me down. I should also mention that these days I like being different, either by name or dyslexia or what ever else. It helps distinguish one from every one else

On another note, different job we were in a "Learning together environment", company group therapy 😜

That is where I came across the phrase "Every one is your customer" I almost laughed and when we had to explain how every one in the room was my customer I said my piece whilst spending 5 seconds looking at each person in the room with a smile on my face. I was the IT manager at the time in a one man dept that was denied the funding to employ more people in an under resourced dept. I left in the end, no point not being able to fulfill the companies needs when the company doesn't want to help you achieve them.

Every one is my customer.

And it goes both ways, I'm also every one else's customer.

Lets keep things on an equal footing

Fortunately I can say I don't use ANY of those expressions.. probably as I don't tend to recall them 😜

I  certainly recognise them though.

Level 17

Very nice, do consider;

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I too prefer to change the wheel before it falls off. Most days.

Level 10

"I just need you to hold out until..."

Makes me just think of someone who is used to putting out small fires as they pop up, instead of trying to plan ahead.

Another great article, nicely done!

MVP
MVP

Wow...put a bunch of the greatest cliches in the industry and debunked in one posting !!

adatole​, your thoughts and perspective as usual are well put !

Level 14

“Failure is not an option”

I would have to disagree with this one.  While active duty in the Navy, failure was not an option.  Failure meant lives lost, not getting pilots back to the ship, not providing needed air support for ground troops.

Level 17

I understand your point, but I think there's a couple of nuances here:

First: failURE is a possible outcome, regardless of how one feels about it. HOWEVER what *is* optional, what is within our ability to choose are things like:

  • accepting failure as a reason to stop trying
  • acting in an irresponsible manner, making failure a possible outcom
  • taking a lazy attitude toward success or failure, and thus not preparing appropriately

Second: I understand that when management says "failure is not an option" they probably mean (or at least hope it means) the more specific examples I cite above. But then that same management must act - in terms of preparing the team, supplying the resources, allowing the on-the-ground decision making - in a way that backs up the statement.

Too often I've been in a situation where the ONLY thing the management does to demonstrate their commitment to the phrase is to issue the phrase itself. Everything else remains the same.

My guess is that you see this phrase differently because in the armed services the words are backed up by deeds.

Level 20

The perception is reality is part of what really bothers me about the media these days and their "anonymous sources!"

Level 21

These are some really interesting takes on these common things.  I think the one that hits me most often is "the customer is always right".  If the customer was always right they wouldn't be coming to our company for help as we often end up going in and fixing what they did wrong... and sometimes continue to do wrong.  Customers should always be treated with respect and we should always provide good customer service but that doesn't mean treating them as though they are always right as that will likely result in providing them the wrong solution to their problem.

Level 13

I like how you turn a lot of these inside out like a sock.  I do subscribe to some of them though - as someone posted in an earlier comment, the are useful (and I think true as well) within a certain context.  Like many things that work in certain situations people then start trying to apply them too broadly and they just become trite.

Level 17

Like all cliche's there's a kernel of truth to them, and (as you said), a context in which they are more accurate/correct than not. It is (and this STRONGLY correlates to the way companies implement over-priced monitoring tools) when individuals or organizations try to use that true-ism in every situation, for every use case.

Or as I've become fond of saying about sales teams who have one small successful campaign, and then try to repeat it over and over again because "it works!":

"ring that bell until it cracks, I guess."

About the Author
In my sordid career, I have been an actor, bug exterminator and wild-animal remover (nothing crazy like pumas or wildebeasts. Just skunks and raccoons.), electrician, carpenter, stage-combat instructor, American Sign Language interpreter, and Sunday school teacher. Oh, and I work with computers. Since 1989 (when you got a free copy of Windows 286 on twelve 5¼” floppies when you bought a copy of Excel 1.0) I have worked as a classroom instructor, courseware designer, desktop support tech, server support engineer, and software distribution expert. Then about 14 years ago I got involved with systems monitoring. I've worked with a wide range of tools: Tivoli, Nagios, Patrol, ZenOss, OpenView, SiteScope, and of course SolarWinds. I've designed solutions for companies that were extremely modest (~10 systems) to those that were mind-bogglingly large (250,000 systems in 5,000 locations). During that time, I've had to chance to learn about monitoring all types of systems – routers, switches, load-balancers, and SAN fabric as well as windows, linux, and unix servers running on physical and virtual platforms.