In this week's business books: the best of all possible workplaces and learning to love uncertainty. Also: don't just know-act!

* * *

Why Should Anyone Work Here? What It Takes to Create an Authentic Organization
Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones
Harvard Business Review Press

In their previous book, Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?, Goffee (a London Business School professor) and Jones (a professor at IE Business School) advised leaders to be "authentic:" that is to "be yourself, more-with skill."

Their new book expands the concept of authenticity to the organization. "What might the best workplace on earth look like?" the authors wonder, keeping in mind that companies on great workplaces lists typically generate correspondingly great financial returns.

By studying cultures in high-performance companies, the authors identified a set of traits characterized by integrity and opportunities for self-expression. Some of the best material addresses employee development, the most concrete way to help workers become their best selves.

So, for example, the authors advise training not just for technical skills but also for human, relational skills; and creating paths to improvement for even their weak performers. As in their earlier book, Goffee and Jones stress the importance of understanding individuals' strengths and motivations in order to make work both satisfying and meaningful.

The good news for entrepreneurs is that "small start-up businesses may have a better chance at authenticity than large bureaucratic organizations," write the authors. But beware "the travail of high-growth businesses...that they are not forced to renege on their values."

* * *

Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing
Jamie Holmes
Crown Publishers

When Socrates was called the wisest man on earth, he replied that if so it was because "the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing." Jamie Holmes, Future Tense Fellow at the policy institute New America, won't go that far.

But in a world where decisions are influenced by an ever-expanding set of factors, knowing what to do or to expect in a given situation is often impossible. Uncertainty makes us uncomfortable, writes Holmes, but if we can't resolve ambiguity we must learn to live with it.

"What matters most isn't IQ, will power, or confidence in what we know," Holmes writes. "It's how we deal with what we don't understand."

He advises not rushing to closure: quick decisions often produce a wrong answer or a stale, uninspired one. (The latter is especially pernicious for entrepreneurs seeking to innovate.)

And some people are simply better able to tolerate uncertainty than others. Those are the folks you want to send in to negotiate your business deals. Like other writers in this genre, Holmes flavors the empirical with the anecdotal: for example, a hostage negotiator musing on the mixed feelings of doomsday sect members in standoffs with the law.

"Nonsense" is a good read and a valuable one for leaders under stress to act now. Take a beat...or three. Embrace the gray.

* * *

And from the backlist...

The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action
Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton
Harvard Business Review Press (2000)

"We wrote this book because we wanted to understand why so many managers know so much about organizational performance, say so many smart things about how to achieve performance, and work so hard, yet are trapped in firms that do so many things they know will undermine performance."

That's a pretty wonderful question. To answer it, Stanford professors Pfeffer and Sutton embarked on a four-year research project. Among the culprits they discovered: an emphasis on words rather than deeds; a reliance on old ways of doing things; and distrust of management.

This is a great book for managers to read and then pass down to their reports.

Published on: Jan 18, 2016