If a saying is old or common enough, people tend to accept it without much thought. Advice like "always follow your heart" and "what they don't know won't hurt them" isn't only wrong; it's dangerous.

I spoke recently with Alexander Kjerulf, founder of Woohoo Inc. Kjerulf is recognized as an expert in happiness at work and has delivered keynotes and workshops in over 30 countries for clients like Microsoft, LEGO, IKEA, and many others. He's also the best-selling author of four books and runs The Chief Happiness Officer Blog.

Here, Kjerulf shares what he feels are the top five business maxims that need to go:

1. Failure is not an option.

As Kjerulf puts it:

"No matter how many times you repeat this maxim, failure remains an option. Closing your eyes to this fact only makes you more likely to fail. Putting pressure on people to always succeed makes mistakes more likely because:

  • People who work under pressure are less effective
  • People resist reporting bad news
  • People close their eyes to signs of trouble

Admitting that mistakes happen and dealing constructively with them when they do makes mistakes less likely."

Peter Drucker got this one right. He suggested that companies seek out the employees that never make mistakes and fire them--because if you're not making mistakes you're not trying anything interesting. Admitting that it's okay to make mistakes relieves the pressure. 

New proverb: Failure happens. Deal with it.

2. The customer is always right.

Kjerulf advises strongly against this one. Customers are important, but so are employees. Not every customer should be considered king--especially if they are unruly, extremely unreasonable, or bad for business. "Sticking to 'the customer is always right' makes employees unhappy," says Kjerulf.

"And unhappy employees almost always give customers bad service."

New proverb: Happy employees mean happy customers.

3. Never be satisfied.

Kjerulf asserts that this maxim is based on a fundamental misconception, namely that once you're satisfied you become passive, leading to complacency.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," Kjerulf says. "In fact, a constant sense of dissatifaction in an organization sends one powerful message: We're not good enough! The irony is that this results in worse performance."

Kjerulf instead suggests promoting a culture of appreciation in the workplace. When business leaders appreciate their employees, they create a more positive working environment that is characterized by motivation, energy, self-confidence, and happiness at work.

"It's not about closing your eyes and pretending that things are great when they're not," Kjerulf says. "It's about appreciating the fact that people in constant states of dissatisfaction erode an organization's will and ability to act. The trick is to appreciate what you have and still aim for more."

New proverb: Always be appreciative but never complacent.

4. Nice guys finish last.

Who came up with this one, anyway?

Kjerulf speaks truth when he says, "Unpleasant people hurt the bottom line. In a networked world reputation matters, and it's more important to be generous and likeable than to be ruthless and efficient."

New proverb: Nice people get the job done.

5. Grow or die.

"It's interesting to see how growth has been elevated to an automatic good, questioned by very few businesses and executives," says Kjerulf. "Growth certainly has some positive effects especially because it creates new possibilities and challenges for an organization and its people. I'm not saying that growth is bad but that growth isn't always right for every business."

Many a company has failed in an attempt to grow too fast, instead of properly taking care of existing business. As Kjerulf correctly points out: "Not growing--or even shrinking--does not automatically represent business failure."

New proverb: Grow at the time that's right for you.

Putting It All Together

These phrases have become ubiquitous in the business world, but they're harmful to you and your company. If you still hear these at your workplace, don't be afraid to speak up and set things straight.

Of course, actions must follow words. But never underestimate the power of a great mindset.

Published on: Dec 2, 2015
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