Business publishers must be gnashing their teeth at the appearance of Geoffrey James’ new book, Business Without the Bullshit: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know, which hit shelves May 13th.
James, a prolific business journalist and blogger (most recently at Inc.com) is a longtime student of human and organizational behavior. His new book hacks through the abundant verbiage of most management lit to help readers be effective in their jobs while parrying the ubiquitous forces of distraction, deceit, and disaffection. Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan spoke with James about his brass-tacks approach to business.
Multiple business books have been written about virtually every one of the subjects you treat in just a few pages. Can things like communication, self-management, and corporate politics really be as easy as you make them out to be?
Business actually is simple. The reason so many business books are published is that that industry is in the business of complexification. They take something simple and go on and on and on. I have a theory that the seventh chapter of every business book is used by the CIA to send secret communications to agents in the field, because no one ever reads them.
What I’ve done is extract the essence of what people really need to know in order to understand what’s going on in different work situations and then show them how to cope.
How did you arrive at these lessons?
Mostly through observation: seeing what worked for me and for other people. I’ve been writing a daily blog since February 2007 so I’ve had a unique opportunity to communicate with a lot of people about their careers: what they have accomplished and how they’ve done it. It’s that daily process of taking things people have made complicated and reducing them to something that can be quickly understood.
I also for a while had a business radio program where people would call in to talk about their business problems. That was very enlightening, especially when people got onto the subject of bosses.
And you’ve also experienced most of these things in your own work life?
I’ve been fortunate early in my career to work in both a very functional organization and a very dysfunctional organization. In the dysfunctional organization, I was at a fairly high level where I could see corporate politics in its raw form. Later I had the opportunity to talk about that experience with other people and to hear about their experiences. You start to see patterns.
The way you describe all these practices, they sound supremely straightforward. Are some harder than others to pull off?
Negotiating with your boss is among the hardest to pull off. When there is a big power differential the person with more power just dictates. So when you negotiate with your boss you have to raise your power level. That primarily means being able to create a lot of value. But it also means being able to leave at a moment’s notice.
I recommend that you always have simultaneously three other opportunities in different stages of development. That way you are also negotiating from a position of power. But that’s hard to do because it requires you to get into a defensive financial position. It also requires you to do a lot of extra work in terms of developing contacts and keeping opportunities live. That’s difficult when you already have a job and are trying to contribute a lot there.
What’s the hardest thing for bosses to do?
For bosses, I think the hardest thing is letting people make their own mistakes. Resisting the desire to intervene. It’s the whole question of whether you are controlling people or coaching people. You can’t do both. It’s easy to jump to control. People seek control in their lives and of their destinies. But as a boss you can’t really do that. All you can do is point people toward what you want them to do and try to get them to do it better. That requires a lot of patience and a lot of perceptiveness. It doesn’t come easy to many people in management positions.
The most hair-raising section of the book, “How to Cope with Evil,” is about workplace lies and dirty politics. Do cultures go bad because they hire unscrupulous people? Or do people go bad because they work in toxic cultures?
There’s actually some good scientific data on that, which shows that once management starts doing bad stuff the people who don’t like that kind of behavior will leave. The ones who don’t only tolerate it but also do it themselves will stay. But the kinds of things I describe happen in every organization, not just bad ones. Sometimes, even well-meaning bosses do stuff without even realizing they are pulling a dirty trick. For example, they may be desperately trying to get someone to take on a task. But they don’t know how to do it, so they position it as a “growth opportunity” even though it’s not.
I actually agonized over that dirty tricks chapter because I didn’t want to provide an instruction book for using them. But I decided to include them because they are inevitable wherever you find people gathered in groups. You have to learn to recognize them and to defend yourself against them. I also have a chapter on how to play clean politics. There’s nothing wrong with politics. It’s how people get things done.
Do a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs want to start companies so they can correct the bad stuff that goes on in their current jobs?
I think that is perhaps a somewhat negative spin on it. You know how you don’t expect people to be perfect? Well organizations aren’t perfect. I’ve tried to create a guide for people to be happy where they are, even if there is some funky stuff going on sometimes. You can still enjoy yourself. You can still create career security. You can change your attitude to get the most out of the work experience. I think that is a positive message. A lot of dealing with people and organizations is approaching them from a sense of gratitude and forgiveness. Gratitude that you have an opportunity to do something interesting. Forgiveness for their flaws.
Your book targets virtually everyone in the work world: managers, rank-and-file employees, even job applicants. But I notice you don’t really talk about leaders. How come?
Leadership has become a buzzword. Employers say they are looking for someone with leadership qualities no matter what position they are trying to fill. But a team full of leaders is like an orchestra full of conductors. It’s just a bunch of people waving sticks. What is more important for functional teams is followership, where you subvert your ego to the team. Managers are good at doing that. They can’t make it about themselves; they have to make it about the team.
In one of the last interviews Peter Drucker gave on NPR he tore into the whole leadership concept. He said the last thing the business world needs is more leaders. What it needs is more competent managers. I think he had a point. Leadership is putting yourself in front. Management is being of service.
Are the rules you describe immutable or do they differ depending on whether the company is more or less decentralized or hierarchical or in Silicon Valley or someplace else?
The book is about how individuals adapt to any environment. Whether organizations are decentralized or centralized or whatever you are still going to run into the same kinds of people, the same kinds of bosses, and the same kinds of situations. Your number-one unspoken job will always be to make your boss look good. That will be the same no matter where you are. It is true now and will be true in a thousand years. It’s like a law of mathematics.
Does the fact that your book addresses people at all levels of the organization suggest that there exists some kind of unified theory of work?
Yes. No matter what your level, you have to learn to sell yourself. You have to manage yourself to serve your greater purpose. You’ve got to believe because your beliefs drive your results. You’ve got to be clear. You’ve got to have courage.
The most important point is that business is simple. Getting along comes down to a few simple rules. I honestly think this book is about 90 percent of what most people need to know in most corporate environments.