Jeffrey Pfeffer on BS Leadership: An interview by Tom Rath

SGSB-0349-Jeffrey_PfefferRTThanks to Amazon, here is Tom Rath’s interview of Jeffrey Pfeffer whose latest book, Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, was published by HarperBusiness (September 2015).

Tom Rath: How would you characterize the current relationship between employees, leaders, and companies?

Jeffrey Pfeffer: Everyone is, and probably should be, out for themselves. CEO salaries have soared as a multiple of average employees’ pay, and when combined with enormous severance packages, is essentially untethered from corporate performance. Employers lay off people and cut benefits at the drop of a hat. Research I did with Peter Belmi shows that the norm of reciprocity operates with much less force inside workplaces. And employees are, naturally enough, distrustful, fearful, and as Gallup data make clear, frequently disengaged.

TR: What role should leaders play in improving workers’ careers and lives?

JP: Joel Goh, Stefanos Zenios, and I show that many management practices have health effects as harmful as second-hand smoke and that together workplace exposures result in about 120,000 excess deaths annually just in the U.S. If one is interested in well-being, as I know from your many writings you are, then leaders should be held accountable for their effects on people’s physical and mental health and their well-being. Profits are important, but so, too, are people and their lives.

TR: Of all the leadership myths you tackle in this book, which piece of conventional wisdom is causing the most damage in the modern workplace?

JP: That’s a tough one, because it depends on what damage you are talking about—damage to people’s careers or to the well-being of employees. So I will provide two answers. The conventional wisdom that people should be ‘authentic’ is extremely career-limiting, because it says to people, ‘be yourself’. But people need to be what the situation, and those they are with and responsible for, need them to be, not what they feel like being at the moment. People who express their ‘authentic’ feelings to their bosses, in particular, may soon find themselves out of a job.

The other piece of conventional wisdom that is harmful is the idea that we ought to be assessing leadership development activities through happy sheets or smiley-face sheets, those ubiquitous surveys. I did a Fortune column on why consumer ratings are essentially unreliable and invalid, and the leadership domain is yet another place where this is true.

TR: Should some high achievers opt out of leadership roles for their own (and the greater) good?

JP: Absolutely. In my last book, Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t, I talked about the high price in terms of long hours and constant public scrutiny, among other things, that leaders often paid. Not everyone will want to, nor should they, pay the price of always being in the limelight and under pressure to perform.

And there are many exceptionally talented people who lack the concern for other human beings and their well-being that make them good stewards of other people’s lives. So certainly there would be benefits to their opting out of leadership roles. However, I am not naïve enough to believe that many people voluntarily abjure power, regardless of the consequences for other human beings.

TR: Are there things we can do to identify and develop better leaders early on in their careers?

JP: For sure. I believe that power and leadership are inextricably connected—you cannot be a leader without having power and understanding power dynamics. Therefore, training aspiring leaders in the principles of power and influence is a great way to start. And one of the qualities I would look for in an aspiring leader is if the individual is psychologically tough enough to handle not being liked and the responsibilities that come with power.

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To learn more about Jeff and his work, please click here.

Rath-1To learn more about Tom and his work, please click here.

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