Why Business Books Are Helplessly Helpless

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I’ve had a few real jobs that required me to read extensively in the genre of business books.

Correction: I’ve had a few real jobs that required me to skim business books. It’s impossible to actually read a business book, because there’s so little there there.

When I have to read one, I skip to the end of a chapter and pray that the author has included a summary of his or her five main points. That way I don’t have to slog through fake cliche-ridden dialogue or stories of companies that were considered great at the time but wound up either going down in flames or exposed as a truly gruesome place to work. In From Good to Great, Jim Collins celebrated Circuit City, who wound up firing their more senior employees to save money, which alienated their customers and led them to the bankruptcy they so truly deserved.

Serves Collins right for focusing primarily on the financials.

Many business books are full of dumbed-down cliché material repackaged to look cute and fresh. Very similar to the fruit growers who packaged borderline tangerines in a bag and named them Cuties. Books like Who Moved My Cheese? and anything by Ken Blanchard fall into this category. I can’t decide if these are dumbed down because business people are dumb or if it’s because few people have the stomach to take business seriously (it’s really not that difficult, folks).

There are “scholarly” business books, usually published through the Harvard Business Review or the like, that are designed to help people who care about status to believe that what they’re doing actually requires intelligence. Although written in better English, they too fall short in the substance department. They create jobs for wannabe gurus and leave it at that.

Some business books provide “real-world situations” that people can relate to, then boilerplate solutions that won’t change a damn thing. The 5 Dysfunctions of Team falls into this category. These books are dangerously naive about human beings and generally ignore the fundamental conflict of interest that exists in any profit-oriented organization.

As a person who has had some moderate success in actually changing organizations, I can say there are very few books that have helped to shape change. Few are in the genre of business books: Impro by Keith Johnstone, Education for Critical Consciousness by Paolo Freire, The Abilene Paradox by Jerry Harvey and Maverick by Ricardo Semler. I would also add many of Dickens’ novels to the list because he clearly understood the split-personality reality of having to make your living inside large organizations.

The bottom line, as business people love to say, is this: until business people are willing to truly problematize themselves as individuals, to realize and accept the responsibility of leaders to their employees and to work to create workplaces that nourish souls instead of killing them, business books will continue to be the empty fluff they are. Any idiot can make money, and if we only demand profit from our leaders, we will continue to have idiotic workplace cultures where we bury our feelings of profound alienation by telling ourselves how lucky we are to have jobs in the first place.

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4 thoughts on “Why Business Books Are Helplessly Helpless

  1. Anonymous

    Ha ha! I found your article after Googling “idiotic business books”. I did the Google search after a conversation with my CEO last week, in which he repeatedly referred positively to the cliche’ From Good to Great.

    My CEO and I are both physicians, and I was incredibly embarrassed that this man would put such credence in something so stupid–and so unscientific, to the point that its medical equivalent would be rejected by any legitimate journal. He had given all of the doctors in our doctors’ practice group a copy of this book a few years back, and apparently expected us to read it.

    I don’t know about you, but since I was a teen (late 80s–big proliferation of moronic, pop-culture business “literature” of this sort), I have had a visceral, quick-acting, hate-filled reaction to this entire genre of books. Natural-born leaders don’t read this crap, and people never destined to lead will not become leaders as a result of reading it.

    I was saddened that my CEO was not offended by reading this material, and that, on top of that, actually recommended it. He must not have realized how many of the firms praised in this book have come under fire or gone kaput lately.

    We are from a small town in Louisiana, so I understand that reading any book at all puts one in the the intellectual elite of the town. But really–are you incapable of reading actual literature with real advice?

    The “pop-culture business book” genre is like those employee “wacky shirt” days and such: what’s worse, the fact that businesses use these in lieu of treating employees with dignity on a more general basis, or the employees who fall for these gimmicks? It’s so depressing.

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