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  • Steve Nguyen, PhD

Don't Get Hooked on "Fake Work"

“Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.” —Thomas Alva Edison

As Gaylan Nielson (2022) wrote:

“We define Fake Work as work that isn’t directly linked to strategies. This isn’t about all the hard work people are doing, but the long, hard work they are doing that is not critical to the organization’s success. Real Work is doing critical work— working on priorities that drive strategic purpose. Real Work is doing the right work at the right time by bringing clarity, determining direction, and constraining tasks to the essential ones.”

Too many people aren’t sure what they even need to focus on (Nielson, 2022):

  1. 73% of workers don’t think their organization’s goals are translated into specific work they can execute.

  2. 70% of workers don’t routinely plan how to support agreed-upon goals and tasks in their workgroups.

  3. 81% of workers do not feel a strong level of commitment to their organization’s strategies and goals.

  4. 87% of workers are not satisfied with the results of their work at the end of most weeks.

Have you ever seen someone doing a job and you feel it in your heart that what that person is doing isn't really "work," even if they look really busy. I have and I bet you have as well.

When I lived in Tokyo for a year, I saw several instances of this. There were people hired to stand on the street and provide directions (using small handheld flags). So what's the problem? Well, these individuals were spaced approximately (what seemed like) 10-15 yards apart. Now, I get it, having someone stationed on a street to provide direction is important, but having so many people stationed so close together seemed like a waste of money, time, and resources. There's no explanation as to why so many people were standing so close together on a street, other than for the city to list them as employees who are being paid to stand on a street.

Back home here in the U.S., I've noticed this as well, only with managers or supervisors. A few years ago, when my wife required medical treatment for a health issue, we encountered a manager who was extremely rude (to almost everyone who walked into the clinic) and who made the process of checking into the medical clinic much more difficult, confusing, and unnecessary than it needed to be.

We kept wondering why this person is even needed because s/he wasn't helping anyone, not the staff and certainly not the patients, since everyone was on edge around this individual. You could see that this manager had a negative impact on the people working hard at the front desk and their facial expressions and rude interactions with patients revealed this negative contagion. It's bizarre to me how some people can make their "jobs" so "complicated" when it's really not.

Over a decade ago, I wrote about busy work and fake work. In that article, I talked about how a lot of the hard work that people do for their organizations actually does little to link people to the strategies that are intended to help the organization achieve its goals!

“Fake work…include[s] everyone from the inattentive CEO who changes strategy too frequently, to the social-climbing manager who creates busywork to make herself look important, to the shirking line worker who just doesn’t want to do anything today.” -Brent D. Peterson & Gaylan W. Nielson

In their book, Fake Work: Why People Are Working Harder Than Ever But Accomplishing Less, And How To Fix The Problem, Brent Peterson and Gaylan Nielson (2009) shared 14 common signs that the road you are building is leading to nowhere (p. 14):

  1. You don’t really know the strategies of your company and the things that are most important for the whole company to accomplish.

  2. You’re unable to clearly connect those strategies to what you are doing.

  3. You are simply ignorant about the importance of your work.

  4. Your hard work is not getting results that matter.

  5. You hold meetings without a clear purpose and invite a bunch of people to share in the waste of time.

  6. You send e-mails daily to a huge distribution list of coworkers without considering whether they need the information.

  7. You hold offsite meetings that provide distraction, not value.

  8. You initiate projects that suck up time and are killed for lack of interest.

  9. You don’t follow through on plans to implement needed changes, or you undermine such plans.

  10. You work on a report that you know nobody will read.

  11. You assign a report and then ignore it when it’s completed.

  12. You require paperwork because, well, everybody has to do paperwork.

  13. You write proposals that are seen as an important aspect of the selling process, but they don’t lead to an increase in sales.

  14. You set up a training program that is a lot of fun, is very interesting, and gets great reviews, but the program has no support from management because it doesn’t really make a difference to the business.

"Companies set expectations, write job descriptions, and review performances that actually promote fake work, which means that you can easily follow directions, complete your assignments, and get promotions—while spending most of your time on fake work. But in the end, people feel the fakeness. Your colleagues know it. You know it, too. You aren’t succeeding and neither is your team. The people doing fake work are often at least vaguely aware of the problems that are plaguing the company." -Brent D. Peterson & Gaylan W. Nielson

Peterson and Nielson (2009) outlined 10 leading causes of why companies are plagued with fake work. Let's take the example about the manager at the medical clinic and dissect why fake work might be occurring and, more importantly, what to do to combat it. In the example with the rude manager at the medical clinic, some of the causes of fake work included: (1) Failing to Understand Their Job—Their Real Job; (2) Failing to Recognize the Finish Line; (3) Failing to Focus and Prioritize; and (4) Failing to Manage—No Matter Their Level.

(1) Failing to Understand Their Job—Their Real Job.

The medical clinic manager doesn't understand their "real" job, which is to expedite patients checking into the clinic and/or resolving any issues that might arise with patients trying to check in. This person became a hindrance because they actually slowed down and interfered with the checking in process rather than trying to speed it up. In many ways, this person is the unnecessary "speed bump" in an otherwise smooth road.

(2) Failing to Recognize the Finish Line.

“If you know what your job is, then you should know its purpose. And the purpose always focuses on a result. So, if you understand the results you’re after, you should have the finish line firmly in mind.” -Brent D. Peterson & Gaylan W. Nielson

Because the medical clinic manager doesn't know their "real" job, they do not know what or where the finish line is.

(3) Failing to Focus and Prioritize.

“Out of the many, many things that you can be doing, what are the few critical things that you must be doing? This question will help you maintain your foothold in the world of real work, and ensure that you are adding real value to your company.” -Brent D. Peterson & Gaylan W. Nielson

I am certain that there were many other things this medical clinic manager could and should be doing to ensure they're adding value to their team and the organization, instead of being a stumbling block and an unnecessary "speed bump" to the patients check-in process.

(4) Failing to Manage—No Matter Their Level.

“Managers are a primary cause of fake work because their role is, by design, to serve as a conduit for meaning. Strategies and results flow through that conduit, and fake work comes out the other end when information is translated incorrectly, ignored, or not passed on at all.” -Brent D. Peterson & Gaylan W. Nielson

Whatever your role in management, you are causing fake work if you are not (Peterson & Nielson, 2009, p. 40):

  • Keenly aware of the company’s most important strategies and the results you need to target.

  • Doing your part to facilitate communication about those strategies, either as the one sharing information or the one receiving it.

  • Clarifying the most critical work, either for yourself as you interact with your manager or for those you manage.

  • Helping prioritize and focus work.

  • Checking, again and again, to see how you can remove obstacles to success.

This was, without a doubt, the case with the medical clinic manager. It was clear that they had not correctly translated the organizational strategies and directed their team to achieve the results that moved their organization forward. As a matter of fact, this manager was the obstacle to success!

Peterson and Nielson provide 9 paths to real work. They are:

  1. Discover Your World of Fake Work

  2. Escape from Your World of Fake Work

  3. Just Do It! Real Work

  4. Understand that People Do the Work

  5. Communicate: Listen to and Understand the Stories

  6. Teams Drive Real Work

  7. Close the “Execution Gap” to Drive Real Work

  8. Managing Real Work

  9. Strive for a Real Work Company Culture

Under the chapter labeled "Escape from Your World of Fake Work," Peterson and Nielson wrote (2009): “Even when the work produced is very tangible, it can still amount to fake work if what’s produced is not what’s needed—especially if it prevents something that is needed from being done.” -Brent D. Peterson & Gaylan W. Nielson

Fear of Not Bringing Up Fake Work

Oftentimes, employees don't bring up fake work, even if they clearly see it, because they fear their boss or other leaders.

In the section titled, "Reasons for Not Blowing the Whistle on Others About Fake Work," Peterson and Nielson wrote (2009): “Leaders should be doing everything they can to make sure their employees are not doing fake work, but in many cases leaders simply dole out assignments and are forceful about their expectations that the tasks be completed as told. Employees are often unwilling to challenge the relevance of the tasks, and are often fearful of questioning authority, or specifically, a boss who is intimidating.” -Brent D. Peterson & Gaylan W. Nielson

Other times, employees don't bring up fake work because they're afraid of ruining a leader's pet project.

“[L]eaders . . . develop projects that they become emotionally attached to but aren’t supporting their organization’s strategies. This emotional attachment causes leaders to hold on to projects that are obviously fake work to other workers. However, most employees are loath to criticize a pet project of one of their leaders for fear of creating bad blood, or even getting fired.”

A now defunct firm was"all in" (i.e., completely committed) on a pet project that senior leaders believed could be developed and sold to external clients (i.e., outside customers). Unfortunately, the project was an epic failure. Among the many reasons for it failing was the fake work involved. For what the team was investing in (their time & energy), the return on investment would not be worth it. In addition to the fake work, the project was tasked to a person who lacked the expertise to both lead and manage it. Unfortunately, this person contracted a third-party vendor to do a significant portion of the work (i.e., creating the contents) and the vendor ended up plagiarizing most the contents. All of this led to the project's goal of selling the contents to be voided since you cannot sell contents which you did not create. What a terrible waste of money, time, and resources!

“The boss-employee relationship causes people who are being supervised to want to please the boss and to not reveal what is really happening. Leaders should encourage their direct reports to let them know more than that the job is being completed successfully—specifically, is the job meaningful in terms of the organization’s goals?” -Brent D. Peterson & Gaylan W. Nielson

Takeaway: To keep the spirit of real work in mind, remember to always (Peterson & Nielson, 2009, p. 82):

  • Maintain a different orientation to your work. Constantly look at your job, your tasks, and your routine from different points of view. This will help you see what truly matters.

  • Exercise control and discipline. Instead of getting blown like a leaf by the wind, exercise discipline to cut through all the waste and focus your limited energy on what truly matters, rather than something irrelevant or fake.

  • Become a doer of real work. Becoming a doer of real work requires practice, but it’s the kind of practice that everyone can get used to, and it doesn’t take years to master. Just focus on your company’s goals and do what you can to help reach them. Remember that talking isn’t doing, and that having an open mind will allow you to devise the best, most efficient solutions.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.

Organizational & Leadership Development Leader


Nielson, G.W. (2022, May). Working Harder vs. Working Smarter: Is Fake Work Keeping You From Real Work?

Peterson, B.D., & Nielson, G.W. (2009). Fake work: Why people are working harder than ever but accomplishing less, and how to fix the problem. Simon Spotlight.



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