Business Success Stories Are Not Always What They Seem


If you enjoy reading business materials like me you have probably read hundreds of articles and dozens of books on best practices in business. These sources can fall into two extremes, on one side business resources can be filled with numerous success stories without scientific backing and on the other hand, resources that are purely scientific findings. In my personal opinion the best resources stem from memorable, yet powerful stories that have been tested and data backed.


In the book Hard Facts Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense, the authors pointed out a surreal truth about success stories. Paraphrasing, they caution readers against success stories if the story lacks scientific testing. For instance, many times when a team does well, the leader is showered with compliments and praise. Let’s say that a sales team that performed great in a quarter so the leader is praised for their great decision making on their new territory strategy. However, let’s say the territory was much easier than the other territories making the lead not responsible for the cause [easy territory] of the result [more business]. Hence, the company erroneously concluded the cause for the result.


Many case studies and business success stories fall victim to this same situation where the strategy is not tested thoroughly enough to see if the method being utilized is really the cause of the result.


While reading Joy At Work by Dennis W. Bakke, the author details his time as founder of AES corporation and what he did to make the environment joyful. Keep in mind, AES corporation is a publicly traded $10 billion plus revenue company that he founded so he definitely knows a thing or two about business. While reading over Amazon Reviews regarding, Joy At Work, I found a lot of readers critiquing the book mentioning that it had a religious undertone to it and readers should be skeptical of Bakke’s approach. I didn’t have as much as a negative reaction to the author’s reference to religion, but rather, I did have an issue with his lack of answering ‘why did this approach work’ in a scientific black and white sense. Instead, many of the backings were what employees said, essentially anecdotal. And even worse, I felt that some of the approaches he discussed were wrongly concluded- cause did not match the result.


Upon reading the chapter, Scorekeeping, Accountability and Rewards, Bakke discussed a new payment approach to plant factory workers by switching from the traditional hourly payment to salary. His argument for this new approach was to “reduce and possibly eliminate this discriminatory behavior” (Bakke 121). Earlier, Bakke mention how the massive discriminatory gap employee and manager where if the gap and where employees were treated as second class citizens. Bakke continued that the large gap between manager and employee were pulled from “elitism of management” and “militancy of unions”. He concluded that by paying employees salaries instead of hourly [cause] then the environment would be one step towards a “fun and fulfilling workplace” [result] (Bakke 121).


At this moment I had to pause reading. There was something very right about what Bakke was attempting to solve and something very wrong. The part that made a lot of sense was that Bakke wanted to increase employee engagement and create an environment that people actually looked forward to waking up to in the morning. I totally followed him there. On the other hand, he attributed that since management had salaries then lower level employees should have them as well and this would consequently should increase employee engagement and happiness in the company factories. At this point, I felt the hypothesis, switching to hourly to salary [cause] was not analyzed enough to really suggest it would increase employee wellness [result].


Later in the chapter, after making the payment shift, Bakke recounts numerous employees coming up to him in gratitude thanking him for the change. Here are some of the benefits he noted:


  • Employees did not have to work on Saturdays as often leading to better work life balance
  • Employees had a higher base pay so they were able to afford things such as a downpayment for a house.
  • Employees had more self-respect

He continued with quite a few unique and powerful stories on how traveling to different countries where the plants were, employees would swarm him with paperwork and ask him to switch them from hourly to salary. As Bakke put it “It was one of my proudest accomplishments.”


Was the switch really that powerful? When switching to salary employees received more flexibility in their schedules. There were times that they did not have to wake up on Saturday and go to the plant because they were on a salary. The employees in this case seems to be working less hours and receiving higher pay so wouldn’t anyone feel happy after an initial raise? Would have a hourly raise had the same effect?  


What I think the readers would have really benefited from in this chapter was if Bakke showed the before and after of the worker’s productivity, number of hours worked, and payment. Reason being which I am sure Bakke ran into many times trying to pass these ideas with the board, is:


  1. This does increase employee wellness in the short term, but does it also have long term effect?
  2. With the employees working less hours, is the company still able to afford to pay the employees so that they still can be on salary?
  3. Are employees more productive on salary or hourly?


While I don’t doubt that Bakke decision was correct, I don’t agree with how he supported his decision. By taking a closer look at the data, I believe that many of the readers would have understood Bakke’s decision not only from an emotional point of view, but also a logical one. Even better, Bakke could have made a strong case for why plants across the world should also make the switch. And if they do, they know through quantitative data that they also have the ability to change the workplace to where people find Joy at Work.


When reading through business success stories, it is always great to ask why did this happen? What is the cause and what is the effect? Often, many writers recall things that worked successfully in business and yet, they don’t didn’t scrutinize the process well enough to know what actually helped. Once they do, we will a lot easier to replicate Joy at Work because we have a quantitative backed solution.

Jeff Butler

Jeff Butler Internationally respected speaker and consultant, Jeff Butler helps bridge generational gaps between Millennials and companies looking for their talent and patronage. Butler has quickly built his reputation as a memorable presenter with tangible solutions for attracting, retaining, and engaging Millennials as employees and customers. Within just the past three years, he has spoken at two TEDx events and multiple Fortune 500 companies such as Google, Amazon, and LinkedIn.


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