Top five business maxims that need to go

Much well-known business advice is sadly obsolete but can still be found in articles, business books and, not least, in daily use in the workplace. It seems that some companies are still guided by thinking that is sadly out of date – if it was ever true to begin with.

The worst of these old maxims are not only wrong; they’re bad for people and bad for business. Businesses that use them are making their employees unhappy and are harming the bottom line.

Here’s my pick of the top five business maxims in serious need of an update – with a suggested replacement for each.

Old maxim #1: Failure is not an option

Meaning: We absolutely, positively must succeed.

Guess what: No matter how many times you repeat this maxim, failure remains an option. Closing your eyes to this fact only makes you more likely to fail. Putting pressure on people to always succeed makes mistakes more likely because:

  • People who work under pressure are less effective
  • People resist reporting bad news
  • People close their eyes to signs of trouble

This is especially true when it’s backed up with punishment of those who make mistakes. Peter Drucker provocatively suggested that businesses should find all the employees who never make mistakes and fire them, because employees who never make mistakes never do anything interesting. Admitting that mistakes happen and dealing constructively with them when they do makes mistakes less likely.

Also, failure is often the path to new, exciting opportunities that wouldn’t have appeared otherwise. Closing your eyes to failure means closing your eyes to these opportunities.

New maxim: Failure happens. Deal with it.

Old maxim #2: The customer is always right

Meaning: The customer is king. We satisfy our customers’ every need.

No. This tired business maxim often means that loyal hardworking employees are scorned in favor of unreasonable customers. It also, ironically, results in bad customer service.

I wrote a post outlining five reasons why “The Customer Is Always Right” is wrong, concluding that sticking to “The customer is always right” makes employees unhappy and that unhappy employees almost always give customers bad service.

New maxim: Happy employees mean happy customers.

Old maxim #3: Never be satisfied

Meaning: You can never be satisfied and complacent in business. You’ve always gotta want more.

This is a bad mistake which rests on a very fundamental misconception, namely that being satisfied means that you stop acting. That satisfaction breeds complacency and therefore that a happy, satisfied company will be passive.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, a constant sense of dissatisfaction in an organization sends one powerful message: We’re not good enough! The irony is that this results in worse performance.

People who constantly appreciate all the good in their organization and express their satisfaction create a much more positive working environment characterized by more:

  • Motivation
  • Energy
  • Self-confidence
  • Happiness at work

This is not about closing your eyes and pretending things are great if they’re not. It’s about appreciating the fact that people in constant states of dissatisfaction erode an organization’s will and ability to act. The trick is to appreciate what you have and still aim for more.

Replacement: Always be appreciative but never complacent.

Old maxim #4: Nice guys finish last

Meaning: Being nice may hinder your career and impede results.

That’s just not true, of course we should be nice at work. This doesn’t mean that you have to be nice to all of the people all of the time, but it means that you absolutely can be a nice person and succeed in business

I previously wrote about jerks at work and why they’re bad for business. The conclusion: unpleasant people hurt the bottom line. In a networked world reputation matters and it’s more important to be generous and likeable than to be ruthless and efficient.

New maxim: Nice guys get the job done.

Old maxim #5: Grow or die

Meaning: A business is either growing or dying. A business can’t be successful if it’s not growing.

It’s interesting to see how growth has been elevated to an automatic good, questioned by very few businesses and executives. Growth certainly has some positive effects especially because it creates new possibilities and challenges for an organization and its people. I’m not saying that growth is bad but that growth isn’t always right for every business.

Sometimes a business might be better off spending a quarter or a year not growing but simply consolidating existing business. Consequently not growing or even shrinking does not automatically represent business failure.

New maxim: Grow when you gotta.


The scary thing about maxims is that they’re often accepted unquestioningly because they come in the shape of old adages which are repeated – a little like nursery rhymes used to educate children. That means it’s not enough to oust the old maxims we need to replace them with new ones that are guaranteed to bring better results for people and for the bottom line.

Alexander Kjerulf AKA The Chief Happiness Officer is one of the world’s leading experts on happiness at work and the best-selling author of 3 books including Happy Hour is 9 to 5. Follow him on Twitter at @alexkjerulf.

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