Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More

Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Published: 9/3/2019
The Wall Street Journal bestseller—a Financial Times Business Book of the Month and named by The Washington Post as “One of the 11 Leadership Books to Read in 2018”—is “a refreshingly data-based, clearheaded guide” (Publishers Weekly) to individual performance, based on a groundbreaking study. 

Book Summary - Great at Work: The Hidden Habits of Top Performers by Morten T. Hansen

Key Insights

What does “working smart” really mean? Business professor and author Morten T. Hansen wanted to find out what it really means to be a smart worker, so in 2011 he and his team launched a massive project studying the habits, tricks, and techniques of top performers.

Using interviews, surveys, and over 200 academic papers, Hansen and his team came up with the top seven habits that contributed to top performers’ success. From a survey of 5,000 people, they found that these seven factors accounted for 66 percent of their successful performance. Using these seven top-performance principles, workers were able to work smarter, be more effective, and excel without working longer hours.

Key Points

Principle One: Do Less To Get More Done

Most people hold the common misconception that to do better, they need to do more work and put in longer hours than everyone else, but what they really need to do is work smarter, not harder. By stretching themselves too thin on a number of projects, they make it difficult to really excel at any one task. If people are constantly multitasking, they become overwhelmed, and the quality of their work suffers.

Hansen’s research shows that the most effective performers commit to less work, but focus their attention fully on a smaller collection of the most important priorities. By narrowing their attention, they are able to concentrate more fully on excelling at the most important tasks. According to his research, Hansen found that performers who used this principle and obsessed only on their priorities outperformed others by an average of 25 percent.

However, it is often difficult to determine what to prioritize, and what to let go. Hansen recommends three strategies to help pare down your task list to only the most essential items.

First, you should reassess how you measure success. Rather than just thinking of success as completing lots of tasks, you should see how many tasks you can eliminate because they do not contribute to your overall larger goal.

Second, you should eliminate all distractions. To fully focus your attention on your most important tasks, you should arrange your workspace so you do not have access to any distractions. You should cut off access to tempting internet and email distractions by designating a work-only laptop that does not have access to the web, and carve out space and time alone so you are not distracted by co-workers.

Lastly, if your boss is not clear about what his priorities are, it might be difficult for you to identify your own. It is important to speak with your boss to identify priorities and get a clear idea of what your overall goals should be.

For example, explorer Roald Amundsen utilized this technique to be the first to lead his team to reach the South Pole in 1911. While his rival, Robert Scott, prepared five different methods to get to the South Pole, Amundsen focused obsessively over just one: sled dogs. He focused his attention on how to make his sled dog team the most effective, learning all about the best sled dog breeds, the best dog drivers, and the best way to run a sled dog team. Because he wasn’t trying to spread his attention over five different methods, Amundsen won the race to the South Pole.

Principle Two: Redesign Your Workflow

For optimal performance, you should redesign your workflow based on the external value that it adds, not on arbitrary internal metrics that measure productivity for productivity’s sake. Tasks should be prioritized based on how much value they add to you or your business. To assess the true value of a task, you should use an “outside-in view.” This means that, instead of assessing value based on internal metrics, the tasks are assessed based on how it benefits external parties, such as stakeholders, customers, or the business as a whole. By redesigning your workflow with external value at the forefront, you can focus only on your priorities and reduce multitasking.

When redesigning your workflow, you should also remember to balance efficiency with quality. For work to add value, it has to have high levels of quality and accuracy. Efficiency comes at a cost if the accuracy of the work suffers. However, the work also has to be done efficiently enough that its performance adds meaningful outward value.

For example, if a doctor sees many patients in a day, but does not accurately diagnose and cure their problems, then they have not added value, although they have improved efficiency. Similarly, if a transcriptionist generates a high volume of output, but they are not accurate in their transcriptions, then they have not provided a lot of value. The best workflows should be designed to account for the best balance of quality, efficiency, and value.

Principle Three: The Learning Loop

To be a great performer, you should develop your skills, and improving your skillset requires regular practice. However, it is often difficult to set aside time to devote to practice. Instead, Hansen recommends a technique called “the learning loop,” in which you integrate practice into your everyday tasks. With each task you complete, you receive feedback on your performance and use it to improve your techniques. There are six guidelines to using the Learning Loop effectively.

First, you should set aside just fifteen minutes a day to focus solely on developing one skill, and make sure to collect feedback on your performance.

Secondly, practice micro behaviors. Microbehaviors are smaller, actionable behaviors that you break out of the bigger skill you want to develop.

Thirdly, use metrics to track growth and measure your success.

Fourth, enlist other people, such as your boss, mentor, or colleagues, to help you by evaluating your progress and giving you actionable feedback.

Fifth, be prepared to see a “dip” in performance. Once you improve your skill level, it is natural to see performance drop because you are at a new level of expertise. This dip is normal, and it is essential to push past it to ensure continued improvement.

Lastly, don’t be discouraged by a plateau. When someone has mastered a skill set, they are capable but they often reach a plateau where they stop improving. Top performers don’t become complacent but are always looking to improve their skills, even ones they have been using for a long time.

Brittany Gavin was a food and nutrition manager at a hospital in California, who Hansen interviewed for his research. She employed the learning loop method to improve the way she solicited new ideas from her team. When leading meetings, she asked specific questions from her team, got feedback, and made continual improvements. Eventually, she was able to implement 84 great new ideas, and their satisfaction rating rose.

Principle Four: Passion and Purpose

Passion for what you do and the broader purpose of your work should be combined for top performance, using a method Hansen called “P-squared.” Passion for your work is important, but it’s often not enough. For optimal performance, workers should combine their passion with a sense of purpose with the P-squared method. By combining passion and purpose, you will feel energized and get more out of your working hours.

To incorporate P-squared into your work, you should make sure your role is designed in such a way that your passions are effectively utilized.

For example, a COO at a German software company named Steven Birdsall had lost his passion after being stuck in his position for ten years. His true passions were customer service and intrapreneurial ventures. He reinvigorated his role by incorporating these passions into his work by creating a plan to develop new markets for his company. He decided to focus on developing rapid deployment solutions within his company, a service that had market demand but was not being sold effectively. He combined his entrepreneurial passion with purpose, and his rapid deployment solutions plan generated 1.3 billion dollars in revenue within a few years.

To understand their purpose, people also have to look beyond their daily tasks, which can often be mundane and uninspiring. However, when people focus more on the results of their task, and understand how being competent in their role contributes to the success of the whole, they can understand their purpose and feel accomplished.

With that said, individuals should also be on the lookout for opportunities to improve their jobs by incorporating more purposeful daily activities. They should accept more responsibilities and look for opportunities to accomplish work that benefits others.

Principle Five: Winning Support

When you are proposing a new idea, it is essential to have people on your side, and the best way to do that is by utilizing emotional appeals and understanding others’ perspectives. Proposing a new idea is often difficult, and it helps to have support when you hit opposition. To generate this support, top performers use a combination of emotional appeals and logical arguments. Successful persuaders stimulate “high-arousal” emotions, like fear and excitement, which encourages action. Using visual aids can stimulate emotions even more, and help your audience remember you. For example, chef Jamie Oliver, during a presentation on fat at a West Virginia elementary school, brought in a dump truck to dump loads of animal fat into a dumper to illustrate his point about the amount of fat the school was consuming. This memorable visual aid stimulated the groups emotions and led them to changing their diet.

People also feel more motivated to act when they feel a sense of purpose. Therefore, it is important to connect your ideas to a greater cause. For example, call center employees who raised money for university scholarships were often discouraged, because they never saw the positive results of their work. However, when they read letters from grateful students who benefitted from the money they raised, they felt a connection to a bigger cause and derived much more purpose from their work. This sense of purpose led them to more than double their fundraising average.

Winning support from others requires perseverance, but not stubbornness. You should use what you learn about your opponents to change your approach and effectively counter their arguments. The best way to beat your opponents is to instead co-opt them, understand and address their concerns, and invite them to share in the successes of your project. For example, Lorenza Pasetti, the manager of an Italian meat company, was facing opposition from another Italian food organization, the Consorzio del

Prosciutto di Parma. Pasetti understood their concerns were not over the product, but over the validity of their using traditional Italian methods of making foods like prosciutto. Pasetti was able to explain her company’s connection to traditional Italian tradition, culture, and food, and was able to bring the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma over to their side.

Principle Six: The “Fight and Unite” Method

Effective meetings are essential for success, but too often, meetings turn into a waste of time and energy. To lead effective meetings, Hansen suggests utilizing two modes: fight and unite.

The “fight” portion encourages open debate, challenges, and analysis of the team’s ideas and opinions. Open debate is important because it allows space for new ideas to be presented, the status quo to be challenged, and for team members to feel like their ideas and opinions are heard. Hansen encourages what is called “constructive conflict,” which focuses on bringing together a diverse team, with different experiences and opinions, to debate in a meeting. Diverse thought processes and open debate leads to the emergence of new ideas, encourages innovation, and improves performance.

However, meetings can’t be all conflict. Leaders must “unite” the team before the end of the meeting. The whole team must come to a decision and have everyone on board before the meeting is adjourned. If the whole group cannot commit, then the most senior meetings must make an educated decision on the best path forward.

Bart Becht, the CEO of the multibillion dollar company Reckitt Benckiser, uses this meeting method to his advantage. He is known for bringing together a wide variety of ideas, perspectives, and personalities into his meetings, to allow the best and most innovative ideas to emerge, and unite the team around them.

Principle Seven: “Disciplined Collaboration”

The best type of collaboration for optimal performance is “disciplined collaboration,” but there are are two big risks when it comes to teams working together that can hinder performance. The first is “overcollaboration,” which is when a team seeks help in areas where they already have the expertise they need to make the decision. Soliciting help in areas where teams already have expertise actually leads to worse performance.

However, silos that discourage communication and prevent teams from seeking out expertise in areas where they lack expertise leads to “undercollaboration.” Teams should be able to effectively communicate and seek help from other departments when they would benefit from the expertise of others.

The best type of collaboration is what Hansen calls “disciplined collaboration.” Hansen’s research showed “disciplined collaboration” led to a 14 percent improvement in performance over both under and over collaborators. In this method, each proposed joint project must have a business case, with the value, opportunity cost, and collaboration cost accounted for. If the venture is still valuable after accounting for these costs, then the project is worth pursuing. Each project should also have a unified objective, that provides value for the whole organization. The goal should be clear, quantifiable, and have concrete deadlines.

For example, a business manager at a chemical company called Agilent Technologies wanted the chemical team and the life sciences team to collaborate on a chemical liquids devise project. However, he was turned down at first by the life sciences team. Rather than get discouraged, he was able to produce projected calculations that showed the life science teams the project had the potential to add almost $1 billion of value to the company within eight years, if the two units worked together. This convinced the life science team of the benefits of collaborating on this project.

The Main Take-away

To be a top performer, individuals do not need to work harder, they need to work smarter. By incorporating these seven top-performance principles - including smart prioritization, improved workflow, constant practice, uniting passion and purpose, winning support, leading productive meetings, and effective collaboration - into their work, individuals can become top performers themselves.

About the Author

Morten T. Hansen is a management professor at University of California, Berkeley, and is on the faculty at Apple University. He is the author or co-author of three books, including the New York Times bestseller Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck-Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. He has also written for the Harvard Business Review and the Sloan Management Review. He was the 2005 co-recipient of the Sloan Management Review/Pricewaterhouse Coopers Award.

Previously, Hansen worked at the Boston Consulting Group, and was a member of the founding team of BCG Nordics. He holds a Ph.D. in business administration from Stanford Graduate School of Business, and is a former Fulbright Scholar.

Hansen lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife, Helene, and their two children


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