Jan 30, 2018
The Secrets to Great Performance
Excerpted from my latest book, Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better and Achieve More.
After nine grueling interviews, I landed my dream job as a management consultant at the Boston Consulting Group in London. I’ll never forget how I showed up on my first day, wearing an elegant blue suit bought for the occasion, with Oxford lace-up shoes to match. My girlfriend had given me a sleek, soft briefcase of the sort bankers carried around. As I strode through the front doors of the office in posh Devonshire House, right near Piccadilly, I looked the part but felt intimidated.
I yearned to make a mark, so I followed what I thought was a brilliant strategy: I would work crazy hours. I didn’t have much relevant work experience—heck, I didn’t have any. It was my first real job. I was 24 years old and had just finished a master’s degree in finance from the London School of Economics. What I lacked in experience I would make up for by staying late in the office. Over the next three years, I worked 60, 70, 80, even 90 hours per week. I drank an endless stream of weak British coffee and survived on a supply of chocolate bars I kept in my top drawer. It got to the point where I knew the names of the cleaning staff who arrived at five in the morning. As you can imagine, my girlfriend soon wanted the briefcase back.
One day, as I struggled through an intense mergers and acquisition project, I happened upon some slides created by a teammate (I’ll call her Natalie). Paging through her analysis, I confronted an uncomfortable truth. Natalie’s work was better than mine. Her analysis contained crisper insights, more compelling ideas. Her slides boasted a clean, elegant layout that was more pleasing to the eye and easier to comprehend –which in turn made her analysis even more persuasive. Yet one evening in the office, when I went to look for her, she wasn’t there. I asked a guy sitting near her desk where she was, and he replied that she’d gone home for the night. He explained that Natalie never worked late. She worked from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. No nights, no weekends. That upset me. We were both talented and had the analytical capability required of BCG consultants. She had no more experience in the field than I did. Yet she did better while working less.
Three years later, I left BCG to embark on an academic career. I earned a Ph.D. from Stanford University and went on to become a professor at Harvard Business School. From time to time, I found myself thinking back to what I called the “Natalie Question”: Why had she performed better in fewer hours? She must have carried some secrets explaining her amazing results. I began to wonder about performance generally and decided to focus my research on corporate performance.
Starting in 2002, Jim Collins and I spent nine years working on our book Great by Choice as a sequel to Jim’s Good to Great. Both books offer empirically validated frameworks that account for great performance in companies. That’s nice if you’re leading a business, but what about the rest of us? After we finished the project, I decided to develop a similarly validated framework for individual performance. It was time to discover why Natalie had done better than me, and more generally, to tackle the big question: why do some people perform great at work while others don’t?
Social scientists and management experts explain performance at work by pointing to people’s innate gifts and natural strengths. How often have you heard phrases like “She’s a natural at sales” or “He’s a brilliant engineer”? One influential book entitled The War for Talent argues that a company’s ability to recruit and retain talent determines its success. The popular Strengthsfinder approach advocates that you find a job that taps into your natural strengths, and then focus on developing those further. These talent-based explanations are deeply embedded in our perceptions of what makes for success. But are they right?
Some work experts take issue with the talent view. They argue that an individual’s sustained effort is just as critical or even more so in determining success. In one variant of this “work hard” paradigm, people perform because they have grit, persevering against obstacles over the long haul. In another, people maximize efforts by doing more: They take on many assignments and are busy running to lots of meetings. That’s the approach I subscribed to while at BCG, where I put in long hours in an effort to accomplish more. Many people believe that working hard is key to success.
Talent, effort, and also luck undoubtedly explain why some succeed and others don’t, but I wasn’t satisfied with these arguments. They didn’t account for why Natalie performed better than me, nor did they explain the performance differences I had observed between equally hard-working and talented people.
I decided to take a different approach, exploring whether the way some people work—their specific work practices as opposed to the sheer amount of effort they exert—accounts for greatness at work. That led me to explore the idea of “working smart,” whereby people seek to maximize output per hour of work. The phrase “work smarter, not harder” has been thrown around so much over the past decade that it has become a cliché. Who wants to “work dumb”? But many people do in fact work dumb because they don’t know exactly how to work smart. And I don’t blame them because it’s hard to obtain solid guidance.
I scanned for existing advice on how to work smarter, and the picture I arrived at was incoherent and overwhelming. Every author seemed to say something different. Prioritize. Delegate. Keep a calendar. Avoid distractions. Set clear goals. Execute better. Influence people. Inspire. Manage up. Manage down. Network. Tap into a passion. Find a purpose. The list went on, over 100 pieces of advice. Few offered data to back up their contentions.
So what is really is going on? If Natalie worked smarter than me, what exactly did she and other top performers do? What secrets to their great performance do they harbor? I decided to find out. After years of study, what I found surprised me a great deal and shattered conventional wisdom.
The Performance Study
In 2011, I launched one of the most comprehensive research projects ever undertaken on individual performance at work. I recruited a team of researchers with expertise in statistical analysis and began generating a framework—a set of hypotheses about which specific behaviors lead to high performance. I considered the scattered findings I had found in over 200 published academic studies, and I incorporated insights from my previous discussions with hundreds of managers and executives. I also drew on in-depth interviews with 120 professionals and undertook a 300-person survey pilot. In the final step, we tested the emerging framework in a survey study of 5,000 managers and employees.
To organize the vast array of potential “work smart” factors, I grouped them into categories that scholars regard as important for job performance. We can think of work as consisting of job design characteristics (what a person is supposed to do), skill development (how a person improves), motivational factors (why a person exerts effort), and relational dimensions (with whom and how a person interacts). Once I had settled on these broad categories, I examined factors within each, identifying those that previous research suggested were key. (The research appendix contains details on our methodology.)
With this initial list of factors in hand, my team and I designed a 96-item survey instrument, piloting it with a sample of 300 bosses and employees. We also tracked how many hours people worked each week, and we measured their performance relative to their peers. That way, we could compare the effects of hours worked and our “work smart” factors on performance. We spent months poring over statistical results from the pilot and our notes from in-depth interviews. We winnowed down the number of plausible factors until we arrived at eight main factors. After some more analysis, we discovered that two were similar, so we combined them into one (see the research appendix for further explanation).
In the end, we discovered that seven “work smart” practices seemed to explain a substantial portion of performance. (It always seems to be seven, doesn’t it?) When you work smart, you select a tiny set of priorities and make huge efforts in those chosen areas (what I call the work scope practice). You focus on creating value, not just reaching preset goals (targeting). You eschew mindless repetition in favor of higher- quality skills practice (learning). You seek roles that match your passion with a strong sense of purpose (inner motivation). You shrewdly deploy influence tactics to gain the support of others (advocacy). You cut back on wasteful team meetings, and make sure
that the ones you do attend spark rigorous debate (teamwork). You carefully pick which cross-unit projects to get involved in, and say no to less productive ones (collaboration). This is a pretty comprehensive list. The first four relate to mastering your own work, while the remaining three concern mastering working with others.
Not What We Expected
These seven practices upend conventional thinking about how you should work. I had thought, for instance, that people who prioritized well would perform well, and they did, but the best performers in our study also did something else. Once they had focused on a few priorities, they obsessed over those tasks to produce quality work. That extreme dedication to their priorities created extraordinary results. Top performers did less and more: Less volume of activities, more concentrated effort. This insight overturns much conventional thinking about focusing that urges you to choose a few tasks to prioritize. The choice is only half of the equation—you also need to obsess. This
finding led us to reformulate the “work scope” practice and call it “do less, then obsess.”
Our findings also overturned another convention. How many times have you heard, “Do what you love”? Find a role that taps into your passion, and you will be energized and do a better job. Sure enough, we found that people who were highly passionate about their jobs performed better. But, we also came across passionate people who didn’t perform well, and people whose passion led them astray (like the poor guy who pursued his passion for graphic design and ended up running down his retirement account and having no job and no income). “Follow your passion,” we found, can be dangerous advice. Our top performers took a different approach: they strove to find roles that contributed value to the organization and society and then matched passion with that sense of purpose. The matching of passion and purpose, and not passion alone, produced the best results.
Our results overturned yet another typical view, the idea that collaboration is necessarily good and that more is better. Experts advise us to tear down “silos” in organizations, collaborate more, build large professional networks, and use lots of high-tech communication tools to get work done. Well, my research shows that convention to be dead wrong. Top performers collaborate less. They carefully chose which projects and tasks to join and which to flee, and they channel their efforts and resources to excel in the few chosen ones. They discipline their collaboration.
Our study also disputes the popular idea that the path to top performance lies in practicing a skill for 10,000 hours. Our best performers in the workplace did something else, practicing what I call the “learning loop” at work.
These and other surprising insights turned out to be critical. The very best people didn’t just work smart in a conventional sense, but pursued more nuanced practices, like doing less and obsessing, and matching purpose with passion. Comparing these seven practices, I realized that they all embodied the idea of selectivity. Whenever they could, top performers carefully selected which priorities, tasks, collaborations, team meetings, committees, analyses, customers, new ideas, steps in a process, and interactions to undertake, and which to neglect or reject. Yet, this more nuanced way of working smart wasn’t just about being selective. The very best redesigned their work so that they would create the most value (a term we will define in chapter three) and then they applied intense, targeted efforts in their selected work activities.
Based on these findings, I arrived at a more precise definition of working smart: To work smart means to maximize the value of your work by selecting a few activities and applying intense targeted effort.
Testing the New Theory
To test our framework of the seven specific work-smart practices, my team and I modified our survey instrument and administered it to 5,000 managers and employees across a wide range of jobs and industries in corporate America. We sampled bosses and direct reports in addition to employees, so as not to rely on self-reported data only (see the research appendix for details). We surveyed sales reps, lawyers, trainers, actuaries, brokers, medical doctors, software programmers, engineers, store managers, plant foremen, marketers, human resource people, consultants, nurses and my personal favorite–a Las Vegas casino dealer. Some of these people occupied senior positions, but most were supervisors, office managers, department heads, or employees in low-level positions. The 5,000 people represented 15 industry sectors and 22 job functions. Almost half (45%) were women (two of the seven practices revealed a gender difference). Age groups ranged from millennials to those over 50. Education level varied from those with less than a bachelor’s degree (20% of the sample) to people with a master’s degree or higher (22%). My aim was to develop, test, and share a smart-work theory that most people could use to improve their individual performance.
We ran our 5,000-person data set through a rigorous statistical method called regression analysis. It turned out that our seven work-smart practices went a long way toward explaining differences in performance. In fact, they accounted for a whopping 66 percent of the variation in performance among the 5,000 people in our dataset. We can compare that to other fields to get an idea of how remarkable this effect is. Smoking will kill you, we’re told, yet smoking only explains 18% of variation in people’s average life expectancy in the developed world, according to one study.8 Having a good salary is considered crucial for building life-long financial resources, yet income only explains 33% of differences in people’s net worth, according to a study of U.S. citizens between ages 18 and 65. The basketball star Stephen Curry is famous for hitting 3-point shots 22 feet away from the basket, yet he has landed “just” 44% of these shots during his professional career. These benchmark numbers from other fields indicate how substantial 66% really is in explaining an outcome like individual performance.
By contrast, other factors we tested such as educational background, company tenure, age, gender and hours worked combined to account for only 10 percent of the differences in performance. Hours worked per week mattered, but as I’ll explain in chapter three, the relationship to performance was more complicated than the simple “work harder” view suggests. The other 24 percent of the difference was unexplained and possibly included factors such as luck or talent.
Think about what these results mean. The talent and effort explanations still play a significant role in determining how individuals perform. But the real key to individual performance is the seven “work smarter” practices. By improving on these, you can lift your performance beyond what it would be if you relied on talent, luck, or the sheer number of hours worked.
As the chart below shows, the more people in our study incorporated the seven practices into their work, the better they performed. If you rank in only the 20th percentile in your adoption of the seven practices, your performance is likely to be lackluster—in the bottom 21th percentile (point A in the chart). However, if you crank up your proficiency at these seven practices, jumping to the 90th percentile, your performance is likely to be in the 89th percentile (point B in the chart) according to our predictions. That’s becoming a top performer.
How You Can Work at Your Best
For all that has been written about performance, no book to my knowledge has presented an evidence-based, comprehensive understanding of what enables individuals to perform at the highest level at work. Great at Work fills this gap. It gives you a simple and practical framework that you can use to work at your best. Think of it as Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, updated to reflect the realities of work today, and backed by an unprecedented statistical analysis.
Each chapter presents a “smart” practice and offers concrete advice for how you can include it in your own work. By using the word “practice,” I want to emphasize that you can incorporate these ideas into your daily work and make them a habit, just like you would other routines, like grabbing that morning coffee, checking your mail, and exercising. You can start small and build up these routines bit by bit, until you master them.
To inspire and guide you in how to apply these ideas, I tell stories of people from all walks of life who have adopted these practices and achieved outsized results. You’ll meet Steven Birdsall, a senior manager who found a way to carve out a new business in the software company SAP. You’ll encounter Genevieve Guy, a hotel concierge who infused her work with passion and purpose. I’ll introduce you to Greg Green, a principal who accomplished a dramatic turn-around of his failing high school, with inspiration from an unlikely source. You’ll meet an emergency room nurse who found a way for her department to save more heart attack patients while doing less work. You’ll meet a consumer products CEO whose unusual approach to team meetings helped him achieve a top 1 percent performance record. You’ll also meet a small business owner, a biotech engineer, a physician, a management consultant, a sushi chef, a salesperson, a factory line person, and many others who implemented at least one of the seven practices and boosted their performance. (Throughout the book, we have altered the names and settings for most of the people we interviewed from our dataset to protect their confidentiality.)
How You Can Live Well, too
You might wonder whether people who work smarter as I’ve defined it are unhappy with their work. Under the old “work hard” paradigm, high achievers tend to become stressed out, even burned out. You work harder and your performance improves, but your quality of life plummets. I know mine did when I was putting in all those hours at BCG. But our study yielded a surprise. The seven “work smarter” practices didn’t just improve performance. They also improved people’s wellbeing at work. As I show in chapter nine, people in our study who worked smarter experienced better work-life balance, higher job satisfaction, and less burnout.
I have met so many people who believe that they must make a tradeoff between achieving at work and enjoying a happy life. They forego life outside of their jobs and put in huge amounts of hard work—long hours and maximum effort—to become top performers. Millions of people around the world sacrifice this way because they don’t know how to work differently. They don’t know how to work smart. But now there is a clear answer. As our study shows, you can perform exceptionally well and still have plenty of time to do things you love other than work, like being with your family and friends. Being great at work means performing in your job, infusing your work with passion and a strong sense of purpose, and living well, too. How great is that?
Whether you’re about to graduate from college or in the middle of your career, whether you’re worried about keeping your job or simply want to do it better, I invite you to set aside your preconceived ideas about work and explore the work-smart paradigm I present in this book. We’ll begin with the four practices for mastering your own work, followed by the three practices to help you master working with other people.
Why do some people perform better at work than others?
Morten Hansen reveals the answer in his “Seven Work Smarter Practices” that can be applied by anyone looking to maximize their time and performance.