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How to be Great At Work

This is my summary of a book that echoes many principles I wholeheartedly endorse, Great at Work - How top performers do less, work better, and achieve more by Morten Hansen (who co-wrote Good By Choice with Jim Collins).

As I wrote previously in the article I don't care how many hours you work, studies have shown that worker productivity and output diminishes once you exceed a certain number of hours per week. Interestingly, 50 hours per week seems to be the ceiling at which you start experiencing diminishing returns once you start working longer.

Great at work


In past roles, I recall several situations where I worked with people who were pleasant to be around, but who seemed to fritter their hours away with idle chatter and ‘busy-work’. They worked long hours but often failed to get their Projects and Tasks done on time. They got involved in many meetings because they loved being “in the know”, but this seemed to come at the expense of them delivering the results required in their role.

I thought to myself, 'No way would I hire this person if it was my company,' but these people seemed to keep their jobs because they put in enough face-time to convince their manager that they were a hard worker. They also attended all the after-hours social functions, laughed appropriately at the manager’s jokes, and stuck around drinking until the manager wanted to go home. Me, I just wanted to get my work done in the fastest, most efficient way possible, and be done.

Unfortunately, human psychology plays a role. A study, “How passive ‘face time’ affects perceptions of employees” showed that workers who arrive early and stay late were perceived by their managers as “dependable” and “reliable”. Workers who work outside of normal business hours were perceived as “committed” and “dedicated”. These traits were inferred by managers, whether or not these traits were actually true about the worker.

Unfortunately, there’s also a fetish in the business media for glorifying the masochistic work habits of celebrity CEOs like Elon Musk and Marissa Mayer with their “work ridiculous hours and sleep at your desk” stories, touting this unhealthy practice as some form of Silicon Valley success formula that we should all try to emulate. Fortunately, there is a growing counter-movement in the tech industry, led by the Basecamp software founders with their new book, “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work”.

This book, Great At Work, also helps to burst these “work harder, work longer” myths by documenting research that shows what the highest performing, most productive workers really do, in a survey of 5000 managers and employees. Here’s my brief overview of the 7 “work smarter” practices the research uncovered:

1. Do less, then obsess


The old “work harder” conventional wisdom:

Take on more duties and work harder and longer. Sacrifice your personal time for career success.

The new “work smarter” research:

Obsess on doing fewer things in a truly excellent manner. Don’t spread yourself too thin. Focus on the critical metrics, projects, and tasks that have the greatest positive impact on company performance. Excuse yourself from everything else (meetings, projects, activities). Accept these tradeoffs. High performers do not say “yes” to everything the boss wants, rather you negotiate with them where you will apply intense effort to excel in a few chosen areas. Like the Greek hero Odysseus binding himself to the ship’s mast to resist the call of the sirens, take steps to eliminate or reduce the impact of message notifications and interruptions from people (the bane of open plan offices) when you are in the flow of doing your work. Protect your time at work fiercely. Protect your personal and family time even more fiercely.

2. Redesign your work


The old “work harder” conventional wisdom:

Deliver on your existing metrics, projects, and tasks as per your job description

The new “work smarter” research:

Redesign your role and work processes to maximize the value of your contribution. Resist the temptation to work more hours. Ideally, you only work 40 hours per week, but definitely not more than 50. Narrow the scope of your work. Emphasize efficiency metrics and quality metrics over activity metrics. Attend fewer meetings. For the meetings you do attend, make them faster with a focus on driving progress.

3. Don’t just learn, loop

The old “work harder” conventional wisdom:

It takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. Practice makes perfect.

The new “work smarter” research:

It’s not how many hours you practice, it’s about “deliberate practice”. Quality of learning trumps quantity of repetitions. Measure results. Get regular feedback and coaching on your performance (ideally daily, but at least once per week - can you imagine a tennis star like Roger Federer getting feedback on his serve only once per year during an annual performance review?). Break each skill down into component parts and focus on improving one component at a time. Take small steps on a daily basis to practice and improve each skill component.

4. P-Squared (Passion and Purpose)


The old “work harder” conventional wisdom:

Follow your passion. Do what you love and success will come.

The new “work smarter” research:

Passion gives you energy, but following your passion can lead to failure and ruin. Beware the phenomenon known as survivorship bias. We do not hear from people who failed to become successful doing what they love (like the aspiring actors who end up working as restaurant waiters in Los Angeles). Strive to match your passion with a strong sense of purpose. Even people performing low-status jobs feel a sense of purpose when they can connect with how their work (or their company) helps others. You feel a sense of purpose when you make a valuable contribution to the lives of others (customers or colleagues), which in turn, helps increase passion for your work.

5. Forceful champions


The old “work harder” conventional wisdom:

State the merits of your case rationally. Be persistent. Be a bulldozer. Eventually, your colleagues will come around to see things your way. Leverage the hierarchy to impose change.

The new “work smarter” research:

As organizations become flatter and less hierarchical, you need to build a coalition of support. Build a rational case for change, but incorporate an emotional appeal as well. Share emotional stories to get people angry about the current circumstances, and inspired about the alternative future state you propose. Show them, don’t tell them. (Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver realized that explaining the benefits of healthy food was not enough to convince schools to provide healthy menu options, so he dumped a truckload of fat in front of parents to get them roused up about what was happening to their children).

6. Fight and unite


The old “work harder” conventional wisdom:

Surround yourself with the best and brightest. Strive for a consensus of opinion.

The new “work smarter” research:

Encourage diversity of opinion. Make it safe for people to speak their minds. Draw out the opinions of the introverts. Appoint someone to play “devil’s advocate” to point out the assumptions, weaknesses, and downsides of any course of action. Teach your team to fight productively in meetings. If you are the leader, allow sufficient time for vigorous debate, but then make a decision, don’t keep pushing it off. “Disagree then commit” (once a decision is made, everyone must fully commit). Zero tolerance for anyone undermining a decision after the fact:

Diversity in counsel. Unity in command. —Cyrus the Great, founder of the first Persian empire

7. The two sins of collaboration


The old “work harder” conventional wisdom:

The more collaboration the better. Break down the silo walls. Create “boundaryless companies”  (à la Jack Welch). Force collaboration if you have to.

The new “work smarter” research:

Over-collaboration (too many cooks in the kitchen) is just as bad as under-collaboration. Instead, practice disciplined collaboration. Create a clear business case before initiating any collaborative effort. The goal of a collaboration is not just “to collaborate”.  Build trust with a small pilot test project. Agree on a unifying objective measure that allows you to track the progress of the collaboration effort every step of the way (much like a BHAG). Focus on collaboration results, not collaboration activities (meetings attended etc). Protect your time. If you can’t see the value, or can’t fully commit to a collaborative endeavor, narrow the scope or kill it.

To Conclude


Working smart is not a cliche. You can be a high performer at work and have a fulfilling life outside of work without working a crazy number of hours.

Adopt the 7 “work smart” practices which have been shown in the research to be the key drivers of performance. Use this book and these tools to start a meaningful discussion at your workplace.

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Topics: Management

Stephen Lynch

Author of the award winning business book Business Execution for RESULTS & President of RESULTS.com, Lynch is an internationally known Strategy Consultant and a contributing writer for The Economist magazine.

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