You did not wake up this morning thinking that it’s time to be mediocre at work. It’s time to do some that doesn’t matter, to just phone it in.
There is also a podcast version of this which you can listen to here.
Now maybe the job you have is uninspiring and you feel stuck there, but no one aspires to mediocrity. We aspire to significance. That is one reason that people purchase crazy cars in midlife or that they search for significance in the arms of someone that’s not their spouse. Daniel Pink says it well in When:
What the end of the decade does seem to trigger, for good and for ill, is reenergized pursuit of significance. - When
This search for significance, for work that matters, is what Great at Work by Morten Hansen is about. How we do work that stands out and brings us a sense of significance? Hansen found that there are seven things, which you’ll see in the following paragraph.
You focus on creating value, not just reaching preset goals (targeting). You eschew mindless repetition in favor of better skills practice (quality 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 vigorous debate (rigorous teamwork). You carefully pick which cross-unit projects to get involved in, and say no to less productive ones (disciplined collaboration).
These are the seven things that they found are key in working smart, not hard. Working “harder” is putting more time in the chair. It’s pulling all-nighters to try and get ahead, when we know that more work shortchanges the quality of work that you can do.
When Hansen surveyed the work out there already on doing amazing work, he found that there was a lot of content that had opinions and beliefs but little that was evidenced based research backed.
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.
Given my recent read of High Performance Habits by Brendan Burchard, I’d have to disagree until I look at the published dates. High Performance Habits came out in Sept 2017 and Great at Work in Jan 2018. Hansen didn’t conceive of and write the book in a few months so he couldn’t have had knowledge of Burchard’s attempt at the same ideas that would be backed with research.
Hansen says that instead of working harder to be great at work, we should be working smarter. He says that his researched back this up, so before we get into the main content of the book we should know what Hansen’s definition of working smarter is.
To work smart means to maximize the value of your work by selecting a few activities and applying intense targeted effort.
To me this sounds a lot like The ONE Thing. The ONE Thing focuses directly on figuring out which domino is the lead domino. The one that will start the chain going so that you can watch it and have great impact in your business.
Hansen breaks the book up into two main sections. First he looks at the four practices that are needed to to manage our personal work. Second, he looks at the three practices that are used when working with others.
Let’s dive into the first part, mastering your own work.
Becoming a master is a topic close to my passion. I wrote a whole book on what it takes to become a master in your field. According to Hansen there are four things that people who are great at work do to become masters.
According to Hansen, the key is to pick the few highest value tasks that you can do. Then you have to obsess over only doing those things.
Picking a few priorities is only half the equation. The other half is the harsh requirement that you must obsess over your chosen area of focus to excel.
You see this in The ONE Thing as well:
If disproportionate results come from one activity, then you must give that one activity disproportionate time. - The ONE Thing
What Great at Work adds to the mix is research that The ONE Thing didn’t have.
In our quantitative study of 5,000 people, we found that employees who chose a few key priorities and channeled tremendous effort into doing exceptional work in those areas greatly outperformed those who pursued a wider range of priorities.
Ultimately it’s the same idea that was introduced by The ONE Thing, but backed by research. Since that was the angle that Hansen identified as a hole in the market, he’s on point still.
The focus that Hansen recommends is also very similar to the Deep Work that Cal Newport talks about.
Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
What Hansen adds to Newport’s idea is that there are a few times we should not focus.
The first time it’s okay not to focus is when you’re generating ideas. The goal then is to cast around and find the ideas that matter, so focusing on a single item will not accomplish that goal. It’s okay to have the distractions of others around you that are tied to the same goal.
The second time that you shouldn’t focus is when you’re not sure which option is the best one. Say you’ve got two different marketing ideas for your business, you don’t pursue one only. Pursue both with some effort and test them so that you can decide which one is the one that needs your focus.
That may mean you try building YouTube videos and writing blog posts. Then after a few months you look and see which one is bringing in the most paying clients and moving forward you only execute on that single idea.
Some of you are wondering how you can do this in the midst of your job where your boss wants you to focus on 99 things because “multitasking” is a think that you must do.
Years ago at my first web development job every time the boss came up to ask me to do random tasks that they thought about in the moment I countered by showing them my list for the day. On that list were the things that we had decided were important. I asked him which item didn’t need to get done on this list so that his item could get done.
He never picked anything on my list to not do. He always decided that his in the moment thought was the work that little value and should not be done.
Force some priority on your boss if they keep scattering your efforts.
Where the last practice was telling us that we need to focus, this one is supposed to be helping us decide what we should be focusing on to get the most leverage in our work. Without identifying what is most important, you’ll have to substitute more work for effective work.
The fact is that more work doesn’t add more value. In fact over a certain point it means you’re doing crappy work.
If you work between 30 and 50 hours per week, adding more hours on the job lifts your performance. But once you’re working between 50 and 65 hours per week, the benefit of adding additional hours drops off. And if you’re working 65 hours or more, overall performance declines as you pile on the hours.
We see this again in a great article from The Guardian:
Long hours, stress and physical inactivity are bad for our wellbeing – yet we’re working harder than ever. Isn’t it time we fought back? - Do you work more than 39 hours in a week, your job could be killing you
In the More of Less it’s acknowledged that we may have seasons where extra hours happen. Unfortunately all to often we let that become the norm.
Certainly there are seasons in life that require focused time and commitment. And we should never discourage working hard on things that matter. Unfortunately, however, most of us have become busy over all the wrong things and we have allowed false assumptions to drive our schedules. - The More of Less
So, if you’re going to redesign your work, what do you focus on? Do you focus on getting more work done? No you don’t! You focus on creating more value for your work and your customers. More work is shuffling the deck chairs.
That means that contrary to many books an creating a life you want, Hansen doesn’t get you to start with goals.
The advice “start with goals” when planning an effort, is wrong. We need to start with value, then proceed to goals. Ask yourself: what benefits do your various work activities produce, really?
I asked myself this about these long book reviews. What value does it provide for my customers. As I was working through this over the course of a few weeks I had no less than 10 people tell me that they read the reviews when they were looking for a book on a topic.
I even had one person email me with an interesting book because they felt that I’d dig in deeper than they would and they’d love to hear what I said about it. So I determined to double down on the reviews and add a podcast to them, and they’ll be ending up on Amazon as books to purchase.
These reviews started as a way to make sure that I took good notes and focused on the content of books, and now they’re turning into a business.
Hansen doesn’t leave us with the vague statement “produce more value” he gives us five ways that we can produce value.
Adding podcasts I’m trying to tackle numbers 2 3 and 4. I’m digging deeper with my reviews going forward and I’m going backwards digging deeper into older reviews. I’m doing more right stuff by adding the podcast and publishing the work online as books.
We’re going to see this same idea in an upcoming review of The 10x Marketing Formula where they tell you to stop creating content that is merely interesting for your audience and only create content where you can have a strong call to action to something that you sell. Do more of the “right” stuff and stop chasing traffic.
If you’re struggling to find out what creates the most value in your marketplace, then Hansen provides you with a few questions.
What pain points can you spot in your workplace? What do people complain about again and again and again? What gets people confused and frustrated and saying “this sucks”? Where does work tend to get bogged down?
Solving hard problems is the key to getting paid well. If you’re not solving major pain points for your clients then it’s no wonder that you’re getting paid poorly. Burchard echoes this as well in High Performance Habits.
Effectiveness in life does not come from focusing on what is automatic, easy, or natural for us. Rather, it is the result of how we consciously strive to meet life’s harder challenges, grow beyond our comforts, and deliberately work to overcome our biases and preferences, so that we may understand, love, serve, and lead others - High Performance Habits
Now there is a trap to be had here as well, it’s in the traction you get. It’s easy to read these types of books and figure that after a week you should be getting traction. That doesn’t happen people, you have to stick with it and test things and refine them until you’re seeing some traction.
Jumping around between what you think creates value is a sure fire way to kill all momentum.
You can’t just jump from one big redesign to another. Once you’ve made a major change, you have to stick with it and refine it little by little over time.
Changing focus will burn out your team as well. You’ll just get the ball rolling and then change things. That will mean your team will never fully commit to any idea because you’re just going to change it.
We’ve heard before about the 10k hour rule. The idea that it takes roughly 10,000 hours to become a master at anything. That’s only partially true though, because it’s not just 10,000 random hours doing something. It’s deliberate practice that matters.
The secret isn’t repetition. The idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill is misleading. One year of practice repeated in the same way for ten years doesn’t make perfect. Rather, a certain kind of practice makes perfect.
Random practice is going to have you going a mile wide and an inch deep never building your speciality. You must test outcomes and make changes so that you can get closer to the outcomes you want to see.
Individuals who progress the most meticulously assess outcomes, solicit feedback based on known standards of excellence, and strive to correct tiny flaws that the feedback has uncovered. This purposeful and informed way of practicing explains why some learn at a much faster rate than others.
It also means that you must build a habit of coaching your team if you want them to excel. If you’re looking for a framework for that then The Coaching Habit has a good one to get you started. Hansen also concurs with The Coaching Habit in that a yearly review is a waste, you need to be doing so much more than that.
Deliberate practice requires that a manager or employee receives helpful feedback every day, yet most people only receive it during their annual review. Imagine the tennis great Roger Federer getting feedback on his serve once a year from his coach.
A manager is the coach for their team. As a manager, what are you doing to ensure that you are properly equipped to help your team excel?
Hansen provides us with a framework he calls the learning loop which has six tactics to learn effectively.
Looping Tactic 1: Carve out the 15
You must carve out 15 minutes each day to enter the learning loop. This is not something you can leave for a quarterly review and planning session. Improving your processes and work is a daily activity. You must focus on one skill and one skill only, so choose the one skill that will bring the most value to your work.
Looping Tactic 2: Chunk it
Second, you need to chunk it. This is breaking your task up into small behaviours that you can affect. Something like turning off social media so that you can focus. The chunk is creating the space by turning off distractions so you can focus on single task
Looping Tactic 3: Measure the “soft”
If your goal is to listen to your team more, you can’t really measure “listening” but you can measure the little behaviour of having lunch with them. If you measure lunches with staff and then try to work on listening, it’s likely that you’re going to be improving. Go into the lunch with the mindset of “I’m going to ask more questions and talk less”.
Looping Tactic 4: Get Nimble Feeback, Fast
Useful feedback, however, requires more than a simple rating. It includes information about how well a person did and suggestions for how to modify behaviors.
This may seem like a scary part for managers and employees. Here you’re going to be asking your team to evaluate you. Set up some type of evaluation system where they can give feedback anonymously and make it clear that you want to improve so you need feedback to ensure that you can be better at leading them.
Another way to do this is to hire a coach to give you feedback. They’re outside the organization and can help you dig into the behaviours that might be killing your intended change.
Looping Tactic 5: Dig The Dip
While we may wish that everything goes perfectly for us. That we never see setbacks, this is not the case. You need to dig into the dip because you’ll hit it if you’re going to tackle hard problems.
Variation—trying new ideas—is essential to learning. And tackling difficult problems can provide rich learning opportunities. People who pursue the learning loop typically see their performance dip over the short term as they introduce challenges and experiment with ways to solve them. But they realize gains over time. The challenge, then, is to learn to tolerate failure in the short term.
They key here is to do a small experiment so that you can test to see what the outcome may be. Don’t just jump off the cliff.
Looping Tactic 6: Confront the stall point
As people develop expertise and skill in an activity, they can become very good, even excellent. But then something happens. They plateau.
At some point you’re going to stop improving like a rocket ship. You’ll need to stop and try new things and it will be hard because you’ll wonder why your old tactics just aren’t working anymore.
This is often your Zone of Excellence, which we read about in The Big Leap, and it’s easy to stay here. You make good money in this area, but you’re still shortchanging your self. You need to change that coach, or test something new and keep pushing instead of becoming complacent if you want to be the best you can.
Motivational speakers, self-help gurus, successful entrepreneurs, human resource executives, and branding experts have all talked up passion, so much that you might believe loving what you do is the only requirement to perform at your best.
The problem with all the people telling us about “follow your passion” is that we’re suffering from selection bias1 here. The only people that have a platform we listen to did this. We never see the 10,000 other people that tried to follow their passion and never got the traction of the guru.
Instead of just going with the follow your passion mantra that’s out there, Hansen says that we need to combine that with our purpose.
Some people pursue passion in navigating their careers, but they also manage to connect this passion with a clear sense of purpose on the job—they contribute, serve others, make a difference. They have matched passion with purpose.
They don’t plod along with the job that they hate, they look at how they can provide value and they connect with it. This can be done in any job. There is always a part of your work that matters and provides value to people you care about.
If people have found passion and purpose in nearly every corner of the economy, then chances are you can find it in your job, too. You don’t have to quit your job or leave your company in a risky quest to search for passion and purpose.
Hansen spends some time here because his research found that out of the seven factors the book talks about, P-Squared was the second highest in predicting high performance at work.
If you love what you do and you connect it to a purpose, something you value, then you’ll simply do better work.
If you love what you do, you’ll show up with a certain amount of vigor. And if you also feel that you’re helping other people—that they need you and depend on your contributions—your motivation to excel becomes that much greater.
Hansen finishes up this chapter by introducing is to his purpose pyramid which has three levels.
We start by creating value, doing no harm. Then with that in our toolkit, we start crafting a personal mission and tweaking our work so that it fits within that mission. Finally, we look outside ourselves and at the social good we can do.
If you’re not working up this pyramid, Hansen contends that you will feel empty in your work.
Many people experience a sense of emptiness because their job doesn’t seem to serve a clear social purpose. But as the pyramid suggests, purpose at work isn’t just about reaching the top level of contributing to society. It also includes adding value and finding personal meaning. If you lack a clear social mission at work, you can still discover purpose in your job by looking further down the pyramid. Try to craft activities that add more value and that also carry personal meaning.
That brings us to the end of the first section, dealing with how we master our own work and brings us to the second section, mastering our work with others.
Even if you sit at home and have no direct connections for your job, you have to work with others. You’ll be working with people at church, or another volunteer organization. You’ve got friends and family to work with. We all work with others and thus, we all need to look at these three practices that help us do great work with others.
The ability to advocate for one’s goals and gain the required support is only one of a broader set of people interaction skills required in modern workplaces.
We all have things we care about. Things that matter to us and we think matter to the organizations we work with. Things that will bring value. The hard part is that it’s often very difficult to bring people on board.
We figure that we can just appeal to people and convince them, but we can’t.
Many of us believe that we need to appeal to people’s rational minds to gain their support for our projects and goals. Just explain the merits of the case using logic and data, and others will rise up in support. And so we present rational arguments in lengthy emails and PowerPoint presentations in an effort to convince. And if we can’t snare people’s attention with one email, well, we just send another one, and another one. If they don’t “get it,” we hammer our argument even harder. We fall once again into the “do-more” paradigm of work, drowning people in an all-too-familiar avalanche of emails, slides, texts, reports, and data.
Chip and Dan Heath wrote a whole book around this single topic. Hansen and the Heath’s agree that we need to appeal to the emotions of the people we’re trying to influence. In fact appealing to emotions was one of the main things that Hansen found that forceful champions did.
The second one was that forceful champions used grit to face the obstacles they encountered and work around them2.
Unfortunately there is also a caution here when it comes to gender and how men and women approach the same problem.
So when a boss evaluates a man who uses forceful champion tactics, the boss may think, “Wow, smart guy.” When a competent woman does the same, he may think, “Really aggressive woman” and downgrade his perception of her performance. Our finding in part may be shaped by such a gender stereotype: People regard female forceful champions as performing more poorly than their male counterparts, when in reality they are not.
Now the women that were forceful were still ranked as more productive and better at their job than those that were not forceful, but it still leaves us with a gap to the men.
Hansen doesn’t offer us a solution really, and I don’t have one either unfortunately. I hope that this changes, and if you can keep this notion in your head then you’re more likely to check that false belief in the people that you manage.
Hansen opens up this practice with the story of The Bay of Pigs disaster. In short, no one told the truth about their misgivings about the plan so it went ahead. Many people were killed and captured. Many people endured long times in jail and terrible treatment, all because some people at the top didn’t voice their issues with the plan.
The Bay of Pigs disaster stands as a monument to a horrible team decision-making process. As the leader of the group, President Kennedy failed to foster a rigorous debate. The individual participants failed, too, in their responsibilities to voice dissent and articulate the downsides of the proposed plan. The best and the brightest failed.
Out of this, we need to make sure that we foster dissent. If there is no dissent in the natural flow of conversation, then we need to get people to take the other side of an argument so that we can have some.
Now that doesn’t mean we have endless meetings about everything. In fact, that only shows that you aren’t good at making decisions.
We don’t need teams to conduct a vast number of meetings to get their work done. Rather, we need smarter team meetings where people debate rigorously and commit to decisions.
What we need is strong debate and then you don’t leave the meeting without a decision. Once the decision is made, you stick with it. Everyone is on the same page.
In teams that unite, team members commit to the decision taken (even if they disagree), and all work hard to implement the decision without second-guessing or undermining it.
This should seem obvious to parents as well. You stick together and back each other up. Not backing each other up means that the kids are going to play parents off of each other and that’s a recipe for disaster.
In your team, if you have a single person that just won’t come on board you need to deal with it. Don’t let that person disrupt the whole team. They’re not only killing their productivity, they’re harming the whole business. They’re reducing the value that can happen in the organization.
Bite the bullet and fire them. Your team will be so much better off.
The final practice that Hansen identified as important for being Great at Work is collaboration. There are two sins that trip up effective collaboration.
Sin 1 Undercollaboration
That is when you really never collaborate with people. You spend 8 hours going in the wrong direction when a 2 minute conversation would have stopped the error. This can be especially easy on remote teams where you’re heads down working on your own thing being “productive”.
Sin 2 Overcollaboration
The second sin is collaborating too much. Just because some collaboration is good, doesn’t mean that more is better. Hansen found that if you had deep experience in the field, then it was often a waste of time to do more than a “sound check” with others. Put your head down and do your work.
Now, we have another gender based difference here. It seems that women are way better at collaboration than men.
Interestingly, women benefited twice as much as men from disciplined collaboration. Why might women benefit so much more from collaborating? Our data revealed that a higher proportion of women were good at building trust, ensuring that parties were motivated, and crafting a common goal. More women were also better at seeking information outside their core team.
Women build trust better and thus their collaboration yields better results. Yet another argument for diverse teams.
Hansen provides us with a formula to use when we are trying to evaluate if collaboration is useful.
Collaboration Premium = Benefit of initiative - opportunity costs - collaboration costs
That means if the collaboration formula yields a negative benefit we say no. It doesn’t matter if you like someone or look up to them. You say no and get back to your work.
That ends our seven practices and brings us to Hansen’s final section, which is about bringing some balance to this work focus by asking us to focus on life as well.
Many of the top performers we interviewed, the ones who embraced the practices outlined in this book, realized benefits that extended well beyond their work performance. They were less stressed out, more balanced, and more satisfied with their job.
Hansen found that if you want to be awesome all around, then the seven practices are key but they can have a bad side effect. They can cause us to over value work and under value our home. We make all the sacrifice at home and never get to be the parents and spouses we want to be.
Top performance in any field seems to demand personal sacrifice. We presume that rising to the top requires crazy hard work, fortitude, endless practice, long hours—that it entails doing without vacations, neglecting your kids or your spouse, and spending weekends and holidays glued to your computer screen. Because we think this way, we tend to let our job responsibilities balloon out of control. Then, to achieve some semblance of a personal life, we go back in and erect a protective shield around our lives to prevent work from crushing them. We switch off the smartphone at home, or refrain from checking email when watching our kids’ baseball games, or leave work early on certain days—all to prevent work from burying our private lives. Such measures only serve to treat the “symptom”—the result of working too much—and not the root cause, the work itself.
We tell ourselves this lie. Instead we should be working hard at the office, and then coming home. The ONE Thing has a great idea of counterbalance. In fact I think that The ONE Thing addresses this much better than Hansen does.
In The ONE Thing, they figure that you can ignore email for a week, but home for a day or two. You go out of balance long at work, and short at home because the consequences of going long at home are a broken relationship and kids that hate you. There is likely little to no consequence for ignoring the little things at work for extended periods of time.
So, temper your seven practices with a solid look at how you’re doing at home with those you love. It’s not a success to have lots of money and a sea of broken relationships.
I’ve already said that there is a decent amount of overlap between The ONE Thing, High Performance Habits, and Great at Work. They’re all looking at the same problem from different angles.
Great at Work and High Performance Habits add research to the ideas in The ONE Thing. The ONE Thing has a stronger framework to use to figure out what the single thing is that you should work on.
If you’re mainly working with a team, then Great at Work is a better Place to start. Then read The ONE Thing and finish with High Performance Habits.
If you’re mostly working alone, read High Performance Habits then The ONE Thing and finish with Great at Work.
But yes you should read Great at Work.
Photo by: brickbroadcasting