Success Is Not About Working Harder: Q&A with ‘Great at Work’ Author Morten Hansen

Mary Lorenz

“Why do some people perform better at work than others?” That’s the question U.C. Berkeley professor and best-selling author Morten Hansen attempts to answer in his new book, “Great at Work” (out January 30). Based on findings from a five-year study of more than 5,000 managers and employees nationwide, the book discusses the difference between working harder and working smarter, the obstacles that hold us back, and what it takes to be more successful at work. Hansen recently spoke with CareerBuilder about these topics and offered some insight for both employees and managers.

CB: Tell me a little bit about “Great at Work.” What led you to write this book?

MH: “Great at Work” had two motivations: One, I found myself working very hard for many hours, and then I saw several colleagues who were doing really well – perhaps even better than me – working fewer hours, and I got curious. “What is it that they do, that I don’t?” And then I looked for advice on that…and then I figured out people haven’t done much empirical research to sort of identify or isolate what really drives performance. So I said, “I need to do an empirical study on that so I can answer that for myself and for others who have asked the same question.”

The second motivation was, I had worked on a few books – [including] “Great by Choice” – which explored [the question of] “What makes companies great?” But then I had this other question: “What about individuals? Maybe we need another study about what makes individuals great.” That was the second motivation.

So what were some of the bigger findings of this five-year study of 5,000 managers and employers?

I think there’s a common way of working...among Americans in general, which is that you have to work hard, which means long hours, taking on more things for yourself, and using that as a measure of success. The question we had going in to the study [was], “Is that the truth?” I had a suspicion it wasn’t, because that’s what I did, and I saw all the people doing better work than me working differently. So we crunched numbers, and [found that] the top performers work differently. They are very disciplined about the tasks that they say “yes” to. I have this motto here called “Do less, then obsess.” It’s a two-part strategy of working. The first part [“do less”] is to select the key things you’re going to work on, the sort of narrow set. You’re super focused. The second part is, you have to go all in on what you’ve selected. You have to be extremely dedicated and put all your effort into that. That’s the “obsessed” part.

I want to clarify one thing, though: The people who “do less, then obsess” do work hard. They work an average of 50 hours a week – that’s a lot of work – but they’re not buying into this idea that they have to work longer and longer hours to become a top performer. They don’t say, “I need to work 60 hours to be better than those who work 50.” Our data show that beyond 50 hours, you don’t get much more activity return on per your hours spent [working].

CB: A lot of workers and employers feel it’s no longer necessary to work 9 to 5. In other words, you don’t necessarily need a typical 40- or 50-hour work week. You can work on your own time. Do you agree with that mentality?

MH: It depends a little on the nature of the work…but in general, this 9 to 5 is not necessary. [The thinking around] working 9 to 5 is often, “I’m in the office for appearance. People see I’m around.” I could be sitting 9 to 5 in my office just browsing the internet, pretending I’m busy...but I’m not really doing the work. In my book, we found these top performers did something differently – they were extremely focused on one question: “How can I create the most value in my job, and what benefit am I producing?” It’s not about coming into the office; it’s not about appearance; it’s not about checking boxes of things. We’ve got to ask ourselves, “What are the benefits we provide?” You can have flexible hours, as long as you provide the benefit. If you have that question answered, then it drives the rest.

CB: You said 24 percent of people point to their boss as the reason they can’t perform at their best. What are some other obstacles?

MH: Another obstacle is that they spread themselves too thin. Or they give into temptation. We live in a world with all these electronic gadgets that distract us. You’re sitting in front of your computer and an email pops up, or you go on the Internet, or someone comes over and starts talking to you, and before you know it, you’ve spent 45 minutes doing nothing productive. That’s your own doing. People who want to perform well also think that by doing more things they will be more productive and perform better. So, for example, they might join another committee or go to another meeting or take on another customer, and they think it’s good for them. And in the short term it is, but in the long term, you’re deluding yourself.

CB: Did any findings from the study surprise you?

MH: Yes, there were a number. One was…they say in your career, you should follow your passion – do what you love, and then things will work out once you do that. But that’s not true – not according to our data. People with a strong sense of passion at work…perform better than average, but passion by itself is not enough. You also need to have purpose, which is different from passion. Passion is what excites you as an individual. Purpose is how you contribute to others. We found that people who only have passion only get about halfway to great performance. The people who have both passion and purpose – that’s where you see the magic. So it surprised me that passion by itself was not a great driver of performance.

CB: The book outlines “Seven Work Smarter Practices.” Can you give me an example of one or two?

MH: The first, which we talked about, is “do less, then obsess.” The other is, match passion and purpose. Make sure you find roles and activities in your career that have both [passion and purpose]. That doesn’t mean you have to change professions or jobs. We found people who, within their job or organization, were able to find things they were more passionate about and either find things that were purposeful or reframe what they were doing in order to get that sense.

Also, in today’s modern world, we work with others. When you think about working with others, most of that is done through meetings. Most meetings are horrible. There’s no agenda. They’re badly run. Not everybody shows up. So what’s a good meeting? [In a good meeting,] you’re trying to have a productive conversation. I call that principle “fight and unite.” Fight means a have a good fight, a rigorous debate. Which means the people in the room have expertise and they can actually debate…If you have a productive debate, the next thing you can do is say, “Okay, we made a decision after our debate, now we need to go and implement it.” So the way to fix meetings is to have this “fight and unite” principle.

CB: If there’s one thing you want people to take away from your book, what would it be?

MH: One takeaway would be, don’t believe for a minute that working longer hours is going to make you perform better and have a great career. It isn’t about working harder than anyone else. It’s about working better and differently that matters, and you have to figure that out in your own line of work. That is a key thing.

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