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How Top Performers Achieve More

Interview by Karen Christensen

A UC Berkeley Professor and author describes the route to greatness at work.

Morten HansenIn the workplace, most people believe that by taking on more, they will accomplish more—but your research indicates otherwise. Please explain.

We studied 5,000 managers and employees—across corporate America, seeking to answer a fundamental question: Why do top performers perform better in their job than others? What we found surprised us: The top performers across organizations actually worked less hours. We identified seven characteristics of their approach to work, and they all relate to being highly selective as to what they engage in.

Top performers very carefully select assignments, tasks, projects and collaborative activities, and as a result, they do a fewer total number of things, but they totally obsess about doing an amazing job on the things they do focus on. They go all in and provide targeted, intense effort to excel in a few chosen areas.

Instead of adding projects to their plate, these people subtract projects; and instead of saying Yes to all new engagements, they often say No. The fact is, ‘doing more’ does not lead to better performance. We need to embrace a ‘do less, but do it better’ paradigm.

One of the most important professional skills today is the ability to say No.Tweet this

What does this approach look like in practice?

It can take many forms, depending on your line of work. For the salesperson at Nordstrom, it means calling five other stores to find the exact size and colour of the sweater a customer wants, having the item delivered to the customer’s home and then calling afterwards to ask how it fit. For a real estate agent, it means spending an hour poring through 100 photos of the house she is listing, looking for the best 10 images to feature on her company’s website. For the elementary school teacher, it means preparing for the next day’s class by rehearsing the lesson plan one more time, even though he has taught the class for 20 years. These are people who strive to produce work of exceptional quality, and stellar quality requires both prolonged effort and a fanatic attention to detail.

What does it look like when someone is ‘spread too thin’ at work?

One red flag that someone has too much on their plate is that the quality of their work suffers. Maybe they’re not as prepared as they should be for an important meeting; their PowerPoint presentations aren’t what they used to be; or they are delaying things and missing deadlines. You see these people working hard every day, coming in on time and looking stressed out whenever you see them. These are warning signals. As a manager, if you see this you need to say, ‘Wait a minute: How is it that this employee is putting in all this effort, and yet his work is mediocre at best?’ Of course, there might be a skills gap that needs to be addressed, but that aside, these are signs that someone is spread too thin — and the responsibility for speaking up about it is shared by the employee and the manager.

When does it make sense to say No to your boss?

I truly believe that one of the most important professional skills today is the ability to say No. If you believe in the premise that hyper-focus and ‘going all in’ on a few select things will lead to the best results for your organization, that means you are going to have to learn how to say No. 

From a management point of view, this should actually be welcomed news. If your people are saying No to you because they want to focus on delivering amazing results, that is something you should want to encourage. When a strong performer pushes back, it is usually for the right reasons. 

Pushing back in an appropriate way entails communicating why you are saying No: It’s not that you don’t want to do the work, that you aren’t a team player or that you’re a slacker. You should make it clear that you are saying No because you really want to focus on the things that matter most in terms of your contribution to the organization — and that cannot happen if you are spread too thin.

If your boss comes to you and says, ‘I know you’re working on these two projects; could you add a third?’, the appropriate response is, ‘I can’t do all three of these at the same time and do them all exceptionally well; which two are the most important?’ That puts the burden back on the boss to prioritize, which is totally fair because that is the job of a manager.

Experts advise us to tear down ‘silos’ and collaborate whenever it is humanly possible. Again, your research indicates that this is not always the best approach.

By believing that more collaboration is always better, we are actually creating an opposite problem: over-collaboration. In many cases we are collaborating just for the sake of collaborating, and this leads to over-extended organizations where everyone is so busy going to meetings and working on multiple initiatives that there is too little focus on the most important tasks.

You have found that there are two particular ‘sins’ of collaboration. Please describe them.

The first sin is ‘under-collaboration’, where we truly do have too many silos and people are not talking to each other at all. In a hospital, for example, you might have seven or eight different departments failing to coordinate care around chronically-ill patients. Of course, that is a terrible way to practice medicine. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the second sin is over-collaboration, whereby, as indicated, too many people collaborate on too many things without any clear focus on what is truly valuable.

By believing that ‘more collaboration is always better’, we are creating an opposite problem: over-collaboration.Tweet this

The top performers we studied embrace what we call ‘disciplined collaboration’ — neither too much nor too little. That means having a very clear business case around why you are collaborating in each case, and to collaborating only when a business case exists. Top performers say No to all the rest — and that requires discipline.

With all the teamwork required today, there are more meetings than ever. But multiple studies indicate that people are really unhappy with meetings. Why is that? 

We all need to get better at both running meetings and participating in them. In a Microsoft survey, 69 per cent of people said their meetings were not productive, and a Harris poll showed that almost half of respondents would prefer to do almost anything but sit in a status meeting — including watching paint dry (17 per cent) and having a root canal (eight per cent).

Meetings should be for one thing only: debate and rigorous discussion. If all you are doing is getting status updates or sharing information, you can put that in an e-mail. You don’t need to assemble 10 people in a room for an hour. Managers really have to think about the hard costs of doing that. Even when a rigorous debate is justified, we found that a lot of people are not very good at holding productive discussions. That’s where our idea of ‘fight and unite’ comes in. When you strive for consensus, it’s often because you don’t want to rock the boat and you want everyone to agree — but that is not always the best thing. The ‘fighting’ part means having heated, rigorous debates that allow the best ideas to emerge, enable often-unheard voices to come through and assumptions and biases to be scrutinized. Every organization needs more ‘good fights’.

Of course, this is not the only important thing, because you can’t get stuck in an endless cycle of debate. As a leader, you also need to foster unity. You need to orchestrate the debate, ask non-leading questions, ensure that everyone has a voice — then come to a decision and have people unite behind it. Sometimes that will mean committing to an idea that you utterly disagree with; it can also mean confronting prima donnas who monopolize meeting time and silence the introverts in the group, and putting an end to office politics that get in the way of good decisions.

For people who want to redesign their work to follow these principles, what are the first steps?

I would advise people to consider the seven practices carefully and think about where they are strong personally, and where their team is strong. That will make it clear where you need to improve. For example, you might note that your team is not very good at deciding, so you can ‘zoom in’ on getting better at that first. As indicated, we found that to improve performance, you can’t work on too many things at once. You need to pick a skill or area and home in on it. I call it ‘ The Power of One’: Take on one thing at a time and focus on becoming the very best at that thing. Only once you start to see significant improvement can you move on to the next priority. When you want to improve — individually or as a team — do not try to do too many things at the same time.

Can we embrace the seven principles to become great at life, too?

The conventional thinking is that if you want to be a top performer, you will have to sacrifice your personal life, because you’ll be in the office 70 hours per week. But, as indicated, the people who embrace a ‘do less’ paradigm are very selective as to what they work on — and they work fewer hours as a result. We asked these top performers three questions: What is your own subjective experience on work/life balance? How are you feeling in terms of burnout? And, what is your job satisfaction level? On all three questions, those who did best on the seven scales also did best on these three work/life metrics.

The bottom line is, if you can apply the seven practices and work smarter, not harder, to increase your performance, you will also have a better work/life balance, a lower chance of burnout and better job satisfaction. Our research proves that it is possible to have both: great work performance and a great life.

Morten Hansen is a Professor of Management at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. He is the author of Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More (Simon & Schuster, 2018) and the co-author (with Jim Collins) of Great By Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck: Why Some Thrive Despite Them All (HarperBusiness, 2011).

This article appeared in the Fall 2018 issue. Published by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Rotman Management explores themes of interest to leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.

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