Discover more from Unfair Advantage
Being Great at Work
How the way we think about work shapes our performance
Embracing the identity of a high-performance knowledge worker requires some fundamental shifts in the way we think about work, including what good work is, how we work best, and the ways we measure our success. The current performance paradigm is driven by outdated models guided by Frederick Taylor, the pioneer of “scientific management.”
This theory was developed to optimize the efficiency of laborers working in factories in the early 1900s - a role that is much different from that of today’s HPKW. Yet, many of the core concepts from scientific management persist today, despite their outdated nature and misapplication, including:
A focus on efficiency and eliminating waste
A preference for homogeneity over embracing idiosyncratic elite performance
A focus on quantity over quality
A preference for standardization and routine over the development of craft and expertise
Take a moment to examine your own beliefs about work and where they originated. Think back to the very first role you took on, and what you were told was important for success in that role. As you progress in your career timeline toward your current role, do the same thing - examine what was important for success.
If you work in sport, or any high-performance culture, chances are you heard a variation of some of the following messages:
“The best ability is availability” - translation: don’t ever put your phone away, don’t be present with your family, in fact, don’t even think about not working, because if you do you’re under-delivering
“I need this done yesterday” - translation: speed and minimal thought > quality and elevated work
“Stay in your lane” - translation: don’t worry about flexing your individual strengths or contributing to several facets of the organization, we need you to just fall in line and do what you’re told
“F-I-O – figure it out.” translation: don’t ask questions, don’t try to learn or develop, just get this sh*t done
Beneath many of these statements or beliefs is likely some outdated extension of scientific management theory. Unfortunately, Taylor’s theory has been so sticky that it’s become almost countercultural to do things differently.
But we know that different works.
In the book Great at Work by Morten T Hansen, he systematically unpacks the flawed reasoning behind implementing Taylorism in today’s workplace and the performance benefits of different. With a series of 7 principles - 4 for us as individual performers and 3 as teammates - he systematically separates the best workers from the rest. Hansen collected data from over 5000 modern workers across industries today and set out to differentiate “work dumb” or conventional rules of work from “work smarter” principles that the best live by.
Here are the 7 principles he lays out:
Do less, then obsess.
In conventional workplaces, a premium is put on quantity: hours spent, games watched, cut-ups produced, sales made, meetings attended, committees sat on, and more. Volume becomes a proxy for status, with no emphasis on quality or outcome.
A simple rule, “do less, then obsess” suggests that the best performers systematically reduce the number of things that they are trying to accomplish. The best performers (25% better, in fact) choose to place their attention on a select, small number of critical tasks, and then put forth great effort toward completing those tasks with high quality. The end result? Better quality work, happier bosses and customers, and great work satisfaction.
As a HPKW, you have a responsibility to examine where in your work you can cut so you can do less better. This may seem risky at first, especially if your workplace prioritizes the amount of stuff you do with less regard for quality. People rarely get fired for doing good work, though - they usually are fired for doing things poorly. Taking on more, unless you can deliver at a high level, ultimately sets you and your company up for failure.
Focus on value maximization, not time maximization.
A natural extension of the first principle, Hansen found that the best performers don’t actually spend more time at work… they spend more time working on high value activities. In fact, he found that beyond 50 hours of work, the returns on quality start to decrease, a la the law of diminishing marginal utility, and beyond 65 hours, work actually starts to get worse.
In sport (and other high-performance environments), it’s near blasphemy to suggest that working fewer hours might somehow lead to better results. Take a moment to examine where that belief comes from. If I were to sum it up with an educated guess, it would be 1 word: fear.
HPKW workplaces (notice that this is not the same as a high-performance environment: a high-performance environment would prioritize optimal performance through systems and processes, not artificial pressure) subliminally embed fear into their work at nearly every turn. They invent myths like “the enemy never sleeps” and “you have to be prepared for anything,” as though those 2 things were actually possible (everyone sleeps, and it’s impossible to prepare for everything).
True HPKWs push against that pressure. They focus on delivering maximal value for their work in a time that allows them to actually deliver at high quality… and then they walk away, knowing that true high performance is about sustained excellence over time (not grinding yourself down until you can’t function like a normal person anymore).
Learn in loops
The highest performers consistently engaged in short bouts of learning (about 15 minutes) and saw a 15% performance improvement. This stands in stark contrast to typical learning and development models - full day retreats, seminars, webinars, outside speakers, guest lecturers, off-site trainings - but it works, because it’s based on science.
It turns out that across elite performance domains, what separates the best performers from even their above-average counterparts is a skill called self-regulated learning. Essentially, they find ways to consistently teach themselves new skills or techniques, seek out feedback, adapt their behavior, and try again. Hansen found this pattern works as well in the boardroom as it does on the soccer field.
What this process suggests again is that we’ve been duped into thinking that volume is the best way to expertise. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion that we need 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert, based on the research of Anders Ericsson. Unfortunately, this was a slight mischaracterization of the research. Dr. Ericsson never really gave a number; he gave a specific quality of practice that was necessary to achieve greatness - deliberate practice.
What we know from learning theory is that people don’t really do all that well biting off massive amounts of information over an extended period of time (think cramming for a test versus spreading studying out over 2 weeks). Instead, people can master small bits of information quickly, and do it doubly well if they have the chance to apply it or recall it in the near future. The end result is smaller, accumulated gains versus spotty, large-chunked learning.
Combine passion and purpose.
We’ve all heard the adage “if you love what you do, you won’t work a day in your life.” That’s bs. Even if you love what you do, there are just going to be days that feel like work. And that can be okay, if work also supplies you with a larger purpose.
In sport or other high performance domains, purpose becomes one of the first things that is obscured or supplanted as incentives pile on or pressure builds. Whenever I’ve asked coaches why they got into coaching in the first place, invariably the answer is something like “to develop young people” or to “help change the world through sport.” When I’ve watched these same coaches at work, unfortunately, that purpose is obscured - the pressure to win has redirected their attention from what matters most to them to the results right in front of them.
The best employees have an opportunity to leverage the combination of passion and purpose. It turns out performers that combine passion and purpose get more done during each hour of work - again lending itself to working fewer hours at higher quality - without sacrificing commitment.
To tap into both your passion and purpose, ask yourself:
What do you enjoy about your work? What gets you most excited?
Who beyond yourself does your work contribute to?
Be a compelling champion.
HPKW workplaces are dominated by power dynamics. Anywhere that an outsized emphasis is placed on status or climbing the ladder, power is going to be a critical factor in how people are treated, how they act, and how they get stuff done.
Those same power dynamics also lead to the equivalent of poor parenting – leadership becomes about doing things because someone “said so,” instead of giving people real reasons to pursue change, growth, and development. Because I said so will not only undermine your credibility… it’ll kill your organization.
Hansen found that the best performers were much more tactical than forceful. Like dancers instead of offensive linemen, these people appealed to the emotions of their coworkers to facilitate change, and provided a compelling rationale for getting their work done. When they encountered resistance, these same workers were persistent - but in a strategic way. Rather than attempting to bulldoze opponents, they tried to understand, empathize, and ultimately win over their opposition.
Many coaches could take a page from this playbook and find great success. Common concerns that players bring forward – lack of role clarity, concerns about playing time, wanting to run a different play or system – when met with compassion and curiosity, rather than power plays and brute force, provide opportunities to explore, build relationships, and ultimately win hearts and minds. In an effort to get “my way,” coaches often sacrifice the long-term potential of relationships for the short-term comfort and satisfaction of winning. Long after the win is over, the player will remember not that they lost the argument, but that they were cajoled against their will with no empathy to do something they didn’t think was best for them. Not exactly a winning recipe.
Disagree and commit.
Avoiding conflict is avoiding excellence. To get to the best answers, we need to foster productive disagreement. We need to surface diverging ideas and perspectives, attempt to synthesize meaningful data across these divergent takes, and explore multiple paths. Too often, performers shy away from conflict because it can be uncomfortable or lead people to believe that their character is being challenged rather than their ideas. Conflict also raises a level of uncertainty. Comfort is prioritized because it leads to certainty, which creates a false sense of security in the methods for pursuing our results.
The best performers do the opposite. They embrace conflict as a means to help them get to the best solution, without worrying about who is right or who gets the credit. Once they find the best solution, they commit ruthlessly, regardless of whose idea it was or if they completely agree. In the long-term this leads to greater comfort and certainty - the best solution to the problem should yield the greatest degree of of security in how we’re pursuing our results.
One of the barriers to effective conflict is our internal beliefs about what it means to argue and how we respond physiologically to arguments. Often, our heart races, our palms get sweaty, and our thinking can start to race. To combat these challenges, take a moment to examine your beliefs about conflict. Do you tend to experience arguments as personal attacks? Do you have difficulty staying present? Do you tend to focus more on proving your point than listening for the truth?
If you’re a person who has trouble controlling their physiology during arguments, practice breathing techniques (box breathing) or spend extra time preparing your perspective to raise your confidence before you enter the ring.
Find the collaboration sweet spot.
As high tech firms have permeated our sense of what greatness looks like at work, there’s been an increased emphasis on collaboration. Open workspaces and teams, each of which were once fads, have become status quo (despite some of the less-acknowledged limitations). Yet, as the complexity of the problems our businesses solves grows, the need to bring together diverse talent and perspective will remain… so the question becomes, how do we optimize collaboration?
Collaboration, according to Hansen, follows the goldilocks principle – too little and you’re not developing the best solutions; too much and you’re drowning yourself in meetings and needless group exercises.
The best performers bring groups together for a very specific purpose: they have a clearly identifiable problem and group members have a clearly identifiable skillset to bring to bear as they work to solve that problem. Collaboration in this way hits the sweet spot - it’s just right.
What Hansen delivered is a masterful, practical way of making the transition to being a true HPKW. While you’ll be forced to examine and challenge your own assumptions and the commonly held beliefs of those around you, identifying small ways that you can work toward enhancing your ability in one of these seven areas can lead to real, tangible growth. Consider starting by picking 1 area to prioritize. Examine your beliefs about work in that area, challenge them with facts, and identify 1 change you can make to improve.
Which of the 7 principles do you do best?
Which of the 7 principles do you need most work on?
If you were going to make one small change this week to get better, what would it be?