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

Rotman Management Magazine - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view by Karen Chris­tensen

Morten Hansen

In 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.

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

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

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.

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

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

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).


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