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Working Smart: 5 Questions with Morten Hansen
As working hours and methods of communicating, collaborating, and accessing information become more fluid, we have entered an ‘always-on’ era of work. Constantly accessible and perpetually disrupted, it is easy to feel as though we’re on a steady stream of productivity. But as our approach to work becomes more agile and flexible, are we really achieving more? Does the feeling of constant ‘busyness’ actually equate to success? In his latest book ‘Great at Work’, Professor Morten Hansen, University of California, Berkeley, explores the tension between old ways of working and this growing ‘always-on’ culture, and why many professionals struggle to work efficiently despite greater flexibility. Hansen lays out a series of practices that can be implemented by individuals and organizations to see the benefits of working smart.
Great at Work opens with a precise definition: ‘To work smart means to maximize the value of your work by selecting a few activities and applying intense targeted effort.’ Considering the enormous potential benefits to individuals and to companies that you document of such high performance, why is it so difficult for so many to work smarter?
I think it owes, in some part, to ingrained norms, in particular our enduring workplace traditions. Although we live in an age of perpetual “disruption,” so much of how people work today is old, born at the dawn of the industrial revolution. The dreaded performance review, for instance, dates from at least the 1940s and draws intellectually from Frederick Taylor’s work on scientific management during the early 20th century. Ethical codes and other rules of professional conduct originated in the 19th century, when modern professions were first taking shape. Technology is now upending many of these conventions, and many people are pushing beyond “business as usual” and questioning how work gets done. And yet, change is slow, and much of the traditional edifice of work remains in place.
On a more positive note, this situation presents businesses with a tremendous opportunity. Many companies have sought to drive results by deploying new technologies, but they’ve paid relatively little attention to improving the efficiency of their workforce. Disrupting and improving work along the lines described in my book could unlock immense value for these companies. And as my study of 5,000 workers and managers documents, individuals can unlock great amounts of value in their own work, improving their performance and enhancing their career prospects.
Many individuals might think that they’re locked into existing, inefficient work processes because of their boss, organization, industry, or place in the organizational hierarchy. But as my study found, more junior people in many roles have been able to redesign their work to create more. Many, many people can be innovators of work.
One of the seven ‘work smart’ practices you identify upends the familiar advice, offered frequently to creative workers and leaders, to ‘Follow your passion.’ What different approach did you find in top performers?
Top performers in my study did follow their passions. But as our data showed, that wasn’t enough. In fact, some people who followed their passion exclusively ended up in misery. The dictum “follow your passion” can be dangerous. The best performers did something else: they infused both passion and a sense of purpose into their jobs. As I explain in the book, purpose and passion are very different. Passion is “do what you love,” while purpose is “do what contributes.” Purpose asks, “What can I give the world?” Passion asks, “What can the world give me?” You have a sense of purpose when you make valuable contributions to others (individuals or organizations) or to society that you find personally meaningful and that don’t harm anyone. As my data showed, people who “match” passion with purpose perform much better, on average, than those who lack either purpose or passion or both. Matching passion and purpose elevated people’s percentile rank 18 points in the performance ranking compared with those who had neither passion nor purpose.
Analyzing case studies in my study, I uncovered three steps that high performers adopt to grow passion and purpose in their current organizations. First, they discover new roles in their organizations, jobs that better tap their passions and give them a stronger sense of purpose. Second, they expand what I call their “circle of passion.” Feeling passionate about work isn’t just about taking pleasure in the work itself. Passion can also come from success, creativity, social interactions, learning, and competence. High performers tap into these dimensions as well. Finally, to derive a greater sense of purpose, high performers find ways to add more value in their jobs, to pursue activities that they find personally meaningful, and to pursue activities that have a clear social mission.
You also detail practices – becoming forceful champions of their ideas, contributors to team debate and unity, and disciplined collaborators – that allow mastery of working with others. Particularly because we cannot often decide unilaterally how to be selective or targeted in our interactions with others, how do these relate to your other findings that speak to the mastering of one’s own work?
In Great at Work, I set out four “work smarter” practices that relate directly to how well individuals get their own work done. In organizing our efforts, for instance, we can choose to restrict the scope of our work and to obsess to excel over the few priorities we’ve selected (a practice I call “Do Less, Then Obsess”). Of course, that is not easy to do when people constantly ask for help, request meetings, and when your boss keeps on giving you more to do. The best handle this by becoming good at saying “no.” That’s a key skill to learn to succeed in today’s hectic workplace.
The third part of your book details how working smarter typically has the important added benefit of living better beyond work. Can you say more about how the practices you’ve identified can contribute to enjoying a happier life overall?
When I began the research described in this book, I posed a simple question: Why do some people perform better at work than others? As my study progressed, and the answers to this question came into focus, I noticed an interesting pattern: Many of the top performers my research team and I interviewed, the ones who embraced the seven “work smarter” practices outlined in the book, realized benefits that extended well beyond their work performance. They were less stressed out, more balanced, and more satisfied with their job.
I couldn’t complete the quantitative part of the study without confirming whether this finding was statistically valid. It was. When we ran the numbers, we found that proficiency in the seven practices correlated with both high performance and an improved sense of work-related wellbeing. As far as the latter was concerned, working smarter significantly improved work-life balance, enthusiasm on the job, and job satisfaction.
Let me give you a concrete example of how this worked. One woman in our study redesigned her executive search business in line with the principle “Do less, then obsess.” She imposed strict rules about which clients and projects she would accept (and what she would reject), and she dedicated herself to the work she took on. As she told us, her life improved dramatically both inside and outside of work. Prior to implementing her rules, her work-life balance was, in her words, “horrible.” With the rules in place, she still worked hard, but she felt as if “this huge weight had been lifted.” She no longer had to deal with “the clients that I hated” as well as the smaller clients whose searches took up so much of her time. Because she and her team weren’t bogged down running low-level searches for non-media clients, she could land lucrative assignments, such as a search for an executive position at the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. Outside of work, she had the energy she needed to steer her family through hard times, to get her Ph.D., and to begin a second career teaching at a business school.
It turns out that the way to achieve both better performance and better wellbeing isn’t to put in more hours, as so many people think, and then to buttress your personal life with ironclad boundaries. It’s to concentrate on working smarter. Work on how you work, not on work-life balance.
While Great at Work offers invaluable advice on how individuals can work smarter, what are some of your recommendations for leaders and organizations to support and enable their employees to adopt the practices you describe?
Sadly, many organizations don’t support working smarter. Why do medical interns work 24 hours straight, when that’s not the best way of adding value? Why do McKinsey consultants work 70 to 80 hours a week instead of 50, even though the data shows that tacking on that many hours actually diminishes performance? Almost everything about our organizations supports a conventional “work harder” mentality, from compensation to the structuring of work processes to the way hiring decisions and promotions are made. Leaders sustain the “work crazy hard” mentality, expecting more effort from their employees and failing to applaud employees for setting boundaries and performing smart work. The sad part, of course, is that this imperative to work harder reduces the collective performance of a company’s employees, which in turn most likely lowers financial results.
I would encourage leaders and managers inside organizations to read the book, apply the “work smarter” practices in their own work, and then consider how they can empower others around them to do so, too. It’s a question, I think, of systematically evaluating work processes, procedures, and norms, eliminating those that run contrary to the seven “work smarter” practices, and buttressing those that encourage individuals to work smarter. I don’t pretend that such change will prove easy, or that it should occur all at once. If you lead a team or run an organization, start small. Pick a single “work smarter” practice, and think of three or four ways your organization or you as a leader can support it for team members. Get your team or organization to master that practice, and then move on to others. Over time, both individual and group performance should improve.