How to be great at what you do

Author Morten Hansen studied 5,000 workers to pinpoint why some people excel at their careers and others sputter. The reasons, laid out in his new book, ‘Great at Work,’ may surprise you.

How to be great at what you do

Ever wonder why some workers shine and move on to bigger and better jobs, while others, well, don’t? 

Morten Hansen, a management professor at the University of California at Berkeley and former manager at Boston Consulting Group, found plenty of theories. But, he writes in Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More, he “wasn’t satisfied” with any of them.

So, he “decided to take a different approach, exploring whether the way some people work—their specific work practices, as opposed to the sheer amount of effort they exert—accounts for greatness at work.”

To find out, Hansen and his team launched a study in 2011 that tracked the day-to-day work habits of 5,000 people at all levels of companies in 15 industries and 22 job functions (including, he writes, “sales reps, lawyers, trainers, actuaries, brokers, software programmers, plant foremen, and…my personal favorite—a Las Vegas casino dealer.”)

The study found that seven distinct kinds of behavior account for the lion’s share of the difference between achieving stardom and just slogging along. Monster recently spoke with Hansen about how people can use his findings to turbocharge their own work performance.

Q.  What would you say is the most surprising finding in your research?

A. Many people assume that the more hours you spend working, the better you’ll be at your job. But that simply isn’t true. Our study found that longer hours do enhance performance, but only up to a point. At anywhere between 50 and 65 hours per week, the benefit of adding more hours drops off. After that point, piling on more hours will actually cause your performance to decline.

Working smarter—that is, getting more value out of the hours you put in, instead of working longer hours—leads to better performance, and also greater work-life balance and less burnout.

Q. How do top performers get more value out of the hours they put in?

A. One way is by sticking to a practice we call “Do less, then obsess.” What that means is, choosing a few important priorities and focusing attention on doing those extremely well. This helps you avoid the “spread too thin” trap, whereby you are doing so many different things that you can’t devote sufficient attention to doing anything really well.

Stellar performance requires prolonged effort and a fanatic attention to detail, and you simply can’t invest that kind of time and concentration if you have too many work activities. Overall, people who embraced “Do less, then obsess” scored 25% higher in our performance rankings than those who didn’t.

Q. What if you report to someone who keeps piling on more tasks?

A. In that case, you need to “manage up” a little bit, and it absolutely can be done. Explain that, by focusing on fewer tasks, you’re not trying to slack off. You’re prioritizing because you want to excel in a few key areas. If you make it clear that the goal is to maximize your performance, your boss will—or should—appreciate that. If not, you might think about looking for a boss who will.

Q. Your study is mostly about excelling at work, but do any of your findings also apply to job seekers?

A. Yes! If you’re looking for a new job, do not follow your passion. My research suggests that is wrongheaded advice because it can lead you down a path of no career and no money. Just ask any of the waiters and waitresses in Hollywood who dream of an acting career.

Yet, the opposite approach, ignoring your passions, doesn’t seem like a great idea, either. A third alternative we found in our research is, match your passion with a strong sense of purpose. That means finding something you love doing that also creates value for others. That combination is what leads to the best performance, and employers will reward you for that. So look for job opportunities that give you both passion and purpose, not passion alone.

Take this step to be better at work

Being better at anything, including your job, starts with making a commitment to your own development. That means taking action, not just sitting around wishing for your situation to improve. And you don't necessarily need to take drastic steps—start small and watch all those little efforts accumulate. Could you use some help getting started? Join Monster today. As a member, you'll get career advice and job search tips sent directly to your inbox. You'll learn how to build your professional clout, from mastering soft skills to leadership exercises to salary negotiation strategies. It doesn't take a genius to move up the ladder, just some expert guidance to kick-start your mojo.

Anne Fisher has been writing about career and workplace trends and topics since 1996. She is the author of If My Career’s on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map?