Great at Work: The Hidden Habits of Top Performers Paperback – September 3, 2019
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“The typical book about management or careers requires a heavy dose of faith because you don't know where the recommendations come from. Morten Hansen brings beautiful data from a massive research project that reveals how stars at work, in dozens of industries, actually do their work. The data and Hansen's analysis will surprise you, change you, and make you better at work... no leaps of faith required.”—Chip Heath, Professor Stanford Graduate School of Business, and author of three New York Times bestsellers, including Switch
“Some managers and employees are star performers. We’ve always wanted to know why, and now Morten Hansen tells us. It’s not because they work longer or harder than everyone else. It’s because they adopt a ‘growth mindset’ and find ways to work smarter. This magnificent study of over 5,000 employees reveals exactly what these stars do and is a landmark contribution to understanding the roots of professional success.”—Carol Dweck, author of Mindset
"A refreshingly data-based, clearheaded guide…”—Publishers Weekly
"Adds significantly to our understanding of job performance–and satisfaction–in an increasingly competitive workplace....[Hansen's] findings, bolstered as they are by a massive and statistically rigorous study that included different kinds of for-profit companies, should command the attention of those of us who want to reengineer our work lives, reduce burnout, improve performance and job satisfaction."—Psychology Today
"Finally, a method and evidence to uncover what it takes to multiply our effectiveness at work. Morten Hansen’s pathbreaking new book is a rare, research-driven "seven habits" for the 21th century. A must read for anyone working to improve themselves or helping others to do so.”—Herminia Ibarra, Professor, London Business School and author of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader
"We thought we were great at work until we read this book. It has led us to re-think how we work and organize our lives. It is that powerful. Now, we are beginning to understand—and sometimes practice—what smart-work actually means."—Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove, founders, Thinkers50 (www.thinkers50.com)
“Great at Work is intended to inspire people to be better workers. Written by a management professor at the University of California, Berkeley, this book differs from other popular management volumes in that it is based on a significant research project that identified the key factors that make better workers….As a research-based study on becoming a better worker, this volume will help readers improve their own work performance.”—Booklist
"In this groundbreaking book, Morten Hansen delivers on the genius of “and:” rigorous and relevant, research-driven and well-written, empirical and empowering, timeless and practical, full of big concepts and useful tips. Hansen's work is truly distinctive in the genre of professional effectiveness, and a tremendous contribution. This is a book I will read more than once, and reference forever."—Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, co-author of Built to Last and Great by Choice
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Though I do not doubt the research, this book supports the notion that contrived conflict and emotional manipulation should be practiced and accepted to achieve goals. While these tactics can be successful to "complete an initiative", "get the next job" or "move up the ladder", in the long run my experience indicates these tactics alienate and distract competent and well intentioned staff from superior long term performance. Organizations that reward these tactics lead to internal cultures that lack transparency and reward manipulation. As the manipulators rise to positions of influence their behaviors are repeated and re-enforced by ascending leaders that are mirroring their managers path to the top. To me this is not in the best interest of the organization's long term interests.
The author seems to equate short and mid term financial performance with success. Even in a commercial organization, success to me is the value the organization and it's products brings to the customers and markets it serves. Financial success is important for the continued health of the organization, call me naive but for me, long term financial viability often competes with short term market success.
I liked the book because it challenged my vision for the best way to succeed at work in subtle ways.
The notion that all jobs provide the option to enact some of the recommendations will result in poor performance in jobs that require one to focus on many things at once. I'd like to see the author expand on ways for people whose job responsibilities are defined in a manner that does not allow one to "focus" on the important things. As an operations executive that serves many stakeholders, the individual tactics for focusing on high value activities resonated as a slogan but fell short in terms of providing examples relevant to my role in my organization in my industry.
There were many things that I agreed with and a few I disliked and would not encourage in my organization even if the presented data has been interpreted correctly.
I felt there was a subtle bias in the authors perspective based on his history as a management consultant and author. Extrapolating assumptions about top performers without significant (or at least I missed it) adjustments to roles is a generalization that could unintentionally have well meaning people perform in a manner that is inconsistent with their organizations culture - leading to less effective performance.
I shared with my extended management team the fact that I was reading this book. I stopped short of recommending it, because I was concerned that it would be disruptive if they adopted some behaviors that were advocated for and supported with data, but were in conflict with my values.
Second to final, it seems a bit like, a management consultant, product developers myopic perspective on the work of others.
Finally, I must admit this book challenged me in a way few others about effective work habits have. I will continue to ruminate on this book and the authors points. To be clear, I found this book thought provoking and agree with many, perhaps most (90% I would guess) of the observations. It distressed me not because it was inaccurate, but out of fear that it will influence people to adopt the 10% I find objectionable and inaccurate based on my career.
Morten, I'd enjoy discussing this with you at some point, just to see if I misunderstood the parts that I interpreted as inducing artificial levels of stress to promote change. To me, the stress induced should be metered by the value of the opportunity to the organization not to the unit or individual's definition of success.
Most of all I want to thank you, as a 50+ year old executive - I enjoy a read that challenges my understanding of good management and personal work styles. You sure have made me think!
Redesigning your workflow can also help you be more productive. The example of flipped learning in schools was intriguing. Having students learn their lessons at home by watching videos and then doing the work in class where teachers could help. Makes me wonder how many schools actually practice this method and how successful are they with it.
If you are looking to have that work/life balance, that's the last topic they cover. Too often have I thought about work while at home rather than spending it with my family. We all need that balance regardless if you have kids or significant other or just yourself.
Where they distinguish themselves is that Great at Work provides better resources for someone managing a team. If you manage a team start with Great at Work and then look at High Performance Habits.
Morten had a sophisticated literature review; he not only talked about his own books in the field, but also the works of other authors. Within the book, he referenced The War for Talent, On the Mend, Drive, Peak, Contagious, Power, and 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to name a few. Even Oprah Winfrey made the cut, when Morten talked about her commencement address to Stanford’s graduating class of 2008.
In what could have been a dry, instructional, lecture style novel, Morten Hansen has created a composition of tips to help employees work smarter (not harder) and achieve more. By enhancing the reading with scenarios in multiple work settings, he has allowed any individual the ability to relate to these different situations and develop ways to use the strategies in their own daily work lives.
Morten presented strategies for measuring and maximizing value, the art of deliberate practice, and matching purpose and passion. Morten mentioned that more activities does not equal more value and provided an equation for measuring value. This equation states that the value of a person’s work equals the benefits to others multiplied by the quality of the work multiplied by the efficiency. Another idea he presented was deliberate practice which involves doing a new skill, getting feedback, and making the necessary changes based on the feedback provided. Morten challenged the accepted idea to “follow your passion”. Morten tested the idea and concluded that one had to match his or her passion with purpose to be truly effective at work.
While a majority of the tips given in this book are easily applicable, one that is not is refusing your boss. Although, Morten does mention the difficulty of this task and how it should be exercised with caution, there are many factors to consider before applying this tip. Firstly, the employee must fully understand the goals of the team and his or her role. If the employee does not have this understanding, he or she will not be able to give proper reasoning for refusing his or her manager. Secondly, he or she must understand the culture of the company that he or she is working for. If the culture in the company encourages employee involvement with changing processes, then refusing to take on a new project would not be frowned upon. Conversely, if the culture of the company does not encourage employee involvement then the refusal might not be accepted.
Morten defies convention by providing a new perspective profound beliefs from the learnings within the chapter. A person doesn’t have to change his or her life by any modern standard, but this appreciably readable book is not in the business of following the status quo. Not only does this book elucidate the keys for top work performance, it provides a new perspective which could change one’s approach in all fields of life and maintain a positive work life balance.
Top international reviews
On a podcast, Greg mentioned this book recently and especially emphasized the "do less, then obsess" principle from 'Great at Work' which I also love.
In short, this book has been an equal, to me, in terms of potential for self-improvement. The way I see it, perhaps selfishly, is that I need to 'fix' myself before I can really improve all of my work practises. This books treatment - through a scientific and rigorous manner - of self-improvement is a refreshingly new take on many old paradigms that are misdirected or simply not true.
As a consultant myself, I'm certain that following these principles will get me that much farther.
To close, one of my favourite chapters deals with passion. I've generally lacked passion for anything for years and it has been a major stumbling block for me in my career. I was skeptical of this chapter, but as I progressed through everything there really holds true for me. Including the fact that I don't need to be passionate about a topic or a particular field in order to be passionate about what I do. For example I can be passionate about making other's lives easier and that's something you can do in any job.
I'd highly recommend this book to any working professional, but at the same time I want to keep it a secret otherwise I feel like the bar might go up and I'll be that much farther behind!
The four mastering your own work practices of this book are great and include references to 'deliberate practice' yet not 'deep work' or other works of substance in this genre.
The three mastering working with others I found confusing as descriptors and I had to work hard to get to the substance.
About 45% of this book is research appendix, bibliography etc etc.
This book for me is too perscriptive, I prefer more how I could apply proven principles e.g deliberate practice, radical candor, essentialism, the last two of which are not referenced in the book
So far, so good. The problem is that is about as far as it goes. The problem starts when the author criticises Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers for saying that 10,000 of practice is what we need for success. Hansen says that it needs to be quality practice, not just any old practice. The problem here is that is exactly what Gladwell talks about too. He says that success generally follows 10,000 of focused practice.
That left me thinking that Hansen either hadn't read Outliers or was deliberately misrepresenting it. Not a good start. And if he had got Outliers wrong, what else in the book was equally unreliable?
The core of the book is a piece of "research" which seems flaky. The survey asks respondents to rate themselves, their bosses and their employees in terms of performance. Then they are asked to say whether they, their bosses or their employees exhibit a number of key skills and attributes. The flaw in this is that all the positive skills and attributes are drawn from the book's arguments. This means that there will automatically be a correlation between high performance and the book's recommended skills and attributes.
That's not science. It's snake oil salesmanship.
The rest of the book is argument by anecdote. We should work smarter, not harder ... and here's an anecdote about someone who innovated and was successful. Not mentioning the people who innovated and weren't successful.
There's nothing in this book which is bad or inherently wrong - with the possible exception of the "research". My issue is that there is very little here which is new or which hasn't been done much better before.
Three stars. Not awful, but not recommended either.
If you really enjoyed those books, I think you will enjoy this book. At first I did, but then the nagging doubts started creeping in. Before I point out a few things that are feeble about this book, I'd like to say that the advice is probably OK and I can't imagine you coming to much harm if you follow it. I also think the author is to be commended for tackling the topic in a way that at least attempts to be objective. The language is unpatronising and the key concepts are memorable.
In Jim Collins' books the performance of companies was measured by looking at long-term stock-market performance. Companies chosen as worthy of the term "greatness" had performed exceptionally well against a very hard to fake measure - how much people would pay for their shares over a decade or more: a measure that allows fair comparison between companies in similar sectors, if you are careful with your analysis. Jim Collins goes to some lengths to explain what is good and bad about this approach at the start of his books.
This book is very much worse. Great at Work relies on subjective surveys (which are never explained in the body of the book) to rank 5000 people working in different companies, in different industries, in different countries. Out of all this confusion it makes a massively bold claim - to be able distinguish who was better than whom. This is asserted by someone who gives you no confidence that he has the mental capabilities to understand the massive assumptions he is making. I think it's fair to assume that he doesn't explain it because it can't be defended - it's a bunk idea. The whole book rests on something that may very well be impossible to do and definitely hasn't been done here.
For someone who repeatedly slips in subtle boasts about his brain power and credentials, "Harvard Professor" Morten Hansen, gets a C- from me at coming up with fresh, tangible examples to illustrate his concepts. He's in love with the over simplified single reason why something happened. In his last book he used the example of the race to South Pole between Scott and Amundsen to illustrate the power of pacing yourself. By his account Amundsen paced himself and won the race and Scott didn't pace himself and died in the attempt. In Great at Work the same story is used but a different single lesson is learned, this time the power of focus. Amundsen used only dogs as means of transport, Scott used dogs, ponies, mechanical and magic weasels (not really, I'm too lazy to go back to find the other 2 things he claimed Scott used). Anyway, this time Amundsen won because he focused and Scott died because he was unfocused. (Maybe Scott was unlucky, generally stupid, hit by bad weather, suffering from a virus, had a weakening wasting disease, made critical errors of judgement, didn't work well as a leader, had chosen bad team members or used the wrong wax on the bottom of his sledge glides? It is glib to claim that a single reason caused someone's failure and death, and it's plainly stupid to claim two single very different reasons across two books.)
If you spend the best part of a decade working on a book and your first exciting revelation is that you should focus - and then you can't focus enough to find a fresh story that accurately illustrates your point then you aren't taking your own advice. Focus, Professor, focus!
Another moan I have about his examples is that he fails to distinguish between bosses and employees. The book makes claims to be there for every worker yet keeps using examples where the person in charge makes a change and good things supposedly happen. He reports on the hard-charging head of Heineken USA introducing red, green and yellow cards for people to wave about in meetings to stop group-think. The happy result of the wonder cards was that Heineken USA made 6% of its revenue from products less than 3 years old, and the boss concerned was promoted.
Am I the only one wishing the author had taken his own advice about "don't just learn, loop". It's conventional to measure a commercial leader by the commercial performance vs the industry i.e. how did Heineken do in terms of sales against its competitors during his tenure? Instead we're taking it at face value that a technique works because the boss tells you he got a promotion and a single number is reported and stated as good. How does 6% compare to the previous few years? It sounds awful to me. How did other brewing companies compare against this metric? How does changing the tone of meetings affect new product introduction? Is there any evidence of causation? Big companies take many years to get products to market so new products this year means successful R&D 4 years ago. If you are going to claim that having constructive conflict in your meetings is something you as an employee can influence - the least you can do is show examples where an employee influenced it and that better quality decisions resulted, leading to better performance.
Frankly most of us aren't a boss and therefore can't affect massive changes in policy or culture. All we can do is change our own conduct and behaviour. Every example, not just a few, should be of an employee. In a book about what you as a worker should do, it should only include things that you can realistically influence.
Over the summer I read a biography of Winston Churchill. We know him as great leader, but for most of his life he was working for other people. The thing that was amazing about him for most of his career was how productive he was. One example - while he was Chancellor (number 2 in UK government) he also wrote a 600,000 word biography of a famous soldier, which is regarded as a great work of history, he cranked out numerous newspaper articles, did a lot of OK painting and became a master brick layer!
If you are going to write a book called Great at Work and you aren't going to notice that people who are great at work actually do a lot of valuable work, then you should do less, then obsess.